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Uncorked: Benziger winery built on the hard work of a big family

The Benziger Family Winery is located in Glen Ellen, California.
The Benziger Family Winery is located in Glen Ellen, California.

Milk trucks rolled up the Benziger driveway.

Barely a bonded winery, and on the eve of its first harvest, Benziger was in a bind. Mike Benziger and his father Bruno purchased the winery in 1980. WIth other family members pitching in to do work, they didn’t have steel fermentation tanks until they found them in the most unlikely of places from a surprising source.

As I sat down for lunch at Vivo, at 838 W. Randolph in Chicago’s West Loop, for a portfolio tasting with Chris Benziger, vice president of trade relations, he waxed poetic how the tough-guy biker at a local watering hole who owned a junkyard and looked like he was “straight out of the ‘Sons of Anarchy’ TV show” overheard the panicked new winery owner’s plight. He could get them steel tanks.

The next morning a pair of milk trucks arrived with stainless steel tanks. They’d be the birthplace of the first Benziger vintage, a Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay that finished first and second at the Sonoma County Fair – the first and last time a winery received such a distinction.

Winemaker spotlight

Walls were optional as Benziger became a bonded winery.

The wall studs were in place. But, the roof and walls had yet to be erected. With an inspector on the premises, the Benzigers used a creative interpretation of the law that stated a bonded winery needed a locking door and roof.

“We quickly stapled a temporary roof and my dad found a locking door,” Benziger said. “We weren’t ready and the winery wasn’t built. We had sticks with a roof and rafters. We had a door but you could walk through the studs.”

Humble beginnings defined a true family business where seven of 13 family members came out from the East Coast to build the winery.

“We spent every dime on buying the place,” Benziger said. “We had no money for a building contractor or a vineyard crew – we did it all by hand, learned everything by scratch about the winery.”

Sometimes they learned the hard way. As he used a weighted metal tube, known as “La Bamba,” to pound stakes into the ground, one hit a rock. The recoil dropped all the weight on his thumb. A surgical specialist was able to save Benziger’s thumb, which was sliced in half and bleeding profusely.

From his own blood in the vineyard soil to his parents’, the Benziger winery was built on the vision of his brother Mike and the hard work of a big family. His mother made lunch for the Benziger boys originally. As the winery grew, she would add another burger, sandwich or soup to her menu.

“Until the day she died, she was making lunch for 150 employees,” Benziger said. “My parents were great architects. My dad was an incredibly brave leader and my mom was a hospitality queen.”

Appropriately named, the Benziger Tribute 2013 ($80) is made for his mom and dad.  

“My dad sold a distribution business and mom came to the property sight unseen,” Benziger said. The wine had a great mouthfeel with silky tannins. There’s coffee and chocolate and it finishes with some blackberries and sage.

The Benziger Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($20) is a Bordeaux blend that is a bargain. A medium bodied wine with blackberry and cherry fruit flavors that are fresh rather than flashy and extracted. The acidity has a fresh-fruit snap to it. There’s a little dusty note, an homage to old school wine that is sorely lacking in much of the industry.

Sourced from vineyards in Carneros, the Chardonnay is all about texture.

“This is not Chateau 2-by-4, that liquid lumber you can get out of California; there are wines where it seems like there should be a rating scale: four or five beavers approve of this wine,” quipped Benziger about the Benziger Sonoma County Chardonnay 2013 ($16), a humorous connection to some wineries that aren’t as judicious in their usage of oak in the winemaking process.

It’s noticeable on the nose, as Benziger pointed the distinct smells of lemon meringue pie. The medium body, creamy texture is due to the “religious stirring” after the juice is free pressed. The presence of Hungarian oak furthers the mouthfeel and a tickle on your tongue of spice on the finish.

From a first vintage in a milk truck to what Benziger said is the “story of his family,” the Sauvignon Blanc North Coast 2013 ($14) had petrol on the nose and a zippy acidity.

“With all our wines there’s an element of restraint and that’s really important for us. Just because you can pile it on doesn’t mean you should,” Benziger said. “Sometimes less is more.”

Wine 101

Earth Day weekend is the perfect time to pay homage to the pioneering spirit of Benziger, which went green long before it was the hip thing to do. Every wine in the Benziger portfolio has third-party certification as being farmed with either sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices.

Benziger saw a beautiful property gradually become decimated by the influence of chemicals.  

“We had a green desert,” Benziger said. “There were beautiful grape vines but everything around it was dead. Spray pesticides into the canopy and gravity brings it down to the soil.”

The result was less than stellar wines, topsoil that blew away in the wind or washed away in the rain and random vineyard infestations. In 1994, the transition started and in 2000 Benziger was the first winery in Napa or Sonoma Valley to be biodynamically certified.

Over 20 years, Benziger saw the vineyard go from alive, to chemically dead and back to alive again.

“The transformation was amazing,” said Benziger, who added there are a billion microorganisms in a handful of topsoil. “The vineyard is alive. We have sheep graze in the vineyard. They eat grass, their cloves and hooves push debris into the soil for worms to eat which depresses the mildew pressure. Their manure is a natural fertilizer. We have cows and chickens; it’s a farm that grows grapes. It’s a total circle of life; the biological capital is getting replaced naturally.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at​ 

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