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Budding Wine Brand Articulates Burgundian Varietals in the Russian River Valley
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Benovia Winery —
The business of wine production is frought with considerable challenges. Beyond these, launching a premium brand is a monumental undertaking requiring a tremendous amount of resources, talent, experience, planning, and above all, a clear vision for how that brand will position itself among the seemingly countless others vying for consumer attention these days. Benovia Winery is one newcomer that seems to have all those qualities in spades. Although a great number of other producers in Sonoma County also provide handcrafted wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this particular winery, located in the heart of the Russian River Valley, does so with the intention of showcasing the notably different styles that these varietals can manifest. Curious to learn more, I met and spoke with Benovia's winemaker Mike Sullivan and, in doing so, discovered the unique advantages the new brand is enjoying at the outset of its journey into quality-driven wine production.
With its full-production facility, three estate vineyards, and sourcing from a small number of carefully selected growers in the region, the brand is off to a robust beginning with its second commercial vintage in current release. It was while touring the grounds of Benovia that I witnessed firsthand the grace and focus with which the winery balances its production using fruit from both the growers with whom it has cultivated close relationships and its own vineyards, portions of which are in the early phases of replanting. All of this, combined with its winemaker's deep knowledge of and profound enthusiasm for Burgundian varietals, is empowering the producer to carve a clear niche for itself in the ever-expanding domain of Sonoma County wineries.
Featuring Varietals and Showcasing Styles
NM: Although you make a Zinfandel, the vast majority of your production involves Burgundian varietals with a particular focus on Pinot Noir. You also have a good deal of knowledge on the wines of Burgundy. Might you say those wines were your inspiration?
MS: Not in a classic sense, no. There wasn't a retailer in Sonoma county that carried a wine from Burgundy until ten years ago. My interest in Pinot Noir came probably about the early '90s. And although most of the Pinot made here in Sonoma back then was pretty lousy, there were definitely some glimpses of real interest. And it was those glimpses that really spurred my own enthusiasm.
NM: And enthusiasm is quite often channeled into the desire to relay a message. What would you say is the message you're trying to convey through these wines?
MS: I like to make wines that are not shades of gray from one another, wines that are really distinct from each other, and I hope that shows up in our portfolio. But in conveying that message, it almost has to be done person-to-person. When you're dealing with a style, within it you can have different sub-styles — here, we're talking about Old World with more classic character and then New World with a more modern expression. It can embrace a lot of different philosophies and it's a hard one to capture in messaging. What I'm trying to do is truly understand site expression and utilize different techniques in farming and production to amplify or intensify those characteristics. What we've done is looked at the Russian River and taken these areas with fairly diverse climates and soils — the northern part, the middle reach, the Santa Rosa part, and then the Freestone area — which allows us to play with different colors, if you will, instead of just variant shades.