The global pandemic has elevated our need for inspirational stories that leave us motivated and smiling. The quarantine has brought our focus inwards, centering around family, as many of us are living with uninterrupted quality time with our loved ones. It is human nature to appreciate those close to our hearts more during a period of crisis. During this quarantine I have been contemplating and reminiscing a lot about my wine travels, vineyard visits, and inspiring stories that I have come across on my journey. One experience that stays close to my heart is a wine dinner(pre-pandemic) I had with Chris Benziger of Benziger Wines at Craft Restaurant in New York City.
Chris Benziger is Vice President of Trade Relations for Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County. Originally founded in 1981 by his elder brother Mike Benziger, the family winery is Sonoma’s first certified biodynamic winery. Benziger wines have character and conscience. This means that the wines are not only great in the glass, they’re grown in a way that’s good for the environment too.
Raise your glass and your spirits amid the pandemic with this hopeful tale of family spirit and fortitude. The Benziger family story is one of inspiration. The stories that Chris Benziger shared with me, will make you laugh and inspire you with their dedication to each other and winemaking.
Benziger Wines – Family History
The Benziger family story is epic, especially as Chris tells it. The family is originally from New York, with a storied history going back nearly a century before they transplanted themselves to Sonoma in the late ’70s. Chris’s grandfather had a small wine and spirits importing company, Park Benziger. Then prohibition happened, and his grandfather got the entrepreneurial bug and became a bootlegger, as Chris slyly explains. He had a suped-up tug boat, and he would go up to the Canadian maritime and load it up with barrels of Canadian whiskey. He then would come back south and make his way down Buzzards Bay, drive along the coast, and into Atlantic City – just like scenes from Boardwalk Empire. He would then put-put back out on his tug boat, get his money, and do it over again. On his third voyage the coast guard caught wind and sunk his boat off Sandy Hook. That was the end of his bootlegging adventures. Luckily his grandfather got away unscathed.
Later in the mid-1940s, shortly after returning from World War II, Chris’s father (Bruno) took over the family business. He joined their small wine importing company where Bruno worked up until the late 1970s.
Chris’s oldest brother Mike started working for his father. After a small stint with their family business, he no longer wanted to just sell wine, he had a burning desire to make wine. In the late 70’s many of the first California wines were showing up in New York and Mike was fascinated. He moved to California, to the Livermore Valley, and worked at an old winery, and cut his teeth making wine there. Mike wanted more, he had an itch to do his own thing. Mike called his Dad and asked his dad to find the cash, and that he would find the vineyards so they could start a family winery.
His father Bruno was so excited. At 73 years old, he wanted to retire and this was the perfect opportunity for him to work with his hands. Mike looked all over California. He explored vineyards in the Amador Foothills, the High Sierra, Monterey, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, and eventually came down to Glen Ellen. It was here in Glen Ellen that he found an old ranch, owned by a crazy old doctor. Mike immediately knew that this was the place for him and his family.
Benziger Winery Established in Glen Ellen
The ranch that Mike found in Glen Ellen had a rich history, it was first settled in the 1860s. Then in 1906 the earthquakes happened, soon after phylloxera infiltrated, and then prohibition put the ranch out of business. For the next 50 years it was a ghost town, until a doctor bought the ranch in the early ’70s. The doctor had planted vines, but they were mostly a cover for the 10 acres of what was secretly known as Sonoma County’s best marijuana. The doctor built a Parthenon like structure on the property, which still stands today. This temple-like structure is embedded in the labels of their Imagery Wines. Chris tells stories of how the doctor would blend wine with marijuana, and made “Cannabis Sauvignon” and a Rhone-style wine called “Chateauneuf du Pot”. Mike eventually convinced the mad doctor to sell the ranch to him.
Benziger Family Building A Dream
Six months later, 13 of the Benziger family members made their move out to Sonoma, to this old dilapidated ranch. They had spent so much on the property that they could not afford a construction crew or vineyard crew, so they did it themselves. Amongst the family, they had their own cheap labor and lots of hands. They built their own winery and planted their own vines during their first summer in 1980.
Benziger’s Creative Ingenuity
Unfortunately it was a warm year, and the grapes were ripening faster than the winery was being built. They were at a crossroads, the winery was not finished. It was only half-built, but harvest had to go on. They got creative and bought every extension cord in Sonoma to run their equipment as the electrical wiring wasn’t complete. They used their car headlights to see and work through the nights, but they still had one major dilemma. They did not have their stainless steel tanks. They were ordered but had not arrived in time, and they needed them right away.
Chris jokingly explains that his father was a product of the depression, so he never liked to buy new stuff. Bruno was friends with a junkyard guy Barry Gold, a local Sonoma legend. Bruno used to buy second-hand equipment from Barry. As Chris described Barry, he sounded like he could have been a biker from the Sons of Anarchy. Barry was six-foot-five, with a big ole mustache, ponytail, motorcycle vest, and the boots.
Barry came to the rescue and got his father the stainless steel tanks that they desperately needed. They were milk truck tanks, with verbiage on the sides – “milk does a body good”. With milk dripping out of the drain plug in the back, the Benziger family got in the tanks and cleaned them out. Barry claimed to have “borrowed” the tanks from a local dairy. Chris jokingly says their first wine tanks were probably stolen. It was a sight to be seen, they have a half-built winery, extension cords snaking everywhere, old milk trucks being washed out, and 13 ex-New Yorker staring up into the vines as their first Sauvignon Blanc harvest came in. They were all in awe. They went through fermentation with dry ice, because there was no electricity for refrigeration. In the end, after all the trials and tribulations, the wine turned out pretty good.
Benziger’s Award-Winning Milk Truck Wines
The family was excited about their first wines and entered their Sauvignon Blanc for competition in the Sonoma Country Harvest Fair. There were 752 wines being judged and their Sauvignon Blanc won the sweepstakes. Their Sauvignon Blanc was the best wine of the show. At that time, winning a country fair was a huge deal. No one could believe that with their milk trucks and extension cords, that they would win.
They made 4000 cases in their first year, and it put them on the wine map. More importantly it taught them early on that it’s not shiny tanks or fancy wineries that create good wine. It was something more intrinsic, it was the family’s passion and perseverance that created great wine. They knew that if they stuck together, they would survive and they would make it. They were hard-working and they were a solid family. That is what Tribute Wine is all about, they want to celebrate the early days of the family working together.
Benziger Tribute Wines – An Ode To The Family
Chris Benziger has a big family, five brothers, two sisters, and nineteen nieces and nephews. Chris is the youngest of the seven siblings. He created Tribute Wines as a way to say Thank You to his siblings and parents. Tribute’s two wines are Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, celebrating 40 years of history for the Benziger Family. He chose to make Tribute Sauvignon Blanc, as it was the first white wine they made. After hearing the family story, it all makes sense. Tribute is a celebration of their first wines and their family spirit.
**Photo Credits – Benziger Family Wines**