In October 2017, the Tubbs Fire broke out on property across the way from Bennett Lane Winery, just off Highway 128 north of Calistoga. Not long afterwards, the winery became staging grounds for fire crews.

The vineyards and winery survived, although the grapes for the year were lost.

The winery’s tasting room has since gotten a makeover.

“The clay tile roof saved us. We had a lot of smoke damage afterwards. We recently redecorated with new carpeting, paint, furniture, and decor. (We’re) still…providing that intimate hospitality you find throughout Calistoga,” said Stefanie Longton, general manager of the winery.

Longton said the winery made great strides in 2018. Despite the financial and emotional impact of the fires, it applied for and received Napa Green Winery Certification. This certification marks the winery as a company that saves water, reduces its carbon footprint, and conducts business in a sustainable, conscientious manner.

Longton said Bennett Lane wants to be known as the friendliest winery in Napa Valley.

“We wanted to be more inviting. We don’t want people to be put off by a high price tag,” she said.

In January, the winery lowered its tasting prices. Visitors now pay $20 for a standard bar tasting, $30 for a VIP seated tasting, which is conducted in a more intimate setting with a guide to explain the wines, and $40 for a VIP seated tasting of a reserve flight.

The winery offers smooth, rich Cabernets, and sources 65 percent of its grapes for a spectrum of other wines from vineyards with different soils and microclimates than its Calistoga valley floor property.

Bennett Lanes Winery’s current offerings include Lynch Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, made from estate-grown grapes, Bennett Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bennett Lane Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The catalog also includes Los Carneros San Giacomo Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay, Maximus, a red blend, Maximus White Feasting Wine, a white blend, and a new Petite Sirah Rosé.

“You can’t make great wine without great fruit. We want to show the varietal fruit in our wines and let oak be the highlights,” said winemaker Rob Hunter.

Making fine wines

Hunter, who has been with Bennett Lane since 2005, was an assistant winemaker on the winemaking team at Groth Vineyards & Winery that earned a perfect 100-point score from Robert M. Parker, Jr., for the 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Prior to joining Bennett Lane, Hunter worked for Robert Keenan Winery, Lyeth Estate, Markham Vineyards, and Sterling Vineyards.

Now Hunter cherry-picks fruit for the Bennett Lane wines from vineyards in Calistoga, St. Helena, Oak Knoll, Carneros, and Pope Valley American Viticulture Areas.

He and Longton enjoy showcasing a range of vines in a small demonstration plot.

“We have a ‘petting vineyard’ here that includes Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, and Sirah. In the late summer, you can see that the Cabernet’s leaves are full and green. The Chardonnay’s look like potato chips,” said Longton,

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Longton said Bennett Lane has 10 acres on the Calistoga valley floor, seven of which are planted to Cabernet. The vines on the valley floor thrive because they lie south of the ocean air coming between the hills in the Chalk Hill Gap.

“It gets cold here with the fog coming in. The grapes need more time to warm up. They have a longer hang time than grapes in other locations. This allows for more flavor development. These are among the last vineyards picked in Napa Valley,” said Longton.

Hunter said sometimes it takes years for vines to reach their full potential. A section of the estate did not immediately provide great grapes.

“It’s clay pan. But about four years ago, the roots broke through the clay, into the soil. Now the fruit is intense, full, and ripe,” said Hunter.

Behind-the-scenes secrets

Hunter said he looks for fruit that creates velvety tannins.

“The tannins shouldn’t be mouth-drying. You want wine to feel rich,” said Hunter.

Hunter said Bennett Lane is focused on creating wines that stay well-balanced as they age.

“As a wine gets older, the smell matures. The fruity floral aroma components change to more aged bouquet characters. Yet the soft tannins remain and don’t drop off,” said Hunter.

Ripe tannins are the reward of waiting for grapes to reach their peak of maturity. Hunter said berries should be so ripe that they begin to dimple.

“After we get the fruit, we add enzymes. We hold it cold and punch it down once a day for up to six days. Then we inoculate and ferment for six to eight days. We take off the skins on about day 12, depending on tannin levels. Later, in barrel, the wine gains the softer, nuttier tannins from the oak. We use SO2 to prevent indigenous yeast,” said Hunter.

Hunter said having a small crew helps the crush run smoothly.

“It’s only me, Francisco Avino, our cellar master who’s been with us 11 years, Bennett Salts, our oenologist, and two harvest interns. We really work together very tightly,” said Hunter.

Hunter added that one of the rewards of working at Bennett Lane Winery is the team’s optimistic attitude. That outlook also makes the winery a relaxing place to visit.

“Here at Bennett Lane Winery, if you have input, you’re encouraged to speak up. It’s amazing how much we get done because everybody’s so positive,” said Hunter.

Customers interested in buying Bennett Lane wines can purchase them at the winery’s tasting room, through its wine club, and at some locations in the East Bay at specialty stores like Draeger’s Market. Prices range from $36 for the 2016 Maximus White Feasting Wine to $125 for the Lynch Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

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