Nestled into the side of Sonoma Mountain overlooking Glen Ellen, California, sits Benziger Family Winery, an industry leader in organic and Biodynamic farming and environmental stewardship. The 86-acre ranch is tucked into a valley in a hillside that was formed during a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, providing ideal growing conditions for elegant red Bordeaux varietals.
While the winery offers multiple tasting and tour options, don’t miss the Tribute Tour & Tasting during the warmer months, which allows for an in-depth exploration of the winery, vineyards, and winemaking process while tasting exceptional wines along the way. Here’s what to expect during this behind-the-scenes experience.
Once you check in for your tour, take a moment to explore the lush greenery, greet the friendly winery cats, and study the photo timeline showing the property’s progression from its purchase in 1980 to its transition to Biodynamic farming in 1995 to its current state producing award-winning wines. The tour begins with a splash of their Paradiso de Maria Sauvignon Blanc, which you sip while the host provides a brief history of the winery and the Benziger family (many of whom still work at the winery today).
Next, hop onto the luxury cart as your tour guide drives you through the vineyards, narrating each feature as you go. In the spirit of sustainability, there are sheep grazing in the vineyard who help manage weeds, eat grasses, and provide natural fertilization. You’ll drive by ponds on the ranch, once natural hot springs in the late 1800s and popular destinations for visitors looking to escape to Sonoma County. The 1906 earthquake disrupted the hot springs and today they provide natural, cold spring water for the vineyards. Benziger recycles the water used on the ranch and purifies it with duckweed before moving it into another pond that supplies water for all of the vines.
As the tour moves up to Obsidian Point, enjoy the scenic view looking over Glen Ellen and the rolling hills of Sonoma Valley. Obsidian Point is not only a gorgeous locale but also one of the blocks of exceptional cabernet sauvignon grown on the property. The obsidian in the terraced hillside, which holds heat while attracting minerals and nutrients for the vines, combined with plenty of sun exposure results in even ripening and elegant yet powerful flavors.
While the property is perfect to grow more robust, red Bordeaux varietals, the more delicate varietals like pinot noir and chardonnay need cooler climates to thrive. The winery sources these grapes from vineyards in ideal growing regions. They pull from Carneros, about nine miles south, for their chardonnay and from their own de Coelo vineyard on the Sonoma Coast for their pinot noir. Once you’ve taken your keepsake photos of the gorgeous view at Obsidian point, you’ll move up the hill to taste the West Rows Chardonnay.
As the tour traverses the beautiful vineyards, it is hard to miss the plethora of active wildlife, green trees, and cover crop (plants growing between the vineyard rows). The more you see, the more you come to realize that everything at Benziger Family Winery is planted with a purpose. The cover crop and other plants around the property are specifically planted to grow symbiotically with the vineyards to enrich the soils while also bringing in beneficial insects. And the 800 gorgeous Spanish and Italian olive trees are not just for looks, they actually help with erosion control on the hillside while producing exceptional olives that are pressed into oil used in soaps and lotions. (Don’t miss a stop by the tasting room before you leave to browse the gift shop for these amazing products.)
Scattered throughout the vineyard are bat boxes and owl boxes, providing enticing lodging for these beneficial animals who help with pest and insect control. Be sure to visit the Insectary located across the parking lot when you arrive. In it they grow fruits and vegetables, for local restaurants; plants that attract bugs that will help kill other unwanted organisms in the vineyard; and herbs like Valerian and Chamomile, which are used to make teas for various biodynamic preparations. Biodynamic farming views the vineyard as a single organism — all the pieces must work together to continue the health of the land, which is then reflected in the nuanced flavors of each wine Benziger produces.
As the tour continues from the vineyards into the crush pad, you’ll find that while the grape growing is old-school at Benziger Family Winery, the winemaking technology is anything but. A high-tech optical sorter reviews all the grapes coming in to get rid of unripe or overripe grapes and any matter that may have made its way into the picking bin. The tanks are large, open-top fermenters that allow the winemakers to use natural yeasts to ferment the wine. Once the wines are ready for aging, they are moved into barrels stored in the hillside wine cave.
This wine cave was built in 2001 and its cool, hillside location makes it a perfect climate for storing and aging wine. The tour continues through the dimmed cave lined with wine barrel after wine barrel until you reach a gorgeously appointed room with a table set with glasses and tasting menus. Once seated, the wine tasting continues with the de Coelo Domaine de Clarck Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, an ideal expression of coastal pinot noir. Next, you’ll indulge in two different cabernets from the estate vineyard, one from the Obsidian Point block and the other from the, aptly named, Sunny Slope which sits opposite Obsidian Point and gets sun all day. The Joaquin’s Inferno — a delightfully bold but smooth red blend — is up next, showcasing the diversity of varietals grown on the estate. The tasting wraps up with a pour of their Tribute Red Wine, a Bordeaux blend of predominantly cabernet sauvignon. This wine is exceptionally special as it was Sonoma County’s first Demeter-Certified Biodynamic wine, a true feat for the Benziger winemaking team.
As the tour ends, pop into the tasting room to buy a bottle of wine to take home with you. Most of them are only available for purchase at the winery or through the wine club. Not ready to be done with your day? Head down the hill to visit Benziger’s sister winery, Imagery Estate Winery, where art and wine are seamlessly blended as you taste wines and browse their art gallery with over 60 original works by renowned artists.
Benziger Family Winery: 1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442, (888) 490-2739
Images courtesy of Benziger / Carley Burns