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WBM Hot Small Brand Number 6: Bennett Valley Cellars

Wine Business

Wine Business Monthly has identified today's most exciting top 10 brands from small and medium-sized wineries during 2011 in our upcoming February issue. We gravitate toward wineries and brands that represent market trends or innovation, that take a leadership position in their regions, or that make unusual varietals or unexpected wines. There are some larger wineries on the list now, as well. Basically, these are wines we think other winemakers should taste.


We will also be serving the top 10 chosen brands at our Unified Symposium Bottle Bash party on January 24 at the Pyramid Brewery in Sacramento, California. The party starts at 5, and the winemakers for these brands will be in attendance.

We will be releasing our list on our blog one brand at a time. We started last Wednesday with #10, followed by #9, #8 and #7. Hot Brand #6 follows and to see who made the list for #1-5, pick up a February issue of Wine Business Monthly at our booth at Unified or stop by the Bottle Bash party tonight!

6. Bennett Valley Cellars
Producing the Flavor of the Bennett Valley AVA
2009 Pinot Noir, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County, California

Bennett Valley is a little known appellation in Sonoma County, California. Bennett Valley Cellars is hoping to change that.

“We’re the new kids on the block in Bennett Valley. We have a strong, focused vision and unbelievable synergy, and we want to join with the existing vintners and growers in Bennett Valley to show that this is a world-class winegrowing region,” general manager Doug Nickle said.

Being in the Bennett Valley AVA is a bit like going back in time when a region’s winemaking families lived and worked on their properties and produced flavors specific to the immediate area. It’s fitting, then, that Emilio Zanin, owner and founder of Bennett Valley Cellars, was attracted to the AVA’s close-knit community of 36 growers.

“I grew up in Italy, and my grandfather had the vision to buy a vineyard in the Veneto winegrowing region, where they make a lot of Soave. We used to spend the crush season there with the people working the land, helping them to pick grapes,” Zanin said. “When I was a teenager, my father would insist I taste a little vino—wine was considered part of our everyday meal.”

Zanin immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 and later started American Tartaric Products (ATP). ATP has been supplying ingredients and machinery to the wine industry for 20 years. In 2006, he bought 5 acres of vineyard land with a home in Bennett Valley—and it enabled him to return to his long-held dream of winegrowing. The vineyard is named after his wife, Marina. “You always have this dream of doing something yourself, and that is what we are trying to do now,” he said.

Down the road, the Zanins’ son and winery president, Luca, bought 40 acres of vineyard property and called it Simpatico Ranch. The Bennett Valley Cellars team crystallized when they brought on Australian native Toni Stockhausen as winemaker and Sonoma native and former professional baseball pitcher Doug Nickle as general manager and grower relations manager. Both also work for ATP.

Bennett Valley Cellars produces estate-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winery has two Pinot Noir labels: Bennett Valley Cellars and Bin 6410. The 2008 Pinot Noir won a gold medal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and the 2009 release got a silver medal at the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition. Stockhausen has a track record of making award-winning wine, having worked for Mildara Blass in Australia, Foster’s Wine Group at Windsor Vineyard and Weibel Family Vineyards and Winery in Mendocino. Her father, Karl Stockhausen, is known as a “living legend” in Australia.

The 2009 Bennett Valley Cellars Pinot Noir reflects the flavors of a vineyard in a relatively new (2003) and small AVA (650 acres). The grapes came from Marina’s Vineyard; all 5 acres are planted to Pinot Noir (clones 115 and 2A). The vines are nine years old.

Of the AVA growing region, Stockhausen said: “Every area has its stars. Making large homogenous blends of wines definitely has its place—but when you are in a small appellation like we are, the beauty is that it is regional-specific and will vary from year to year. We are what we are given to work with in that year. I think that’s a big thing.”

For the 2010 vintage, the grapes were hand-picked and hand-sorted, placed in 4-ton open-top fermenters, and the caps were manually punched down.”From there, my philosophy is to impart as much as we can to the finished wine,” Stockhausen said. “We use several different strains of yeast, some different tannins and new French oak barrels as well, mostly to achieve color stability so you maintain those rich berry tones,” she said.

Following a cold soak and primary fermentation, the remaining grapes were pressed in a basket press. “Most importantly with Pinot Noir, you don’t want something overly extracted. You can control that really well with a basket press. From there we keep the clones separate and put them through malolactic fermentation. We gave the 2009 nine months in barrel and brought it out and bottled it.
“At the end of the day the biggest challenge is to have wine that Emilio and Luca want to drink—they are Italian, and so it’s wine with lunch and wine with dinner,” she said.

Bennett Valley Cellars currently produces 1,800 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay per year and plans to grow to 5,000 cases.

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