budbreak of a brand Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Budbreak of a Brand

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.

Benovia's Varietal WinesNM:  When you began this project with the intent of making wines for the Benovia brand, did you have a clear and articulated vision as to the direction you wanted to go in, or would you say it begin with a more exploratory slant?

MS:  Some of this was really discovered.  The [estate's] Cohn Vineyard [first planted in 1975] I knew of and had tasted the wines but hadn't yet personally made wines from that site.  Even though you may be familiar with the perspective that another producer brought to the table, until you actually have your hands in it, you can't really project.  Some of this has been exploratory from a brand standpoint — how to best express these sites; which rootstocks, clones, viticultural techniques are best adapted to the sites; and what will we ultimately see from all of this investment.

Getting to the Root of the Brand's Mission

NM:  It sounds, then, like you've placed a heavy emphasis on understanding and developing things viticulturally in order to really guide the direction of the brand.  What would you say you're doing in some of the vineyards that you feel is uncommon?

MS:  One thing that's unique to the [estate's] Martaella site and to some of the things that we're doing is that we've embraced the high-density farming concept.  As you walk down the vineyard rows, you're not going to be able to get an 8-foot tractor between them, and that's because the planting density is actually 4x4, or four foot vine rows and four feet between the vines.  It's based on the concept of taking the European model and applying it domestically, which is a pretty new thing.  And a lot of that has to do with equipment.  Back in the '60s and '70s, we would plant 12-foot wide vinerows because the equipment at the time was much bigger.  Eventually, we got to 8 feet, and now with some of this new equipment that we brought over, we're taken down to four feet or even in some places only a meter.  It's been an interesting experience because there are some limitations from an equipment standpoint.

"We're beginning to see the results of using less input and focus on more of a sustainable process."

What were attempting to do — and we're beginning to see the results of it — is to use less input [of resources] and focus on more of a sustainable process.  Rather than asking a vine to grow in a larger footprint, or one that requires a lot of water and fertilizer, what we're trying to do is to establish a small vine with a smaller footprint.  As a result of that, each vine is going to produce less vegetative capacity and fewer [grape] clusters but with better intensity of flavor because of the smaller berry size.  In the case of some of the more established vines that were already planted eight feet apart, in order to still reduce the amount of input (water and fertilizer), we've taken the cordon back.  And we've found that at about four feet we were able to balance the vines, which translated pretty well to a higher density planting.  Increasing the row density allowed the vines to establish a footprint with very little water.

Another thing we've done is that during the growing season we'll limit cropload based on individual shoot length.  Then at veraison (when 85% of the red varietals have color) we'll go through and do a green drop to remove clusters that are lagging in ripeness.  Ultimately, if you really water and fertilize a plant, you can really make a big vine, creating a large cropload and increasing your yields.  Benovia's Marta Ella Vineyard But if you're looking for something that's more sustainable from an irrigation standpoint and even for going more organic, it means having a lower crop, smaller vines, and embracing a bit of a different aesthetic.

NM:  And so, being such a young brand and planting anew some of your estate vineyard land clearly gives you considerable leeway to test out more progressive techniques.

MS:  Oh, absolutely!  Whenever you get a blank slate in terms of a site to plant, all bets are off.  For example, it gives us the opportunity to play with clones.  UC Davis is going through and selecting a lot of heirlooom clones that came over a hundred years ago but that had originally been virused and, through vegetative propagation, making them virus-free.  There's a lot of progressive techniques that they're using to bring a new mix of clones and some more diversity to the table.

Young Grape BunchesMS: (con'd) And so, if you were to buy an established winery with a reputation, there's not a lot of opportunity to shift that; you may have something that's amazing, but you're limited because the style of your wines is locked in.  In fact, we have one vineyard where the vines just went in last year.  We planted about six acres of Chardonnay, mostly heirloom selections — one from Larry Hyde over in Carneros that's late-ripening and really holds its acid well, plus with a higher flavor intensity and a bit more mineral expression than your standard clone.

NM:  Of the viticultural choices you're making, how much of them is a function of the vision you have for the wine brand and how much are rather dictated by the demands of the individual vineyard sites?

