Benziger Family Winery: Commitment to Terroir-Driven Pinot Noir
“There is no alchemy in winemaking; there is only what the vineyard gives you. This
is why I believe the best school for being a better winemaker is being a farmer. The
sequence in my life was farming and viticulture first, and then making wine.”
Winemaker & Viticulturist Rodrigo Soto
I was in the Russian River Valley in early May and the highlight of my trip was spending an afternoon with
Rodrigo Soto, the Vice President of Winemaking at Benziger Family Winery. Soto, who joined Benziger in
2006, is spearheading the winery’s certified-sustainable farming program, and more specifically the certified
organic and biodynamic Signaterra and de Coelo Pinot Noir labels. A graduate of the agronomy program at
Chile’s Catholic University, he has extensive international winegrowing experience with biodynamic and organic
wineries including his previous work at Matetic Vineyards with American consulting winemaker Ken Bernards in San Antonio, Chile. During his six-year tenure at
the organically farmed Matetic, Soto’s wines won critical acclaim. Soto also has experience in New Zealand
and at Fetzer Vineyards in California.
Soto is on a mission to make wines that authentically reflect the terroir of Northern California’s expressive
vineyards. He says, “We want Benziger wines to reflect the place where the grapes are grown. Benziger has
made a commitment to decrease volume and increase quality and behind this is their dedication to natural
Soto and I walked the Benziger de Coelo estate on a glorious day in the true Sonoma Coast as you can see
from the photo above. I cannot emphasize enough to the pinotphile that he or she must spend some quality
time with a winegrower walking vineyards, kicking some dirt, spitting some seeds. Only then, can you truly
appreciate the dedication involved in growing Pinot Noir and grasp an understanding of terroir.
When I visit wineries, they can be surprised that I want to see the vineyards before I taste the wines. I believe
that the place where a wine originated, not to mention the character and skill of the person who made it, is
highly relevant to how that wine tastes and how it gives you enjoyment.
de Coelo is a very cool growing site that is at the edge of where Pinot Noir will grow. On this afternoon, the
temperature was well over 80 degrees, a rarity for early May. It has often been said that Pinot Noir thrives when
it lives on the edge and this site is a perfect example. The vineyard is perched on a rugged hilltop about five
miles inland from the Pacific Ocean where the rocky, shallow soils force the vines to struggle to produce
diminutive yields. From the top of the vineyard, the vistas are magnificent with little sign of life except the
neighboring Bodega Headlands Vineyard farmed by Kistler and sheep grazing in the distance.
At this 20-acre, certified biodynamic vineyard, farming is directed at exposing every cluster to the precious sun
available. The meticulous cane pruning is kept in a graceful arch to insure that each shoot is evenly composed
and exposed (see photo below). Extensive thinning is employed during the growing season to insure only the
highest quality grapes are harvested. Soto spends many days in this vineyard, visiting at least once a week, and by his estimate his crew
tends to each vine by hand at least fourteen times before the grapes are harvested.
The vineyard is a project still in development. The lower 5-acre section, called Quintus, is planted to Dijon clones 667,
828 and a Swan selection. The upper steeper 10-acre section, named Terra Neuma, consists of Dijon clones 115 and
777. Here the soils are very thin, growth of the vines is more restrained, ripening occurs sooner, and the wines
tend to be more intense. A distinct de Coelo Pinot Noir is made from these two parcels of the vineyard. Quintus
spends 16 months in barrel, Terra Neuma 12 months in barrel which seems the best fit for the respective sites.
A third, more exposed and windy site, consists of 5 acres of younger vines (clones 115, 777 and 828), and eventually is expected to provide a third
wine from the property.
We sampled the de Coelo Pinot Noirs at the vineyard under the shade of a large tree both before and after
walking the vineyard and by the second pass, the wines had been opened for three hours. These are wines that demand your
attention and contemplation. They are not flashy, fruity, flirty wines, but rather serious wines of the earth, full of
intrigue and nuance that are worthy of their origin and can provide a unique drinking experience. Benziger
touts them as more Old World or Burgundian in style than Caliesque, and I suppose that is a good fit,
especially with their bright acidity and layered flavors.
Soto’s winemaking is traditional using some whole cluster, indigenous yeast fermentations, and aging in 50%
new French oak barrels. The wines are unfined and unfiltered. Production is about 500 to 600 cases of each de
2008 de Coelo Quintus Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., Not released.
Initial: Sexy perfume of red cherries and cut flowers. Tight with oak showing. Later: Magnificent now showing
an appealing earthiness enrobing the cherry fruit. The nose is bright with cherries and berries and the smell of
bark, cigar box and the outdoor smell of underbrush. The dry fine grain tannins are restrained, and secondary
notes of earthiness and grass have emerged. Very good.
2008 de Coelo Terra Neuma Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., pH 3.38,
24 barrels, $69. 25% whole clusters.
Initially: Lighter in weight than the 2007
vintage. Fully ripe array of cherries and berries with an earthy underpinning and
chalky tannins. Fruit and spice really shine with swirling. Later: Bright, sexy and
aromatic now with riper flavors of soft berry fruit emerging. Intense and bold with
the taste of the soil coming through on the finish. Very good.
2007 de Coelo Quintus Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., pH 3.48, 19
barrels, $69 (sold out). Aged 18 months in 50% new French oak barrels.
More perfumed with brighter fruit. Lighter in weight with redder fruits including
cherries and pomegranates. Soft in the mouth with a lively finish. Later: On the
nose there are aromas of red fruits, vanilla and spice. Very tasty rich cherry core
with a slight touch of tart cherry skins. Very good.
2007 de Coelo Terra Neuma Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
14.4% alc., pH 3.56, 18 barrels, $69. Aged 10.5
months in 50% new medium toast French oak barrels.
Initially: Definite minerality on the nose. Flavors of dark
fruits, anise, earth and a hint of citrus on the finish. Later: More finesse with flavors of dried cherries and red
currants and a subtle underlying savory herbaceousnecss. Very good.
The Benziger Family Winery Pinot Noir program also includes the Signaterra wines which are premium
vineyard designated varietals from Russian River Valley Vineyards farmed by the Benziger team (Bella Luna,
San Remo, and Giusti vineyards). The 2007 vintages of the Signaterra Pinot Noirs were reviewed previously
(www.princeofpinot.com/article/868/). These wines are also highly recommended. Visit the website at
www.benziger.com to obtain the de Coelo and Signaterra wines. The Sonoma Mountain tasting room is open
daily and special estate vineyard tours and tastings are available by appointment (707-935-4527).