Imagination Rules at Imagery Winery

If your tastebuds need a new temptation — something that veers off the well-traveled cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay path — chart a course for Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen where variety is the spice of life.

Imagery’s master of temptation is Joe Benziger, a member of the winemaking Benziger family that turned its hugely successful brand, Glen Ellen, into a gold mine by selling the business to a corporate suitor in 1993. The family still makes fine wine under the Benziger Family Winery label while Joe branched out with Imagery to produce small lots of boutique-style wines from a cornucopia of lesser known varietals.

Imagery's Joe Benziger

Imagery's Joe Benziger

To enhance the uniqueness of the wines, each wine features an original work of art on its label.  The label-turned-canvas idea germinated from a chance meeting between Joe and Sonoma artist Bob Nugent, who now oversees the collection of artwork created by artists from around the world. The only requirement: artists must include an image of the Parthenon in their work.  More than 200 different labels have been created and dozens more are in development for use in future production. There is a rotating exhibit of the original artworks on display in the tasting room.

Lagrein, Cinsault and Mourvedre, Oh My!

imagerylagreinlabelTake Lagrein, for example. This northern Italian grape is quite rare in the U.S., but that didn’t stop Joe from forging ahead. He located a source (French Camp Vineyards near Paso Robles) and turned the grapes into a delicious red wine. Imagery’s 2005 bottling ($40) is worth trying for its uniqueness, but it’s worth going back for another glass due to its jammy good taste and a touch of sweetness from aging in French oak.

Cinsault is widely planted in France, but it is primarily used there and in other parts of the world as a blending grape. You rarely run across this hot weather-friendly grape bottled by itself in California, unless you’re in the lively and inviting tasting room at Imagery.

“The cinsault grapes are huge,” Joe told me on a recent visit to the winery, making a circle with his thumb and finger to show the size. “They were so big, I couldn’t put them through the de-stemmer (a special machine that separates grapes from their stems).”

The dark, rich wine was smooth, with just a hint of tannin to provide complexity.

“It feels like ‘furry’ tannins to me,” Joe said, trying to explain the delicate tingle on the tongue produced by the wine.

Mourvedre is another interesting grape, not as rare as Lagrein nor as widely planted as Cinsault but important as a blending grape in regions like France’s Rhone Valley, where it shines. Rhone-style wines made in California nearly always include some mourvedre, but at Imagery Joe puts the grape in the spotlight as a solo performer. The newly-released 2006 mourvedre ($42), grown in a high valley in Lake County, tasted of plums and purple fruit.

So Many Wines, So Little Time

Joe says he makes 18-22 kinds of wine each year. The exact number depends on supplies from growers and from the estate’s own vineyards. I really liked his current release of petit verdot, another French grape used primarily in Bordeaux for blending.imagerypetitverdot

“It’s difficult to grow and hard to ripen,” he explained. “But if you get it right, it’s great.”

A barrel sample of the 2008 petite verdot displayed a lot of potential, and tannin.

“I think this may be one of the best I’ve made,” he said, eyes bright with excitement. “At least I hope so.”

Blending Outside the Box

Joe is proud of his lineup of more traditional varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which include “estate” wines produced from vines grown on the Imagery property just down Highway 12 from B.R. Cohn and right next door to Arrowood Vineyards and Winery.

Imagery’s reputation, however, has been bolstered through Joe’s careful blending of traditional mixes like cabernet/merlot and cabernet/sangiovese plus some really “outside the box” concoctions.

Examples of the latter include a chardonnay-based wine (they call it white burgundy, $29) blended with pinot menuier (which is traditionally a champagne grape) and pinot blanc (a French grape often found in Alsatian wines) and Code Blue ($36), a blend of syrah grapes co-fermented with California blueberries. The blueberries (about one ton) were harvested in June at the peak of maturity and kept frozen until the syrah grapes ripened and were harvested.

The Imagery tasting room is open daily (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). It features a covered patio for outdoor sipping overlooking a bocce ball court plus a rear patio where there are about a dozen umbrella shaded tables.

Nearby is the Sunny Slope vineyard, home to estate grapes that go into the delicious Sunnyslope merlot (2004, $42) and Sunnyslope cabernet sauvignon ($45). The winery’s top-of-the-line wine is called Pallas, after the daughter of Zeus, the Greek god. The cabernet (with about 6 percent malbec) is $60 while a 60/40 cabernet-malbec blend carries the winery’s highest pricetag ($70).


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One Response to “Imagination Rules at Imagery Winery”

  1. New Faces in Familiar Places « Wine Country Insider Says:

    […] — of a sort. A new generation is marching in with aspirations of joining the wine business (Click here to see my blog about Benziger side project, Imagery, where Kathy’s brother, Joe Benziger, […]

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