MS:  With good cultural practices and good farming practices, you can have a palate that's irrespective of a site; you can have a set of parameters that you farm to.  And then beyond that, you can look at a site individually and say, "This is how we begin to tweak the site, these are our expectations."  With that said, I think it would take fifteen to twenty years with a site to really have that level of insight.  It takes a lot of time to get to that where you can say something like, "I like the red fruit characteristics of this site and I want to begin to emphasize those characteristics; how can we do that from a farming standpoint?"  For myself, I think there's a level of that every year I make wine or work with a site, where my focus becomes a bit more narrow.  As you begin to discover more, you find additional opportunities or variables that you hadn't initially taken into consideration.  So, even as you get tighter and tighter in your focus of input in and output from a site, the picture never really becomes perfectly clear.  It's the nature of viticulture.

NM:  And if you were to distill your viticultural philosophy into a few words, what would that be?

"This concept of small vines and high density planting is part of that low-input philosophy."

MS:  I'm a very big believer in limiting water and fertilizer input.  I think that while growing big, green vines that produce enormous amounts of crop might be aesthetically beautiful when you're driving past them on the highway, when you actually taste the wines made from them, there's not much there!  Wine quality and the translation of what you do to what ends up in the glass is the most important thing.  Another thing that's important is matching the site to rootstock and varietal, and also trying to maximize the site itself.  This concept of small vines and high density planting is part of that low-input philosophy.

NM:  How are you hoping this philosophy will ultimately translate into the bottle?

MS:  This whole concept of low-input, having a small vine footprint, producing fewer clusters of vine, and matching clones that might ripen a bit later and hold their acid — all of these things allow us to achieve physiological ripeness with hopefully lower alcohol, which I think is something we're all trying to achieve, and have an intensity of flavor that still achieves balance in the final wines.

Crafting Chardonnays with Grace and Allure

Benovia's ChardonnayNM:  Speaking of the wines themselves, let's start with your Chardonnay.  What's your vision and intent for the varietal in the brand's portfolio?

MS:  The pendulum is certainly swinging in the mind of the consumer away from oak-driven, overtly sweet, somewhat blousy Chardonnays to those that are leaner, certainly even stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay, which offers a unique perspective on the varietal.  For the Russian River Valley, I believe that matching some barrel fermentation with some cool-climate sites provides additional texture to the wine, as long as there's enough acidity and framework to match the wood.  I think that balance is key.  For us, our estate property here was just planted, but I have a pretty good idea of how it'll come about in terms of its expression and profile.  It'll be one that's similar to our Sonoma Coast Chardonnay or La Pommeraie Chardonnay [grower-selected, single-vineyard wines].

Winemaker Mike SullivanNM:  It sounds like you began with that vision even without yet having had viable estate-grown fruit, choosing instead to source from growers.

MS:  Oh, absolutely!  And, honestly, when we sat down and talked about the branding in 2005 and 2006, we didn't have a Chardonnay because we didn't own any and weren't sure we could find the growers that we really trusted enough and had a good enough relationship to achieve our objectives.  But we found one in the Martinellis, for both sites, the Sonoma Coast [which will be labeled a single vineyard designate in future vintages] and La Pommeraie.

NM:  What are some of the risks you take in the making of your Chardonnays, which you feel are potentially worth it to maximize their quality and expression?

MS:  The Chardonnays are all made with native yeast fermentation.  But we do use cultured malolactic fermentation just because the the pHs are so low; it's hard to get the native malo-lactic populations to complete secondary fermentation.  In always letting the wines carry over through vintage in barrel, white wines specifically, there's a risk in understanding what the balancing point is.  I think the wines lose some of their primary fruit and you get some of the secondary qualities, some of which come around from the initial time in barrel.  Texture is a quality that you continue to refine over time.  So, right now, I'm very pleased with the wines.  But talk to me in ten years to see to which direction they'll ultimately have gone in and how my own palate will have changed!

NM:  Are you pleased with the overall direction that your Chardonnay program is going?  Is it consistent with what you're wanting to see for the brand?

MS:  In working with these new sites, I'm pleased with the expression.  With our estate properties, we have the most flexibility in terms of farming, growing, planting.  I'm also pleased with the texture of the wines — for me, white wines often lack a dimension of texture.  Bottling wines without filtration gives you an initial textural dimension, and I like how that dimension has turned out in these wines.  Looking in the future, the amount of time in wood and the amount of new wood are things we'll play with over time to achieve some balance.

