Benovia Winery is a small oasis that feels all the more the more like a secret discovery thanks to the long, narrow road with minimal signage and twisty turns that leads to their tasting room. Of course, there are two are-we-there-yet moments along the way…and then the road ends.
Thankfully, it does so at a low-slung building that is your destination, heralded only with a small “Visitor Center” sign.
I walk in at the tail end of the staff’s morning meeting and am ushered upstairs to wait on a comfy sofa overlooking the vines that surround the premises.
This estate was purchased in 2005 by spouses Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, who named it for their fathers, Ben and Novian, and winemaker Mike Sullivan, who pokes his head into the loft shortly after I sit down.
He’s come by to say hello and chat for a few minutes. You know from his photo on the web site that he cleans up nicely, but today, in dusty shorts and hat, he’s clearly been at work for a while already.
Mike is a fifth-generation Californian and has been making wine since 1987. His philosophy is simple: “I’ve got one foot in the new world and one foot in the old,” he says of his style. “I want to reflect the sun but with acidity, balance and an emphasis on texture.”
This is achieved, Mike says, with “very ripe fruit” and a well-honed winemaking process.
The grapes are harvested between midnight and about 6 or 7 a.m., a strategy that keeps the fruit cool and preserves its crisp feel. Then the berry clusters are hand-sorted to remove any unripe fruit and debris.
The chardonnay is typically whole-cluster pressed before going into barrels for fermentation. Pinot noir grapes are destemmed and berry sorted before going into open-top fermenters for 17 days of full maceration before going into barrel.
Once the wine is ready for bottling, a different sort of process starts. “We keep the clones and lots separate (for fermentation),” Mike explains, “then taste to determine the final cuvee.”
What this means is, Mike and his team sit down with samples of wine from each clone of each grape from each vineyard then creates different combinations and proportions to determine which tastes the best before creating the final blend. “It’s fun!” he says of this rigorous process.
When asked if he knows what he wants that final wine to taste like, Mike says no. “Every year is an optimization trial. We try to create the best experience but we can’t force [the wine or its flavors] into a box. We need room for discovery.
He uses their flagship white wine, the 2014 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, as an example: “Look for aromatics and vibrancy,” he tells me. “I wanted to preserve the [grape’s] more delicate qualities. But the texture is important…you want to see the tension, the acidity.”
The wine definitely matches his description: it’s the most vibrant of the three chardonnays I taste, with sharp aromas and flavors of lemon meringue.
Mike also crafts his wines to pair with food. What’s his favorite with this chardonnay? Razor clams or shellfish, he replies.
But now, Mike has to get back to the important winery work, and Lauren takes over for the rest of the tasting. Lounging on facing sofas, we are chatty girlfriends, interspersing wine talk with conversation about local restaurants, weekend plans and good vacation spots.
But you’re here for the wine, so:
The second chardonnay is made with fruit solely from Martinelli vineyards and called Fort Ross-Seaview, for the appellation in which they grow. This is a cooler region above the fog line, with the extra sunshine giving the wine its apricot and melon flavors.
It’s less minerally and more savory, with a nice round feel on the palate. This wine is also bottled without filtration, giving it subtle earthy notes.
The next chardonnay is dubbed La Pommeraie, as the vineyard is a former apple orchard. The grapes benefit from a combination of sun and fog, which gives the vines lots of hang time to develop rich flavors while maintaining acidity.
There are lots of stone fruit flavors in this wine, particularly peach, apricot and nectarine. It’s soft and quite approachable.
Shifting gears to the reds, we start with the 2014 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, the companion flagship to the chardonnay, with about 3,000 cases made.
It is crafted with grapes exclusively from their estate vineyards and has a great nose – earthy but bright. The wine is very fresh on the palate with notes of dark fruit, earth and mushrooms.
We move on to the 2014 Martaella Pinot Noir, made with fruit from the vines planted on the property around us. (This vineyard is named for Joe and Mary’s mothers.)
This is only the fourth vintage of this wine, Laruen tells me, and juice from ten different pinot clones goes into the blend. It is round and lush on the palate, but somehow doesn’t feel at all heavy. It is decidedly Burgundian in style, with highlights of earth, bramble and pepper softened by dark fruit flavors.
Third is the 2013 Tilton Hill, with the fruit coming from Benovia’s youngest vineyard: it was planted in 2008 in the Freestone area of Sonoma, and this is only the second vintage produced. This wine is definitely softer, with notes of mushroom, earth, dried fruit, black cherry and tea.
Just when I think we’re done, Lauren pulls out a fourth bottle. She gestures towards the back of the loft, indicating the estate’s Cohn Vineyard, a small plot just over the hill. It was planted in 1970 by two preservationists from San Francisco, making it one of the oldest pinot noir vineyards in Sonoma.
“We had no idea of the clones,” Lauren says, suggesting that the ladies who planted the site probably smuggled vines from Burgundy to California in a suitcase.
The vineyard changed hands several times before Benovia purchased it in 2003, transitioning to organic viticulture and replanting the land with Pommard and other heirloom clones.
They are planted in an ancient riverbed that’s now perched 250 feet above sea level. These iron-rich clay-loam soils give the wine its minerality. In addition, it is bright and fresh with notes of roses, flowers, soy and tobacco.
It was a heady, enticing combination that made the perfect end to my visit. (And, yes, I ordered some to bring home!)
Want some for yourself? Benovia wines can be found at stores across the country or via their web site.