Comfortably tucked beside a scenic stretch of the Napa River north of St. Helena, Benessere Vineyards seems to be a world away from the relative hustle and bustle of Highway 29 a half mile to the west. But its location is not the only thing that sets Benessere apart from the mainstream.
“We’re committed to the theme of being the un-cabernet and the anything-but-chardonnay (Napa Valley) winery,” said Jack Stuart, Benessere’s winemaker.
Stuart made that comment as he uncorked a bottle of Benessere’s 2007 Sangiovese to accompany a pasta carbonara course at lunch.
“And we want to produce elegant, graceful wines,” he continued, “well-balanced wines that are not overpowering, that are wonderful with all kinds of food.”
The sangiovese, made from grapes grown adjacent to the Benessere winery and tasting room was, indeed, an ideal match for the tasty pasta dish.
Earlier, Stuart poured the winery’s delightful 2009 pinot grigio, sourced from the “Napa side” of the Carneros region. “We want to provide evidence that you can do other wines in Napa Valley and have them come out well,” Stuart said.
“Come out well” is an understatement for the small winery that since 1994 has been dedicated to producing estate-grown Italian varietal and single-vineyard zinfandel wines in the heart of cabernet country. Located at the end of Big Tree Road midway between St. Helena and Calistoga, Benessere was founded by John and Ellen Benish of Chicago, who bought the 42-acre vineyard property in 1994.
With a nod to wine industry trivia enthusiasts, Stuart said the vineyard and winery were originally developed in the early 1980s by Charles F. Shaw, an investment banker who had some success growing and producing gamay beaujolais. After he and his wife divorced in the early 1990s, the winery was shut down and Shaw eventually sold his respected Charles Shaw wine label name to Fred Franzia. Years later, Franzia reintroduced the Charles Shaw label on his popular discount wines nicknamed “Two Buck Chuck.”
Owners of a successful school bus business in Chicago, the Benishes became interested in owning a winery after a family trip to Europe. The couple sought to establish another legacy for their family of five children and, on a trip to the Napa Valley, fell in love with the pristine location of the abandoned Shaw winery and vineyard. When they acquired the property, the vineyard was riddled with phylloxera and the winery was dilapidated. With an eye on producing Italian varietals, the family replanted the vineyards, built a new winery and farm home.
Of particular interest to the Benishes was sangiovese, the grape variety widely planted throughout the Tuscany region of Italy, where the noble grape variety is the source of world-class Chianti-style and “super Tuscan” wines. In the 1990s, however, sangiovese was relatively obscure in the U.S. and misunderstood by American consumers.
“What happened was a lot of lousy (California) sangiovese was produced, bottled and released in the mid to late ‘90s,” Stuart explained. “These were thin, orange-colored wines that were herbal and acidic with not much interest and they were too expensive … so it never quite clicked in the market. But people who were making good ones, including ourselves, have continued to be able to make it and sell it … but it’s still a challenge.”
At the time, Benessere was producing its first wines, Stuart was working as winemaker for Silverado Vineyards, a position he held for 25 years. He joined Benessere in January 2010 after being coaxed out of “retirement” by the Benishes.
“Coincidently, I had been one of the first Napa Valley winemakers to make sangiovese when I was with Silverado. We made a couple of barrels worth of 1992 sangiovese just when people were starting to get interested in the variety. And now, Benessere is one of the last men standing making sangiovese in Napa Valley.”
As winemaker and general manager at Silverado Vineyards, Stuart spent more than two decades crafting highly rated cabernets and chardonnays. He won accolades for his efforts and even received the Robert Mondavi Trophy for Winemaker of the Year. Benessere, he said, offered a change of pace and a new challenge.
“One of the reasons I came on board here was that this is an unusual place,” he said. “Not only that, when you look around 360 degrees and everything is so beautiful but also in the varieties the winery was making. I was intrigued by the fact that it was something different and I admired the wines, particularly the zinfandels, one of which is made from vines that were planted in 1923.”
Benessere offers two zinfandels that are each distinctly different in character. The Old Vines Zinfandel is sourced from a century-old vineyard farmed just across the road by neighbors Kathy and Bill Collins. The Estate Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel comes from younger vines on the Benessere property.
“These two zins plus the pinot grigio and sangiovese,” Stuart said, “are the heart of our (varietals)…the three, four and five of our batting order.”
All of these wines feature 100 percent of the varietal, allowing the fruit to fully dictate the character of each vintage.
Benessere Phenomenon is what the winery calls its “Super Napan,” a bold blend of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, merlot and syrah. Although this varietal blend is often found in high-end, Italian super Tuscan wines, Benessere considers it an unusual “phenomenon” in the Napa Valley.
Stuart said Benessere also produces small lots of “odd Italian varieties” like Sargrantino and Aglianico that are offered to wine club members and in the winery’s tasting room. He said Benessere’s varietal selection attracts wine lovers looking for an alternative to standard Napa Valley wine offerings.
“People who come to our tasting room or join our wine club are able to get little hidden treasures,” he said.
A tour of the vineyards surrounding its winery reveals Benessere’s commitment to producing top-level wines from varietals not commonly associated with Napa Valley. Several different sangiovese clones are planted in the sandy loam soil next to the Napa River. In another part of the vineyard are small blocks of new experimental clones being nurtured and evaluated.
Even before he took the reins as winemaker, Stuart said that Benessere believed in allowing each varietal to speak for itself by employing artisanal, low-impact fruit handling and winemaking techniques.
“I like having the connection between the place and the product,” he said. “You can come stand in the vineyard, you can look at the fruit, you can look at the tank and the barrels and it’s all connected … and it doesn’t leave the site until it’s in the bottle. It’s very old fashioned. If I had to make wine as if I were refining crude oil, why would I want to be in that business?”
Stuart said the winery produces 4,000 to 5,000 cases of Benessere wines annually and about the same amount for custom-crush clients making small-lot wines. A large share of Benessere wine is sold direct through the winery’s wine club and in the tasting room, which is open seven days a week. Stuart said that despite its somewhat remote location at the dead-end of Big Tree Road, Benessere attracts a healthy number of wine tasters who have heard there is something different going on in this picturesque location.
“I think a lot of people (wine tasters) drive up and down Highway 29 and before lunch their palette is shot (from tasting cabernet). They’re ready for something different. Here, you can drive a half mile down a one-lane road and come to a place that’s unlike anything you’ve seen.”