I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.
Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.
Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.
Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.
OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS
The thing about America is that the easy issues have been solved. What’s left are the hard ones, and among those—hardly the most pressing, but troubling if you live in wine country—is how much development to allow.
Basically, the two sides are these: on the one hand are tourists who bring in the dollars that pay for police, firemen, road repair, teachers and the like. They want to visit wine country and have a lot of fun stuff to do, and wineries are eager to provide them with the opportunity.
On the other hand are people who actually live in wine country and find the increasingly crowded roads a real hassle. Whether you’re a fourth generation Napan, Sonoman or Paso Roblan, or someone who moved there six months ago for a quieter, simpler way of life, the influx of thousands of extra tourists has got to be annoying.
This is not a new issue in wine country, but it is increasing to epic proportions. As Angela Hart, at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and Esther Mobley, at the San Francisco Chronicle, point out, things are reaching the boiling point.
Both Hart’s article, in Saturday’s Press-Democrat, and Mobley’s, in yesterday’s Chronicle, are balanced and objective looks at the two sides. Mobley provides continuing coverage of the brouhaha over Justin Winery’s removal of oak trees, which really freaked out lots of locals. Hart looks at Sonoma County’s approval of 300 new wineries in the last sixteen years, which opponents say sparks “unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads [that] is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.” Neither of these journalists takes a side; neither do I. These are political decisions and a reporter should not engage in politics.
I’ve followed these debates for a long time. There’s never an easy answer. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg, which in this case is the dollars the flow into formerly rural communities that badly need the money. But you can’t take a farming community and turn it, willy nilly, into Fisherman’s Wharf. What is needed is a reasonable amount of growth. You can’t have no growth; that train has left the station long ago. Nor can you have unlimited growth: nobody wants to see Motel 6’s and Taco Bells sprawling along the Silverado Trail.
The Justin case is not quite the same as the Sonoma case. Justin did something that even they admit was a horrible mistake, and they’re trying their hardest to apologize and make amends. Still, Mobley got it right in her analysis that this tempest has brought Paso Robles, formerly a sleepy little wine community, its “first real dose of Wine Country growing pains.” Wine country is nothing if not charming, but as we all have experienced, there’s nothing charming about a traffic jam that extends from Yountville to Calistoga—20 miles—that takes 45 minutes to negotiate.
The answer? Like I said, the easy issues have already been solved. What we’re left with in America—problems of policing, of homelessness, of the environment and climate change and healthcare—are seemingly intractable. They can only be addressed when both sides are reasonable and open to compromise—and “compromise” has turned into a dirty word, in all too many cases. Wine country should be an exception. It should be a place where reasonable people can get together and reach reasonable accommodations that may not satisfy everyone, but that give enough to all parties to keep the peace, allowing for managed, but not unlimited, growth.
Picked up the latest issue of the Sonoma County Gazette at the Starbucks in Fulton, and came across this article, Healdsburg at a Crossroads, that underscores just how acute that tony town’s housing crisis has become.
It recalled an era that was just coming to a close when I first visited, some 35 years ago, when Healdsburg was “a rough farm and lumber town with more bars than churches.” But by the mid-1990s, things started turning fast, as Healdsburg got “a dose of Windsor-like development” and the area around the Town Square began to look like a smaller St. Helena, with posh restaurants and upscale boutiques and galleries. By the 2000s, my former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, was writing stories about this must-visit showplace of Sonoma County wine country. (I know, because I was writing them!)
Nowadays, the cost of housing is such that the town is in a bit of a quandary over what to do about it. As are the citizens of San Francisco and my own home town, Oakland. All over the Bay Area and wine country, the tech boom has ignited a housing frenzy, forcing the poor and middle class out and bringing in a new class of wealthy individuals. The question confronting Healdsburg, as posed in the Gazette article, is whether to “try to ‘manage’ growth” or conduct “an aggressive community building program.” Both of these present difficult choices, and both approaches have solid blocks of citizens for them and against them.
All this would not be happening in Healdsburg were it not for the fact that the town is so ideally located in wine country. It’s at the juxtaposition of Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill, making it a great place for tourists to stay. And man oh man, are the tourists showing up. That, in turn, is leading to quite a forceful little argument over how much tourism is too much. Just last Sunday, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran an op-ed piece whose writer warned Sonoma County officials that “Tourism can only be sustainable if planning is carefully managed so that the financial benefits are not permitted to outweigh the negative impacts on the community.” People like the money that tourists bring to their regions, but they don’t like the traffic, litter, crime, increased housing costs and other impacts that can accompany tourism.
Nor is the issue just a California one. As I was writing this post, I got the e-issue of wineindustrynetwork.com which contained this article on Iowa’s burgeoning wine industry. Where before “mile upon mile of fields of corn and soybeans” dotted the land, increasingly the “Iowa Wine Trail” is marked by vineyards. And with the wineries come—you guessed it—tourists. Iowa, in contrast to California, is only in the earliest stages of developing a wine tourism culture; a few years ago, an Iowa State U. professor cited a study touting the “economic boom” the wine industry is bringing to the Hawkeye State. One wonders, though, how long it will be before the small towns impacted by the new tourism—Decorah, Fredricksburg, Waukon, Marquette—might find that unrestricted tourism is not an undiluted positive.
Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.
95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.
95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.
94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.
94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.
I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.
I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.
The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.
Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.
Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.
So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.
The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.
I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”