NM:  Chardonnay as a varietal wine has gone through quite an evolution just in the last decade.  What do you feel is the outlook for California Chardonnay in general and of quality-driven Sonoma County Chardonnay in particular?  And, in light of that, what do you see for the future of Benovia's own white wine program?

MS:  Chardonnay, because it is such a malleable varietal, with the swing of the pendulum, really feels the changes in style and consumer demand more than any other varietal. Coming from a bigger, richer, fatter, riper style, I think that the varietal was maligned as a condition of the producer's objective.  The wines got that way and people started saying that they don't like Chardonnay!  Well, Chardonnay as a varietal doesn't equate to big, fat, rich, and oaky; it can be lots of different shades of gray.  As a producer, I'd love to see it come back to something that has better balance, something that has a little more acidity and restraint.  And I believe that's we're doing with our wines.

Reflecting the Facets of the Region's Pinot Noir

NM:  Of course you love Chardonnay, but — and I may be asking the obvious — would you say that Pinot Noir is your real varietal of choice?

Harvested Pinot Noir BunchesMS:  Yeah!  Why am I here in the Russian River? — it's to make Pinot Noir.  I do love Chardonnay and Zinfandel, but Pinot Noir is the bread and butter of Russian River and western Sonoma County.  I grew up in Sonoma County and cut my teeth on its Pinots.  When I was a kid, my dad had penchant for the varietal, but there weren't many Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma County.  And most of them were making Pinot from Alexander Valley back in '60s and '70s — those wines were quite variable but in a cool year, you could find something that was pretty and had a lot of ethereal qualities.  As a consumer and once I went to school and learned the trade, I found that Russian River had a very attractive quality in that its wines had power but elegance; the wines have a distinctive personality.

Benovia Pinot NoirNM:  What are your objectives for the varietal in Benovia's Pinot Noir program and how close do you feel the current releases are to that?

MS:  The Cohn site represents to me a more classic, Old World (or at least older California) style of wine.  For me, it harkens back to wines that I cut my teeth with for William Selyem and Alan Rochioli in the '80s — wines that had an ethereal quality, very floral and delicate.  I think that this site is pretty indicative of those wines.  Now, our Bella Una Pinot uses newer selections with Dijon clones and more progressive viticulture, all organically farmed with very low yielding vines of an average vine age of about 18 years.  It's a little more modern a twist on Pinot Noir, a bit more typically New World in style and really a standout on its own — the 'iron fist in the velvet glove' Pinot Noir.  And then, with the Sonoma Coast Pinot, we're working with our estate property and learning more about this site, the Martaella vineyard.  Although it's about 70% Russian River, I think its style is probably somewhere between the other two wines, with a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New; it still has structure and acidity but the wine has some nice ripeness to it.

NM:  Looking at things more broadly, what's your take on what's been going on with Pinot Noir in the marketplace?  And how do you feel that that affects you as a winemaker with a particular penchant for the varietal?

MS:  Like anything that's become popular — although I don't think Pinot is quite at the height of its popularity but certainly has attained deeper levels of penetration into the market — a lot of new producers have jumped into the mix.  Many of them have great aspirations, in some cases to be the domestic DRC, but quite don't have the experience and are really just getting their feet wet.  And so, there's a penetration of wines in the marketplace that may not be a great reflection of the varietal.  I think people are getting introduced to different styles of Pinot Noir that might not be long term representations of a region or of the varietal itself.

"There's a penetration of wines in the marketplace that may not be a great reflection of the Pinot varietal."

NM:  Is there a danger of Pinot going into a similar direction that Merlot did in the '90s?

MS:  I think anything that reaches a very quick ascension to popularity risks the pitfall of having that popularity taken away become it's become trendy.  And there's certainly that potential for Pinot Noir domestically.  I mean, they're planting Pinot in Lodi!  It's become a commodity, like Merlot did.  Merlot can achieve great heights, but it's in a relatively narrow geographical range.  When it becomes a commodity, you've lost its potential.

NM: There's always going to be a segment of the market that views wine as a commodity and something that should be easily approachable.  And that reinforces the market trends around varietals, making the commodity mentality almost inescapable.  Now that we're seeing popularity at the more value-driven level of Pinot, do you have concerns about what that might do to wines made by quality-driven producers like yourself?

