25 May 2009

Green Winemaking Tour: Benziger

Another side trip on my Sonoma tour felt a little more like part of The Lord of the Rings than "Take Exit 15 and turn right". But the trusty GPS led me through back roads, hills and dales, and delivered me safely at Benziger.

That's B-E-N-Z-I-G-E-R. It often gets misspelled or mispronounced as "BenZINGer", and also gets confused with the giant Beringer. I think they ought to quote Destiny's Child on the back label:

Say my name, say my name
You actin' kinda shady
Ain't callin me baby
Better say my name

This winery is tucked away in the hills of Sonoma Mountain and has an impressive commitment to green winemaking. Check out the solar panels on the parking lot lights. But that's not just window dressing, the environmental consideration is present in far less visible forms, such as massive water reclamation and use of biodiesel for farm equipment.

Likewise, all of the family-run winery's products fall into three categories: Certified Sustainable, Organic, or Biodynamic. The three-tier system is due to a process of growth and development since the founding in 1980, and in 2000 they became the first Certified Biodynamic winery in Sonoma County.

If you're planning a visit to Benziger, I'd suggest allowing for a full afternoon. As mentioned earlier, it's a little off the beaten path, but once you get there the winery provides a wide array of tours and activities. Due to time constraints I only scratched the surface, but one of the options that looked really fun was the tram tour. I saw whole families arriving to tour the vineyards, though they also offer options for the serious wine lover as well. For instance, the primary tasting room is integrated into the gift shop and has room for lots of people at the bar. However, if you'd prefer to taste the biodynamic and higher-end selections, then for a little extra you can retire to a separate, quieter room for a more focused wine-tasting experience. (The wines listed below, except for the Carneros Chardonnay, were all tasted in the latter room.)

When I got back home, I tried the 2007 Benziger Carneros Chardonnay, $15, 14% abv. This is a full-bodied, voluptuous and smooth California Chardonnay. I think someone once compared this style to Marilyn Monroe. Lots of apricot and pear, with a little tangy grapefruit finish.

I served it with a pasta dish made from various leftovers. Get everything ready in advance and this is done in ten minutes. Boil water and start the angel hair pasta. Sauté diced onion and garlic until clear, add in diced rotisserie chicken, chopped red kale, cherry tomatoes, and rosemary. Throw in a half cup of the pasta water to help wilt the kale. Once the pasta is ready, drain it and throw the pasta in the skillet with everything else, stir it around some, and add a dash of wine vinegar or sherry vinegar. That's it! (Variation: Skip the tomatoes, rosemary, and vinegar, and substitute snow peas, mushrooms, and soy sauce, and you now have an Asian noodle dish instead.)

Wines Sampled at the Vineyard

For more details and ordering information, check out the Benziger website.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc. Stone Farm. Organic, farmed by viticulture students. Grass and lemon, grapefruit and spice, stainless steel fermentation.

2005 Chardonnay San Giacomo Reserve. Oak, butter, caramel, bit of popcorn.

2006 Pinot Noir de Coelo. Biodynamic. Touch of strawberry, smooth as silk. Quintus Vineyard.

2005 Benziger Reserve Merlot. Cherry, pepper, restrained.

2005 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon, Stone Farm Vineyards. Plum, black pepper, slight tannins.

2006 Puma Springs Cabernet Sauvignon. Dry Creek. Lots of cherry, bright flavors, light tannins.

2005 Oonapais Sonoma Mountain Red. Name comes from the Miwok name for Sonoma Mountain, sacred to the tribe. Lots of obsidian in the soil. Tomato leaf, green bell pepper, dark plum flavors, very Bordeaux-like. My favorite of the tasting, highly recommended.

2005 Tribute. Flagship wine, and the 2001 was the first Certified Biodynamic wine in California. Mild cherry nose, touch of ash, very balanced.

2005 Joaquin's Inferno. Zinfandel, named after the vineyard manager's complaints about farming high up on the hill, out of reach of mechanized equipment and on a steep slope. Plum, spice, lovely balance.

2003 Dragonsleaf Vineyard and Summer Ranch Port. Full blackbery jam aromas, but a rather mild flavor for a fortified wine.

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