On Sept. 25, Columbia Restaurant of Ybor City hosts a wine dinner with the Benziger Family Winery of California. Erinn Benziger, the third generation of the winemaking Benzigers, will be on hand to discuss the wines, while Andrea Gonzmart, the fifth generation of the Columbia Restaurant, will oversee the menu and food pairings. We spoke with Benziger, who now manages East Coast wine sales, by phone to discuss what her family's winery is most excited about these days.
What was it like growing up Benziger?
When my mom and dad and grandfather bought the Sonoma property in 1980 I was 1 year old. I've spent my whole early life there, living together with my grandparents, four aunts and uncles, my parents and their three kids, dogs and a great-grandmother. It was a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun, too. I went to college in Colorado, and while I drank beer like normal college kids, I also turned a lot of people on to wine.
Benziger has a commitment to organic and biodynamic wine growing — what is it and do you see that as a serious trend on the horizon?
In 1995 we started to transition to biodynamic. We got certification in 2000 for the six vineyards that we own and have been certified ever since. With the success of them, we started working with our network of family growers, where our goal is to help them reach their highest level of sustainability, organics or transitioning to biodynamic farming.
Biodynamic is the top end of organic farming. It not only encompasses the tenets of organics, but works with nature and the forces of nature to grow grapes. I like how my dad explains it: It's like grapes are the lead character in the play and the cows, sheep and insects are the supporting cast. We're able to eliminate pesticides and chemicals by creating diversity in the vineyard, as opposed to a monoculture.
At the tasting in Tampa, we're going to be doing a mix of sustainably, organically and biodynamically made wines. We're releasing a sauvignon blanc and pinot noir in our Signaterra line in a few weeks. It's a very exciting single-vineyard program, so each of the wines has a unique character.
Is it more expensive to make wines biodynamically?
Initially it's more expensive for the winery with its upfront investment, but as you continue to practice biodynamics the costs even out. In my experience, the investment we've made over the past seven years has yielded wines that are far superior in quality. I think we'll be seeing a lot more biodynamic vineyards.
Will we continue to see more women in the wine business?
Definitely in my generation there are a lot of women in the wine business. A lot of the great young sommeliers out there right now are women, and I think in the next few years you'll see an explosion of women in the wine business. It was a boys' club for a long period of time.
What advice do you have for people attending the wine dinner?
A wine dinner is a chance to meet a winemaker or a principal and learn more about where their wines are coming from, about how they grow grapes and make the wines. I send the wines in advance to the chef so he or she can create a menu around them. A course is paired with each wine, which for us usually starts an evening with sauvignon blanc, then moves down through chardonnay, merlot and cabernet. Everyone has a different take on food and wine pairings, and sometimes there's a pairing I wouldn't necessarily have chosen, but it makes me stop and reconsider. What's so great about food and wine is that you're constantly learning and experimenting.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.