MS:  If consumers were to encounter Lodi Pinot Noir and assume that was a definition of the varietal, an expression of what that varietal can attain, they're likely to discount Pinot as some kind of noxious, weedy plonk.  I have no control over how the consumer views something like Pinot Noir, but my hope is that they have exposure to differing price points, quality levels, and wines that express what I think the varietal can attain.  It's a really tough question, though.

Building a Knowledge Base to Further the Brand

Benovia's Fall HarvestNM:  What have you learned in the process of making premium Pinot Noir, which has perhaps altered your earlier understanding of the varietal and the wines that can be made from it?

MS:  I have a pretty broad perspective as to what the varietal can achieve and what it's definition is.  I think that the Cohn vineyard is one definition of the varietal; I think Bella Una is a different definition; the Savoy is yet another definition.  All are unique and expressive; all are wonderful wines in and of themselves.  But I try not to shackle Pinot Noir.  I think having one very finite objective as to what something is supposed to taste like really doesn't allow for creativity of expression.  I've learned a lot and continue to learn where the varietal can go, but I'm not so sure that that has focused my objective.

Benovia  WineryNM:  Is there anything that has made you question prior assumptions or think about the varietal or site selection differently?

MS:  Site, most certainly.  I think farming objectives change from vintage to vintage with the climatic conditions.  It all becomes a base of knowledge that you can then build upon in the future; it develops an information pool that you can later pull from.  Farming these sites in particular, Cohn's an interesting example for me.  I hadn't farmed anything in the middle reach or northern end of Russian River; it's rocky and the soil is very well-drained and quite different from the western Russian River.  The vines respire more, so while I'd love to dry farm those vines, I don't think that I could; they need to get a little bit of water for heat suppression and they need a little maintenance water.  With vines planted on rock in a relatively warm area (for this part of the world), you need to change your objectives.

NM:  Bringing it all full circle, where do you see this new brand going and what are you hoping Benovia will articulate in the consumer mindset, especially for the two varietals you seem to be really showcasing, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?

"As a producer, we're trying to make wines that have unique expressions that are balanced."

MS:  It's always hard to try to play with what we want the consumer to perceive Benovia to be.  But we, ourselves, feel that we're winegrowers in the Russian River Valley with three really distinctive sites.  As a producer, we're trying to make wines that have unique expressions that are balanced.  I think that this is a pretty good perspective as to what we're doing, the style of wine that we're trying to produce.  How that changes over time is a tough one to put your finger on, especially being that we're such a new brand.

That newness as a brand and the production choices arising from it, I suspect, will allow Benovia Winery to increasingly express its unique identity among Sonoma Coast premium wine producers — as clearly as it does with the different styles of the varietals it showcases.  To learn more about this producer, its story, and portfolio, visit Benovia online.  Photo Credits: Benovia Winery. v


Tasting Notes on the wines of Benovia
  • 2007 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay: Pronounced aromas of citrus and pineapple coming through on the palate with flavors of McIntosh apple and pear, and developing into a savory finish of dried herbs and a fleeting hint of olive. Origin: Martinelli's Charles Vineyard.
  • 2007 La Pommeraie (Russian River Valley) Chardonnay: Prominent green apple aromas echoing on the palate along with a full flavor of lemon creme, bright acidity, clear minerality, and beautiful oak integration. Origin: Martinelli's Frei Road Vineyard.
  • 2007 Cohn Vineyard (Sonoma County) Pinot Noir: Pronounced aromas of ripe strawberry and bright red cherry coming through on the palate with a soft and alluring mouthfeel, fine powdery tannins and long, fragrant finish. Origin: Cohn Vineyard.
  • 2007 Bella Una (Russian River Valley) Pinot Noir: Powerful scent of dark berries echoing on the palate with firmer mouthfeel, sandy tannins, and bright counterbalancing acidity. Origin: Martinelli & Dutton Manzana vineyards.
  • 2007 Savoy Vineyard (Anderson Valley) Pinot Noir: Pronounced bright red berry fruit and warm spice aromas coming through on the palate along with savory, black olive flavors following through on the finish and chalky tannins. Origin: Savoy Vineyard.