Sonoma Wine Country
After a disappointing (slightly ageist) experience at Beringer, we decided we need to take a different approach to our Napa and Sonoma Wine experience. Spending $35 USD on three sips of wine without a conversation or any enthusiasm is not what wine culture is about, in our opinion. With Burgundy, Bordeaux and Ontario wine countries under our belt, we refused to believe this should be part of any wine culture. Smelling the earth and talking to the farmers - personal, down-to-earth, passionate approach is what we expect and we were not going to give up on finding the right vineyards to bring back our love for wine.
From our research, Benzinger appeared to be a vineyard to be breaking away from standard winery's’ way of doing things around here. They seemed to centre around biodynamic farming and are situated in a secluded, scenic little valley. We parked and took their little bridge across the lush gardens to the ticket booth. Their 45 min tour was moderately priced a decent $25 - a price comparable to just a tasting in other places. Joining us was a group of six middle aged folks (about 60 years old), which we discovered, based on their questions, were only beginner wine enthusiasts, as well as two ladies with their toddlers.
We walked a bit uphill to our mode of transport - a tractor hitching an open-roofed trailer with seats. On the top of the first small hill, there was a neat intro about the vineyard and the history of its ownership. Once again, we heard about the pride of Sonomas’ diverse micro-climates, as once can go 50 miles away and have a completely new climate perfect for a different grape. They had plenty of grape varieties grown in the vicinity, as well as a few less popular ones (like Petit Verdot) used for blending their reds. Vine grafting was another topic briefly touched upon. We were given opportunities to ask questions, and our group had plenty, which were answered quickly and informatively. It tuns out that Mark Burningham has been with Benzinger for a very long time - a man truly committed to the craft and business. We really appreciate people who are first hand involved to talk and communicate the company’s mission and passion.
e drove down the hill to an area that looked like a garden. Mark talked about their biodynamic practices, which although sounding modern and hip, is an old farming technique, derived from crop rotation. Although none of the cute animals (sheep, goats) from the website were part of this tour, as they don’t normally visit the vineyard, their manure as well as various different plant’s compost is mixed with the land to ensure a natural fertilization of the land. In addition, we were introduced to another unique aspect of biodynamic farming - the idea of attracting good bugs (a special plant garden was utilized for that), to ensure they are around to pollinate the plant and eat bad bugs, creating a symbiotic environment. We talked about all this, while tasting their chardonnay - a clean, light wine which Mark mentioned portrayed Benzinger’s culture of letting the grape speak for itself rather than adding too much character from the wine making process. We were not overly impressed with the wine in particular as it was bright and un-interesting at the finish, but definitely appreciated the explanation. Our next stop was the outside processing facility. Mark took us through the process machinery of how the grapes are separated from the vine and pressed - the crush pad. All their stainless steel barrels were lined up here and sprayed with insulation, as they stay outside year-round. We also visited their oak barrel cellar nearby, which was dug out right under their hill, creating an organized cave. Of course, it is clean and well finished, nothing like wild French ones with moss and spider webs, we visited sometime ago. It is authentic in its own kind with no high-tech temperature regulation.
Lastly Mark drove us down and around to the building where we had our final wine tasting. The full trip was probably only a couple of miles and all within the same area and completely walkable, but the tractor-bus did leave a unique impression.
Our tasting experience was inside a long room with a chatty lady at the counter. We realized she was more interested to learn where people are from and befriend them, rather then focus on the experience of tasting these wines and get a conversation around them. It was more of a sales person’s job, but as most wineries, they seemed to make quite a lot of money signing people up for their club. In only makes sense, as Benzinger is able to sell only a certain, cheaper, more mass produced versions of their wines to big stores. The wines they are passionate about and want to share can only we bought onsite or delivered to you as part of their club.
We started off with their 2013 West Rows Chardonnay - notes of tangerine and sweet citrus to start, it was a smooth and buttery taste on the palate. A worthwhile one, we agreed.
Next came their 2013 Oonapis Sonoma Mountain Red - distinct and fragrant dark berry aroma with even a hint of chocolate on the nose, however it threw us off being so intense and tangy on the palate.
2012 Three Blocks was a complex and well structured one, with dark berry flavours, coffee, pepper and subtle, soft tannins on the palate.
Lastly, we had their 2012 Stone Dragon Syrah - quite acidic with a unique spicy hint.
They had a note by each one, categorizing it into sustainable to biodynamic. Sustainable meant that it adhered to certain rules, but not all. Biodynamic, on the other hand, was produced with all the bells and whistles explained by Mark earlier.
Do pay attention to the card they hand at the beginning when you buy your ticket - gets you a free tasting at the Imagery Estate Winery nearby (owned by the brother of the Benzinger’s founder). We went over there next for a truly welcoming experience of the region. Right off the main road, it was sharing a sign with Arrowood winery. We were welcomed by a younger guy who answered all our questions and let us taste five of their wines. Very down-to-earth and knowledgeable, we enjoyed chatting with him. For lunch, we took a bottle of their Dragonsleaf Red blend and enjoyed it on their picnic lawn - with barbecue tables and lawn chairs where we soaked up some sun. A combination of Benziner and Imagery wineries was a lovely experience which warmed us to the valley. Furthermore, our knowledgeable sommelier recommended we visit Loxton winery for a truly small winery experience, started by an Australian who still works at his vines. It was yet another gem - we were on the right trail finding path less traveled and more interesting for us around Napa and Sonoma.