As newbies to wine country, Tommy and I didn’t have much in the way of a plan as far as visiting vineyards went. Our room in Sonoma included a wine tasting pass to a dozen or so vineyards which seemed like a good place to start. We figured we’d check out the places on the pass and ask for recommendations. Other than that there was only one place I really wanted to go, Benzinger Family Winery.
A few summers ago family friends visited Benzinger and shipped a case of wine back to their Vermont house. We tried the cabernet sauvignon over dinner one night and I loved it so much that they very sweetly sent us home with a bottle. For a year or so, I searched high and low for that cab to no avail. It turns out, as I learned while we were there, it’s an estate wine which means it’s not distributed and can only be purchased from the vineyard.
As luck would have it, Benzinger was included on our winery pass. Everyone we talked to in Sonoma recommended doing the tram tour at Benzinger, and packing a picnic for lunch. So we made an afternoon of it, stopping at Whole Foods to pick up supplies before driving the 20 minutes up to the vineyard.
We jumped on the 12:30pm tour. This time of year is still considered off-season in Sonoma and Napa so it wasn’t very crowded which was nice. We were able to talk to our guide and learn so much as he drove us around the property, showed us the caves and poured some wines for us to taste.
The property is surrounded by rolling hills and Sonoma Mountain, they protect the vineyard and make it feel very private. The tram took us up to one of the tallest knolls, giving us a great view of the garden in the center of the property.
Not only is that garden beautiful, but it serves a very distinct purpose. Benzinger is a biodynamic farm, and they’re committed to organic and sustainable farming practices. On their website it states, “We don’t just farm this way because we think caring for the land is the right thing to do, it also happens to be the best way to make distinctive, authentic wines.”
That means everything on the farm is put there on purpose. For example, this garden naturally attracts the right insects while sheep replace tractors to gently mow, aerate and fertilize the land.
Hailing from the Green Mountain State ourselves, we were smitten with Benziger and their commitment to the environment and the quality of their vines.
Once we’d learned all about the farm, we moved on to the processing area. This is where the grapes are turned into wine. Not the most glamorous part of the tour, but quite interesting. We learned how grapes are destemmed and how the process for making white wine differs from that of red. It has to do with when the skins are removed. Honestly, I was more interested in the giant succulents and rows of vines than the equipment so I didn’t pay as much attention to this part. You’ll have to google that one if you’re curious.
Next we moved into the caves, which are tunneled into the surrounding hills, to see where the wine is barrel aged. Each barrel is handmade from oak in France or Eastern Europe. Neither nails nor glue are used to hold the barrels together, they are perfectly crafted to be airtight on their own. It’s quite an art form and they sell for a pretty penny at $1,000-$1,800 per barrel. The oak is an important flavor component, each wine is aged according to how much flavor should be imparted. The barrels can be reused but only a few times, since they eventually stop giving off enough oak to flavor the wine. Aging times vary, whites are shorter and things like cab and Malbec take longer.
Our tour concluded with a full tasting where I finally found the wine I’ve been searching for. It was as unbelievable as I remembered, so I shipped some home.
Rosy cheecked and feeling quite relaxed, we left the tasting room to collect our lunch. We enjoyed a quiet picnic amidst in the rows of vines and springy buds. It was a perfect afternoon and a great start to our vacation.