Benziger Zinfandel and Oonapais

benzMike Benziger has been called a pioneer. He’s probably also been called crazy by the folks who didn’t believe in his experiments in organic farming. But whatever you call him, he’s been instrumental in introducing and developing methods for growing grapes while nurturing and improving the land through his Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic farming practices.

He and many other Benzigers (a couple dozen, I think) also make wine at their winery in Sonoma County. Snugged up in the hills above the tiny town of Glen Ellen, and just a short hike from Jack London’s historic home and State Park, they’ve planted 85 acres of red and white grapes on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain.mike

This is a relatively warm-climate growing area, which was immediately obvious in the wines we tasted recently during a Twitter Tasting. In case you don’t know what that is…

A Twitter tasting is a very cool way to marry something very traditional with the latest in social media marketing. Here’s how it’s done: a group of wine bloggers (otherwise known as the “online wine community”) were invited to sit around with winemaker Mike Benziger as we tasted and talked about six of his wines. Only he sat in front of a camera in California and we sat in front of our computers in…wherever. He was on-screen and as we tasted, we tweeted questions and comments and he answered back. Very cool and very effective.

So let’s get to Benziger and their wines. I posted a story giving you background on the whole Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic approach that Benziger Winery uses in all their estate vineyards and with all their contract growers. I think it’s a tremendous goal to grow better fruit and nurture the land for future generations. The question is — does it make better wine?

Mike Benziger thinks so. The wines he chose for us to taste included a Zinfandel, two vintages of their Bordeaux blend “Oonapais,” two vintages of the Bordeaux blend “Obsidian Point,” and their premium blend, “Tribute.” I’ll review three today and pick up the rest tomorrow.

Benziger Joaquin’s Inferno Sonoma Mountain Zinfandel 2008 was the odd man out in our tasting, as the only non-Cab wine in the bunch. And while Benziger’s part of Sonoma County isn’t noted for its Zin, I was impressed with this effort. This vintage was apparently a challenging one, throwing just about everything possible at the vineyards, from frost to drought and high winds to heat waves. They definitely made it work for them. The fruit comes solely from Benziger’s estate vineyards on Sonoma Mountain, which qualifies this as a Demeter-certified Biodynamic wine.
I’d call this Zin more elegant than powerful, which is just fine by me. I like the balance it shows: not all ball-sy fruit and jamminess, but very pretty flavors with good structure.
In the nose I got pure blueberry and a bit of spice, which led to a lovely palate of blueberries and black raspberry with spice and warm vanilla on the finish. It has a very nice profile — warm and round but with a firm structure that keeps it from being flabby. There’s also an addition  of a substantial amount of Petite Sirah — 27% — which must have been included to add depth and structure. It’s my favorite kind of Zin, and I don’t taste it often enough.
My one concern is the price. I know that biodynamic farming brings more cost into the equation, but most wine drinkers aren’t willing to pay for something they can’t taste in the glass. I’m also a wine retailer, and know that there’s no market for $50 Zins unless they have a very big name on the label.

We moved on to taste the 2006 and 2007 vintages of Benziger Oonapais Sonoma Mountain Red. The grapes are also estate grown and Demeter-certified Biodynamic, but this is one of the winery’s Bordeaux-style blends. In the 2006 vintage of Oonapais, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape at 58%, with 17% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 11% Petit Verdot.
The nose and palate were surprisingly soft, with blackberry notes, some mocha and some baking spice. Fourteen months in French oak gave the finish some exotic notes, and I also tasted something buttery or fleshy on the finish.
The 2007 Oonapais showed better acid and structure, which is more my style and showed the fruit to better effect. At the same time, it was more Old World on the palate, with a little bit of earthiness on the palate and more acid and structure.

Both Oonapais blends show the effects of their warm-climate growing region. They offer more soft, dense fruit than firm texture and bright acid, and you’ll like them if that’s your style. There’s no question these wines are meticulously made, but the prices are high enough ($50 for the Oonapais)  to limit their marketablity.

Stay tuned to read about my Benziger favorites, the Obsidian Point Bordeaux blends. Cheers!

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2 Responses to “Benziger Zinfandel and Oonapais”

  • Bill Miller:

    I belong to their wine club and have had all of these wines. Their Tribute and Oonapais are my favorites. The 2008 Oonapais is very bold. I am with you on the cost a little too expensive.

    • Thanks for your comment. Those big bold wines are hard to resist :)
      Deb from

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