Wine lovers have long believed that family wineries produce the best wines. By that standard, Glen Ellen Winery in Sonoma County should rank at the top because no fewer than eight family members are working full time in the vineyards or in the winery. Since its beginning in 1980, the Benziger family enterprise has grown from boutique production of fewer than 25,000 cases to a volume of 500,000 cases.
Bruno Benziger, the family patriarch, in his 60s and a former New Yorker, claims the winery could not have prospered without his hard-working sons and daughters. They came into the business with no academic wine training, no preconceived wine tastes, and a deep desire to make wine as good as that that he marketed for Park-Benziger, the long-established family-owned wine and spirits import firm. In 1979, Bruno's eldest son, Mike, persuaded him to leave the East, invest in California vineyards, and work outdoors and prune grapes.
Family wineries are nothing new to California. During the decades immediately after Prohibition, capital-poor families worked feverishly to rebuild after the long commercially destructive dry era. There are notable examples like the Mondavi, Sebastiani, Martini and Mirassou families. In recent years, however, many others have sold out to corporate vintners in the face of rising taxes, spiraling costs and spirited strong competition.
Whereas the Benzigers will not stem the tide, they are clearly making a strong statement in favor of the old familial style--each member doing his or her daily bit to make the vineyards flourish and the wines excel. Bruno's wife, Helen, may be the busiest, preparing daily meals for her hungry crew while still running the tasting room and conducting tours.
All the Benzigers offer advice on how the wine should taste, which sometimes makes it difficult for Bruce Rector, Glen Ellen's wine-making consultant, who joined the family business in 1981. He selects the best growers for the Proprietor's Reserve line, the least costly of the winery's wines, and works closely with Michael and Joe Benziger to fine-tune each batch of wine.
Rector founded the now-defunct Napa Valley School of Cellaring and learned his wine making at UC Davis, after experimenting with home wine making in the San Fernando Valley.
The Proprietor's Reserve Wine, not always vintage dated, includes some rather creditable wines at inexpensive prices. Chardonnay can be found at $4.50, Cabernet at $3.99, White Zinfandel at $3.99, and generic whites and reds at $2.99.
The term "Proprietor's Reserve" has been criticized, though, by competing vintners, who believe the designation should be assigned to a winery's best rather than its least expensive. Ever the expert marketer, Bruno claims if it draws attention to his wine, whether costly or not, he will do it.
The practice has raised enough consternation to create an industry movement to consider legally sanctioned definitions not only for Proprietor's Reserve, but such terms as Special Selection and Private Reserve as well.
The Benzigers have no problem, however, with their designated Premium and Estate wines, such as Chardonnay 1985 Family Selection. Made from 85% Carneros and 15% Sonoma Valley grapes, it shows a light apple-like nose, with good viscosity, yielding generous, somewhat restrained, flavors, a tolerable 12.9% alcohol and an attractive price tag at $9.
Also attractive is 1985 Glen Ellen Estate Sauvignon Blanc, which sports a richer style, assertive flavors and luscious oily viscosity. As interesting as the Chardonnay, this wine is also attractively priced at $8.
The Premium and Estate are Glen Ellen's top wines. Michael says they are made while the fruit is still on the vine. Many of their vineyards grow on steep hillsides, similar to German grapes of the Moselle region.
"Our most serious question was how to farm our hillsides," he said, "so after considerable family discussion, we decided that costly terracing and close spacing would best enhance our fruit."
Close spacing has resulted in some extraordinary Cabernets. The '85 Estate at $12 is exceptional with a big structure, a considerable minty-eucalyptus nose, fine tannin, deep flavor intensity and a bright, long future--the wine is indeed a winner.
Bottled since July, 1986, and to be released in December, the '84 presents an equally good eucalyptus nose, a lighter, leaner structure and the potential for aging but not as long. In the marketplace is the '83 with a subtle Cabernet nose, excellent deep flavors and nice viscosity, all in good balance. Enjoy it now or age it three to five years for greater complexity.
Older Cabernets like the '82 and '81 are showing well, but in a lighter, leaner style than the '85, whereas last year's '86 vintage reflects different sections of the vineyard, an experiment that may prove significant in succeeding years.
The '82 is not a big wine and offers a straightforward cedarlike lean taste, but is most attractive for generous drinking today and may still be available at $12. The '81 shows more development, excellent flavor and breed, with good aging characteristics and bigger tannins for long-term aging. It also is enjoyable now, at $12.
In a short span of seven years, the Benzigers' progress has been remarkable. With each new vintage, the winery's Estate wine style becomes more clearly defined. The palate input of eight people may be entirely responsible and indeed may become a new formula for personalized family wine making, a refreshing concept in light of today's corporate winery tasting committees.