Mark & Karyn are LIVIN' travel blog

A Sonoma County chicken

"The Cave" at the Benziger Winery

Today we decided to explore Sonoma County. After a quick stop at the visitor’s center, we were on our way to a few tastings and tours that were recommended. Now, it used to be that all wine tastings were free. But somewhere over the past ten years the wineries started to charge a hefty tasting fee (hefty in my opinion, because it is enough to deter you from going to more than a few wineries at a time). These tasting fees can run from $10 – $35 (times two, of course, for both of us). So imagine after you taste, and then, of course, they would like you to BUY as well, it can start to become a fairly expensive day. You would think they would give you some sort of discount off the purchase if you had just paid for your tasting (or allow you to apply a portion of the tasting fee to your purchase). But – they don’t!

We started our day of tastings at the Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen. This winery charged $15/person, but it did include a tour of the winery (which I always like!). As we waited for our tour to begin two more people purchased tickets for the same tour. I thought I had heard something about “Boulder”, so as the couple came around the corner to join us I asked if I had heard right that they were from Boulder, CO? They confirmed that they were and we told them we were from Golden. I was wearing a Gator shirt and the woman pointed to it and laughingly said, “oh, we are both Gators too!” Gators – we are EVERYWHERE, even in Sonoma! We gave them the low-down on the Gator club in Denver as they had not realized there was one in Colorado (hmmmm – what kind of Gators were these?). When I later asked what they did in Boulder, they hesitated, gave a nervous laugh, and said, “ummm, nothing”. So, unless they were working for a porn company and didn’t want to tell us, we were assuming these were trust fund babies OR millionaires. Or maybe they were just on sabbatical like us.

The Benziger winery is unique because it is one of the few wineries in Sonoma or Napa that is biodynamic, organic, and sustainable (all various levels of wine growing practices). As a biodynamic winery, it looks at the entire wine producing process in a holistic manner and uses nature, rather than chemicals, to produce its wines. For instance, their vineyard had an “insectary” on it to attract insects that would assist in growing the grapes as well as those that would kill any unwanted parasites that might infect the vines. The vineyard had 85 acres, of which 42 were busy growing grapes and the other acreage was being used to graze cows, grow fruits and vegetables, as a wetland, and to compost (since the entire winery must be sustainable, it must apply some of its acreage to producing other products). The winery recycles its wine stems, over 3 million gallons of water, and various other organic matters that are used to fertilize its soil. A biodynamic method of grape growing recognizes that everything is interconnected.

Although our guide said that being biodynamic is more labor intensive, and therefore more expensive, it did not seem that they employed too many more people than a non-biodynamic winery. Our guide said that a typical rule of thumb was that one person could manage 4 acres of grapes. This winery employed 42 people. In addition, in keeping with everything organic, where most wineries will purchase their yeast (necessary, of course, to transform sugar to alcohol), this winery uses the yeast that is naturally on the grapes.

After the grapes are harvested (generally in September) they go through a machine that separates the stems from the grapes and crushes them (the white wine grapes are separated from the skin at that time). The juice is then put into giant fermentation tanks (which actually sit outside in most wineries) where it ferments for 12 – 14 days. After this, the wine is put into Oak barrels and the aging process, which can take 6 – 24 months depending on the type of wine (reds take longer to age), begins. The Oak barrels have been charred to create that oaky, vanilla taste that wines have and because nothing but wood is used to create the barrel (no glue or adhesive holds the barrels together), the wood allows air to move in and out of the barrel, a critical element to the aging process. The aging barrels of wine are kept in an underground wine cave which provides a cool, moist, consistent climate. Sometime later, the wine is filtered to remove any particles, bottled and sold. Benzinger produces 170,000 bottles a year (making it a moderately sized winery) and its wine is not sold commercially.

After the tour we were able to taste several of their biodynamic wines as well as other wines produced from grapes that were not grown at their vineyard (many wineries purchase grapes from other vineyards). Benziger will only purchase grapes from vineyards that are biodynamic, organic or sustainable. So, not all of their wines are necessarily biodynamically produced.

What makes Sonoma such a unique location to grow wines is its series of microclimates. Within a very small geographical area, Sonoma is able to produce cool and warm growing grapes (for instance, where Benziger was located was a warm grape area – grapes like Merlots and Cabernets grow well here). But just a few miles away was a cool grape region that grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes (so, Benziger actually purchases its Chardonnay grapes from one of these vineyards). In addition, Sonoma’s location close to the Pacific Ocean (a mere 20 miles away), provides the perfect growing conditions – wet winters, dry summers, and cool, ocean fog in the summer mornings. Growing conditions within even the same vineyard can impact the taste of the grapes. For instance, Benzinger has Cabernet grapes on one hill that receive only the early morning sun – these grapes have a distinctly earthy taste. While the same grapes on the hill across the way, a hill that gets the late day sun, have a distinctly fruity taste.

After drinking our fill of Benzinger wines (no purchases – these wines were in the $40 - $60 range), we drove a few miles away to a quaint, little shopping area nearby where Jack London lived until his death in 1916. In the shopping center we found a cheese shop and a chocolate shop, both offering tastings. For $5 each, we were given a lovely, hard to hear lesson on cheeses by this somewhat pompous, but still likable man. Having never done a cheese tasting before, we had a good time tasting goat cheeses, cow cheeses, some that used cultures to create taste, some that used pasteurization to taste, some wrapped in grape leaves (which were frozen to make them pliable to wrap around the cheese without breaking), some hard cheeses, some soft cheeses, and most of them VERY tasty.

Unfortunately, it was very difficult to hear the man as he tended to speak mostly to the cheeses he was cutting up for us. But it seemed that he enjoyed his cheeses, was disdainful of cheeses made in Wisconsin, and only purchased cheeses from farms that he or one of his employees had visited personally. He spoke about large herds of goats or cows, and small herds. He said that gorgonzola cheese was actually made from tired cows (I may never eat that cheese again – who wants to eat cheese from a tired cow, that seems so sad). It was a very fun experience, and we probably would have purchased something, but the man went so fast and was so hard to hear, that I have no idea what I actually liked. We both would enjoy doing some more cheese tastings in a better environment so we can take notes on what we are eating!

After we finished our cheese tasting we headed right next door to the chocolate store. This chocolate store actually purchases its chocolate from Scharffen-Berger, melts it down, and adds fun things to it to make truffles (like Zinfandel, Port, Cabernet, Apricots, Mint, etc.). The tasting was short and included some of the inside pastes used in their truffles and some chocolate disks. This time we purchased – a few truffles for the road – YUM!!!

So, $47.50 later, we took our leave of Sonoma and headed back to the camper for the evening (we had to watch American Idol and the Clinton/Obama debate. What a terrible debate - they spent the first 45 minutes asking them ridiculous questions about why Obama doesn't wear a flag pin on his lapel, about his minister (which has been beat to death as an issue weeks before by the press), and why Clinton "lied" about her Bosnia experience. If this is what the voters of Pennsylvania care about then they should be not allowed to vote for our President).

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