The beginning of a legendary dynasty in Glen Ellen took root in 1973 when Mike and Mary Benziger drove West and settled permanently in the Valley. The winery the couple started in 1981 became a love letter between the family and the land in their mission to create authentic Sonoma County wines.
Once again appearing in NorthBay biz magazine’s Best Of list—this year for “Best Cabernet Sauvignon”—Benziger Family Winery continues to define what it means to cultivate and make wines with minimal interference from external products. “All of our wines today are classified as either organic, certified sustainable or biodynamic,” says Carley Burns, Marketing Manager for both Benziger and its sister winery, Imagery Estate Winery. “That means our grapes are grown without chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The vineyard team uses a lot of the same ancient farming practices that farmers have relied on for centuries before modern agriculture shook things up.
“We make wines that taste like Sonoma County.”
2014 was a drought year for California. “Luckily, our vineyards are well equipped for low-rain situations,” says Burns. “Our roots run deep, and they’re designed to pull water from below the ground, not the surface. That said, some rain in March provided a boon, and the summer was relatively cool.” Cutting back on supplemental watering, vineyard staff at Benziger pulled canopies over the grapes, preventing the delicate fruit from drying out in the summer sun.
“Benziger is a real family institution,” says Burns. “Mike may have retired, but brothers, Chris and Joe, and nieces, Jill and Jamie, still take day-to-day operations around the vineyard. They make us all feel like part of their family, and every day working here is wonderful.”
Burns adds that no other family pushes biodynamic farming harder than the Benzigers. “I believe the majority of wine consumers forget that wine is an agricultural product,” she says. “Barreling, aging and infusing are all fascinating and critical parts of winemaking, but the process starts with planting crops. Vineyard management is one of the most impactful ways to affect wine quality. We work on increasing soil vitality through composting and pest management through predator/prey relationships. We don’t work with more than the land offers us, and that really shines in our wines.”
And grapes aren’t all that grow in the vineyard. Acres of land are dedicated to growing vegetables, and the Benzigers own sheep and cows that keep the weeds down and promote soil growth. “We love giving back to our community, for example, the fruit and vegetables we will grow this spring and summer will go to a local food pantry for low-income residents in the Valley,” says Burns. “We also have a longstanding tradition with Earth Day, where we do a Spring Cleaning project at Jack London State Park which is right up the road from us. It’s an important part of Benziger culture.” Mike and Mary may no longer work on the family winery, but their legacy of working with the land to create beautiful wines is secured at Benziger Family Winery.
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