Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen offers "serious pours" with a "seriously good tour," according to Fodor's "California Wine Country." The Moon Handbook for Sonoma and Napa calls it "the most entertaining tour in the valley" and "the best tour for the money."
So, as a newcomer to Sonoma, I decided to check it out. The wine alone would be worth the experience; Benziger won Winery of the Year at the San Diego International Wine Competition in 2011, placing four platinum awarded wines.
Benziger's tour takes place at the family's 85-acre estate property, which is third-party-certified as biodynamic. There are very few businesses like this in California and only about 40 in the United States, tour guide John Bertram said.
Guests are taken on a tractor-pulled tram among the vines up a hill with a view of Sonoma Mountain. Along the way, they learn about the insectary—which attracts beneficial parasites that live on pests—and then they go deep into the wine-aging cave. It all leads up to the crowning experience of tasting the wine. Oonapais is a certified biodynamic Bordeaux blend from this estate. It's the name given by the Native Americans for the buckeye trees on the mountain.
About 50,000 people take this tour each year, according to Joe Benziger, one of seven siblings who operate the family's wineries. He oversees the sister location, Imagery Estate Winery, on Highway 12.
Benziger's tasting room used to get pretty crowded over summer. So, the family opened a separate tasting room for tour guests in March. The space allows visitors to continue talking to their guide while sampling the wine, before moving into the main tasting room and gift shop.
The vineyard straddles a volcanic bowl off London Ranch Road, within the Sonoma Mountain appellation. The topography tends to block the fog, creating a warm zone, Bertram said. It also makes rich soil.
"It's perfect for growing grapes. It makes for deep root growth," he said.
Forty of the 85 estate acres are in vines and about 30 acres are farmed with fruit and nut trees, poultry and livestock. Cows and sheep are used to keep grasses down after rain. The manure is then used on the property. Benziger uses no chemical fertilizers. Instead, they rotate beans and legumes to balance the soil and they add compost that is made on site.
"There are more than 30 soil types here and a whole variety of microclimates," Bertram said. "That gives us what we call '31 flavor blocks.' We like to say we're building spice racks from which to blend later. When you're tasting a wine, you're tasting a vineyard."
Kathy Benziger , Joe's sister, said the idea is to create authenticity in the wine. If the land can be kept as close to how it was naturally created, the wine will reflect that personality. That's the biodynamic way. Experts have consulted the family on how to attract ladybugs, praying mantis, predatory wasps and parasitic beetles to consume any thrips, mites and leaf hoppers. Water used to flush the lines in the winemaking process is recycled back into the vineyard.
Benziger's estate wine is barreled in French, American and Hungarian oak. The family produces a broad variety of red, white and desert wines on its various properties. The wine is distributed in all 50 states and in Canada. Imagery Estate produces the less traditional wines, including Malbec and Petit Verdot.
For more information about the Benziger Family Winery and the tour, click here.