Family first. These words were mentioned several times during my lunch with John Benish, owner of Bennessere Vineyards in St. Helena, California. Both John and I live in the Chicago area and in late December, I had the opportunity to share lunch with him and his lovely daughter, Nell Sikora, to discuss the winery and the wine produced. John Benish is a thoughtful, intelligent, and funny man and was eager to tell his story. We made the Napa-Chicago connection and I’m glad that we did.
“Benessere” means “well-being” or “prosperity” in Italian. John and his wife, Ellen, chose the name to convey the feeling of healthy living and grape growing at their property. But the concept of family first is at John’s core and the more I think about it, it’s at the core of the winery, too. John Benish is a man with vision who is smart enough to know that the fruits of his business success in Chicago (thanks to intelligence, hard work, smart choices, and good people working for him) can and should be shared with the next generation who in turn, work hard themselves and build upon that platform already built. There are five grown children in the Benish family and all work for the winery in some capacity. Now, you are probably thinking that every winery owner must have the mantra of “family first” and you’re correct – many of them do. But not all.
It’s a good thing that John and Ellen did not buy that farm which they were considering in Indiana. A magical moment in Napa made it clear that they were meant to purchase the forty two acre property north of St. Helena in 1994. (An interesting fact is that the film “Yes, Giorgio!” featuring Luciano Pavarotti was filmed at the property. A sign was placed on the tennis court by previous owners indicating that in the movie, Mr. Pavarotti played tennis at that location…) The couple fell in love with the warmth of the people, the quality food, the wonderful wine, and the land in the St. Helena area. But upon purchasing the property, John needed to rip out the grape vines due to phylloxera and put others in to take their place. Hard work (and yes, he had help!!!)? You bet, but he had the vision: family first.
Benessere Vineyards specializes in Italian varietals (think Pavarotti singing right now…) Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Muscat di Canelli, Sagrantino among others. With soils of clay/loam these grapes thrive. Their tasting room is open daily from 10am – 5pm by appointment. If you’re a Napa neighbor, your tastings are complimentary! Nice gesture, but that’s what I would expect from John Benish. www.benesserevineyards.com
So what wines did we have at lunch?
***2010 Benessere Pinot Grigio – Crisp and clean, this 100% Pinot Grigio exhibited floral and mineral like aromas with a bit of citrus. On the palate, the high acidity was in balance with the fruit and alcohol (13.9%). With a refreshingly delicate finish, I loved this wine and can’t wait to enjoy it again and again even now- because I’m not going to wait until Chicago decides that it’s summer (there is snow on the ground right now). At a cost of $22.00, you will be transported to Italy – ahh! Note: This wine received a Bronze Award at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in the class “Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio $15.00 and over”. Congratulations!
***2008 Benessere Sangiovese – John and Nell’s favorite wine is the Sangiovese bursting with rich fruit and a “go with anything” taste. It’s true – this Sangiovese can go with so many food pairings and I enjoyed this wine with chicken marsala at lunch. Consisting of 100% Sangiovese grapes and 14.5% alcohol, I appreciated the ripe cherry aromas with some roasted nuts and floral notes! With medium body, tannins and acidity which were balanced, and tastes of rich fruit, toasted meat, and some earth this is a keeper. Price is $28.00 and well worth it. Note: This wine received a Bronze Award at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in the class “Sangiovese”. More congratulations!
The Benishes are able to spend about three months a year at their St. Helena home and there are plenty of girls’ weekends or golf trips taken by members of G2 (John’s code for the Second Generation!). Thanks to the luck of Ellen’s Irish heritage and a good Napa climate, bud break usually occurs on or near March 17, St. Patrick’s Day! There may or may not be some Guinness in the house, but I can guarantee, Ellen and John Benish will celebrate the first phase of another wonderful vintage with Ellen’s favorite wine- the Pinot Grigio and their favorite people, family!
Cheers for those who know the concepts of family first and how to develop delicious wine ~ Cindy