WHAT: Pairing the right food with wine is important, but sometimes I also try to pair wine with an occasion. Often it’s a stretch, but this time I found the perfect wine for the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympic Games.
One of the themes of the ceremonies was protecting the earth, which pairs nicely with the philosophy at Benziger, where all the wines they make are certified sustainable, organic or Biodynamic.
The Benziger family turned to sustainable farming more than 20 years ago, and the results have been dramatic. The wines seem to get better every year. Instead of turning out generic wines that taste much like all the other wines that rely on pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers, they produce wines with distinctive flavors.
This sauvignon blanc is fresh and elegant, with aromas of lemon, grapefruit and melon. Grapefruit and lemon also show in the flavors, but they are mellow, not the sharp flavors that show up in some sauvignon blancs. There is a nice mineral finish and crisp acidity that makes it good with food.
On the back label of this wine, the Benzigers say they switched to sustainable farming because “it’s also the best way to make authentic and delicious wines. The past three decades have taught us that when the natural elements of earth, fire (sun), water and air are in proper balance they combine to make memorable wines.”
Everything is in balance with this affordable sauvignon blanc. This versatile wine is great with light summer meals and ideal for sipping on hot afternoons. In my wine Olympics it would earn a gold medal.
WINERY: The idea of sustainable farming didn’t spring out of thin air for the Benzigers. It came after years of work with their vines.
Mike Benziger founded the winery with his father when they bought the historic Wegener Ranch on Sonoma Mountain in 1980.
As the winery became successful, the rest of the family moved out from White Plains, N.Y., to join the business. They had no trouble selling their wine, but they worried about what the intense farming was doing to the soil. They wanted to preserve the winery for future generations.
The change came when the family noticed that spraying to keep weeds and bugs down and fertilizing to keep the grape yield up didn’t appear to help the vines. They didn’t look as hardy as they once did, and the soil didn’t look as rich.
Many wineries are embracing sustainable farming practices, but the Benzigers jumped into it with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Led by Mike Benziger, the family ripped out vines that weren’t suited to the soil and planted fewer vines so they could thrive. Eventually Mike discovered biodynamics, the peak of the natural growing movement.
The family stopped using pesticides and planted special gardens to attract “good” insects that naturally eliminate insects harmful to the vines. They plant a variety of crops and raise animals to create the best environment for grapes.
They recycle as much water as they can, running it through a series of ponds to purify it. One of the ponds is surrounded by diverse plant life. The goal with all these efforts is to let the character of the land show through in their wines.
The Benzigers were among the pioneers in sustainable farming. They hired experts from around the world and learned everything they could about keeping the land healthy. They took satellite photos and dug scores of trenches to determine soil types throughout their vineyards.
By 2000, the estate was certified a biodynamic farm, and they released their first biodynamic wine in 2001. By 2006, all their wines were certified biodynamic, organic or sustainable.
Working with suppliers, they also created the “Farming for Flavors” program to encourage growers to farm more responsibly. The plan is to keep the land producing for generations to come. Along the way, they realized the wines were getting better and better.
In the process of rebuilding the winery, the family realized they had a good story to tell and created a fascinating experience for visitors. There is a tram tour that takes visitors through the vineyards with a guide explaining how they are preserving the land for future generations.
The winery produces many varietals at several price points. The Benziger Family wines, such as this one, are the least expensive. Considering the high quality of the wines, they are terrific bargains.
They also offer Estate Wines, Signaterra and deCoelo labels. A related winery, Imagery, is run by Joe Benziger and at first featured labels designed by a local artist. Now artists from all over the world contribute to the labels.
GOES WITH: We had this wine with grilled shrimp and fried rice. The sharp fruit flavors were a perfect match for the tangy flavors of the rice and the shrimp that had been marinated in a lime, ginger and soy sauce mix.
The shrimp are easy to fix and very flavorful. Marinate shrimp in a mixture of soy sauce, lime juice, chopped ginger, chopped shallots, chopped basil, sugar, garlic and pepper. I put all the ingredients in a blender. Then marinate the shrimp in the mixture for about 20 minutes and grill for 5-6 minutes or until the shrimp are done. I slice the shrimp shells down the back before cooking to make them easy to peel after grilling.
I also grilled fresh pineapple and heated up leftover fried rice. Add a tossed salad and you have a feast. We drank the wine with dinner and then while watching the Olympics.
Finding the right wine for the Olympics was important to me because I had the privilege of covering four Olympic Games and two Pan American Games, starting with Lillehammer, Norway, and ending with Sydney. I still get goose bumps and an occasional tear when I watch these inspirational athletes push themselves to extremes, even when they have no chance of winning a medal.
There will be many such inspirational moments this year, so see if you can find the right wine to pair with beach volleyball, the U.S. men’s basketball team, table tennis or weight lifting.
I would drink this with all kinds of mild fish or shellfish, some mild cheeses or something like a shrimp taco or crab salad. This wine also will be great for sipping on a warm summer evening on the porch. Serve it well chilled.