by Nancy Gilbert
You don't have to be very old to remember when you could buy two good bottles of Chardonnay for $7. Chances are that Chardonnay would have come from Glen Ellen Winery, founded and owned by the Benziger family, who pioneered the "fighting varietal" and whose mission was to bring you well-made wines at reasonable prices.
That was in 1982. The Benzigers were ahead of their time then, and they are still out there on the cutting edge of winegrowing and winemaking practices. Having created a revolution in affordable wine quality, the family sold the Glen Ellen brand in 1993 to pursue a new family goal: they wanted to create wines to express the "personality" of the vineyards from which they are made, by utilizing farming methods that show respect for the land and its greater environment.
Eldest son Mike Benziger is the co-founder, winegrower, general manager and winemaker (notably of the Tribute series of wines) for the Benziger Family Winery. And he and his wife Mary have been on the scene from Day One, which was the initial purchase of land on the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain in 1980. He has been interested in and involved with wines all his life, his first job being with his father Bruno, who was a wine and spirits importer in New York. Mike subsequently learned winemaking, and along the way he learned "respect and reverence for wine and vine."
This reverence and respect translates for Mike Benziger and his family into Farming for Flavorsâ„¢ (a rigorous educational project designed to teach wine growers about the vineyard practices necessary to produce high quality fruit consistently, year after year) and their own certified BiodynamicÂ® vineyards. "Biodynamics," says Mike "is the highest form of organic farming. It can be viewed as a land management philosophy or instructions for life." This adherence to Biodynamic principles requires Mike and his family to be as attentive to the 30 acres of gardens, woodland, riparian areas, wetlands, cover crops and wildlife as they are to the 42 vineyard acres of their 85-acre ranch.
And are Mike's wines good? The easiest answer is to refer you to the several pages of reviews and ratings of 90+ at the winery's web site, www.benziger.com. In both respected wine publications and wine competitions, Benziger family wines get consistent high marks. Mike is especially proud of one of his newly-released wines, 2003 Sonoma Mountain Red. It is a certified Biodynamic wine, produced entirely from the Benziger Family Estate vineyards. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the classic red Bordeaux varieties. Dominant flavors in the wine are blackberry, chocolate, mint, black pepper and vanilla. It has big, soft tannins and an intense body and texture.
Why not find out for yourself with a visit to the Benziger Family Winery in historic Glen Ellen. There at the tasting room, you'll find not only the Sonoma Mountain Red but delicious Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. You can also learn more about how the family farms its grapes by taking a 45-minute tram-and-tractor tour through the vineyards, including a visit to the underground estates caves where Benziger wines are carefully aged in barrels. (These tours are offered daily: tickets are $10 per person, with limited seating. Call 1-888-490-2739 for a tour schedule.)