by Fred McMillin
for January 24, 1997

Welcome to WineDay, the electronic Gourmet Guide's daily update. Monday through Thursday, WineDay presents a wine profile. Then on Fridays we present the Winery of the Week to take you through the weekend

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Winery of the Week

Benziger Beginnings

Prologue: The way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one.

The Rest of The Story: That old adage didn't deter Bruno Benziger and his son, Mike. They started with modest means and a decade later were grossing something like $60 million a year. Here's how it happened.

In 1980 Mike convinced semi-retired Bruno to leave the Bronx, join him in California and buy a 14-acre vineyard at Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. Winemaking facilities were minimal... their stainless steel fermenter was a rented milk truck! But they opened for business in 1982 and sold; 6,500 cases. However, Brune's long marketing experience detected something (I used his advice and imported wines in my classes in the 1960's). There were plenty of bland, cheap jug wines and plenty of premium wines over $10, leaving a gap between the two. This he and Mike quickly filled with over three million cases a year of Glen Ellen $5 fighting varietals.

Then they decided to switch rather than fight. The fighting varietal opertions, grossing over $60 million annually, were sold to Heublein. Consequently, now there was time (and FUNDS!) to move the remaining Benziger wine business into the ultra-premium market. It's a work in progress, and the results are already striking.

Please Pass The Cabernet Pfeffer??

First, they are rescuing endangered species.. yes, their Imagery Series includes a Cabernet Pfeffer, alias Trousseau. Winemaker Joe Benziger includes Aleatico and Refoso grapes in his "Vino Momento," a ready-to-drink red "wine of the moment." Then, there is the new Pinot project; they recently purchased a 64-acre vineyard in Oregon's prime Pinot Noir country, the Willamette Valley. The Benziger Family Winery now conducts a motorized tram tour of their Sonoma Mountain operations, covering all the major aspects of viticulture ranging from trellising options to yeast selection. Their Benziger label wines are improving steadily, the Merlot and Carneros Chardonnay being two fine examples.

A Tribute

Finally, we'll mention the two wines my panel rates highest.. in fact the red just beat 18 rivals in my last tasting for Best Table Wine. They are red and white blends of Bordeaux varietals grown on the Benzinger Sonoma Mountain estate. Why the name "A Tribute"? They honor the man who's marketing savy made all of this possible... Bruno Benziger, who passed away in 1989. I can't think of a living memorial that would please him more.

Just the Facts

Name Benziger Family Winery
Owner The Benziger Family (it's a big one)
Founded 1980
Winemaker Joe Benziger
President Nike Benziger
Marketing Kobrand Corp.
Production 150,000 case range
Contacts Winery—(707) 935-4071, Kobrand—(212) 692-4710

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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