New Faces in Familiar Places

Some of the best known family names in wine country are just nameplates on the door. Mondavi, Martini and others have been gobbled up by big companies hoping to cash in on the cachet of wine celebrity.

But there are lots of true family-run California wineries that are getting an injection of energy,  appreciation for new technology and modern advances from a new generation of young guns looking to make their mark on the industry.

I tasted some interesting wines and met some of the new winemaking generation at a wine trends event in Sausalito earlier this week sponsored by the California Wine Institute and the California Association of Wine Grape Growers.

Mauritson Wines

Winemaker Clay Mauritson

Clay Mauritson

My favorite wine of the day was the 2007 Rockpile Ridge zinfandel ($35) from Mauritson Wines in Dry Creek Valley. It was poured by winemaker Clay Mauritson, representing the fifth generation of his winegrape-growing family.

“I like the 2004 (Rockpile Ridge) but I think the ’07 is going to be my new favorite. It’s showing very well,” Mauritson said.

I had to agree.

The wine was smooth and full of zinfandel character, tasting of blueberries with an edgy spiciness flanking finely integrated tannins. (To read my blog about Mauritson, click here.)

Wente Vineyards

The tastiest white wine at the event was the  2007 Nth Degree chardonnay poured by Karl Wente, the fifth generation winemaker at Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley. This limited production wine is blended from two of the estate’s top vineyards.

Karl Wente, Wente Vineyards

Karl Wente

The taste of this lightly golden wine was round and full-flavored on the tongue. It showed a sliver of citrus with hints of melon that developed as the chilled wine warmed up in my glass.

One of the vineyards used for Nth Degree is planted to the renowned Wente clone of chardonnay, which is widely used throughout California . The Wente clone vines are directly descended from vineyard cuttings brought to California from France nearly a century ago by a Wente family member.

“We operate the oldest, continuously operated, family owned winery in the country,” said Wente, who heads the family’s winemaking operations but describes his job as “flavor farmer and tannin farmer.”

Benziger Family Winery

Another family run operation, Benziger Family Winery, is having growing pains — 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, showcases his winemaking talents).

The solution is what Kathy Benziger, the last of seven siblings from the winery’s namesake, Mike Benziger, calls “our flaming hoops.”

Any younger nieces and nephews who want to work in the business have got to pass through a series of requirements to earn their spurs. The Benziger “family constitution” requires a college or trade school degree plus working experience outside of the winery.

“It’s really cool to be passing the torch to the next generation and seeing them really get into this business,” said Benziger, who was the East Coast sales manager in New York for more than a decade before returning to Sonoma for a senior marketing position.

Kathy Benziger, Benziger Family Vineyards

Kathy Benziger

“But the millennials think this is easy,” she said. “You have to instill in them that you have to go above and beyond to be successful. You are a family owner and you have to set the very best example.”

The Benziger family, originally from New York, moved to Sonoma in the 1980s to make wine and started the hugely successful Glen Ellen brand, which they sold 16 years ago to Heublein. The family poured the Glen Ellen-winemaking experience, and profit from the sale,  into today’s namesake business.

At the tasting, Kathy poured me a taste of a red wine called “Three Blocks” from the Signaterra collection, a grouping of wines made from specific vineyard sites or special vineyard blocks picked for the confluence of three forces — earth, nature and man.

I liked the soft mint and mild tannins in this $49 Bourdeaux-style blend, which is immediately approachable but could also improve a bit over the next few years. The 2006 is a combination of cabernet sauvignon (64%) and merlot (36%). This wine spent 18 months in French oak and was fermented with native yeast.

More Family Winemakers

For a closer look at some other California family wineries, check out my blog about the Family Winemakers of California tasting event held each summer in San Francisco.

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