Benessere Vineyards is located at the end of the quiet and peaceful Big Tree Road, just north of Lodi Lane and the town of St. Helena. The original winery on the property was called Charles F. Shaw, founded by former banker Charles and his wife at the time Lucy. Their first vintage was produced in 1978. In 1991 facing bankruptcy and finalizing a divorce, the physical winery and property was sold to new owners who renamed it to Bella Luna. But the story gets much more intriguing. Charles sold the label, his namesake, Charles Shaw separately to Bronco Wine Company (owned by Fred Franzia). Franzia then turned this label into a mass marketed wine sold through a partnership with Trader Joes for $1.99 at the time, simply known as Two Buck Chuck. We have read that over 1 billion bottles of this wine brand have sold to date.
Founders of Benessere Vineyards John and Ellen Benish are from Chicago – John founded Cook-Illinois Corporation, school transportation company which has since become one of the most successful companies of its kind in the country (transporting some 200,000 students in the Chicago area to school every day). John passed away in October 2018 – we are truly sorry we never had a chance to meet him as he and Ellen were rarely in the Napa Valley. His transportation company is still family run.
John & Ellen first fell in love with wine during a trip to Italy in the 1980s. They purchased the winery and property out of bankruptcy in 1995; at that time the existing vines had been neglected for too long and were completely replaced with new plantings. Because the current vineyard location used to be a thoroughbred horse ranch, vineyard workers sometimes run across old horseshoes (a racetrack used to be located on the property). Obsidian is also found in their vineyards – this rock was used by local Indian tribes to make arrowheads and other tools – they appropriately named their Zinfandel vineyard “Black Glass.”
Benessere means “well being” or “prosperity” in Italian which can easily apply to those living and working in the wine industry in the gorgeous Napa Valley. There is even a rumor that drinking Benessere Wines will bring you good luck, prosperity and fortune – the jury is still out on the validity of this rumor.
The property is 43 acres of which 36 acres are planted to vines; the vineyards are located alongside the Napa River. And one of their neighboring vineyards is the historic Collins Holystone Vineyard which contains rare (for Napa) ancient vines of Zinfandel and according to the Historical Vineyard Society, this vineyard dates back to the 1920s (Benessere sources fruit from select blocks within this vineyard). This vineyard is located partway down the long road that leads to Benessere and can be easily seen to the right as visitors drive in. Collins Holystone was partially named after Bill and Kathy Collins, founders of Conn Creek Winery. While Bill and Kathy have both died, the vineyard is still under family ownership; their son Peter oversees the vines.
“Holystone” refers to a porous sandstone rock used to scrub wooden decks of ships. This is an appropriate name since the vineyard is full of rocks and Bill spent several years in the Navy.
Benessere is certified Fish Friendly Farming and Napa Green (for their vineyards). The Napa Green is a certification program overseen by the Napa County Department of Public Works and the California Green Business Program overseeing water conservation and reduced energy and waste within Napa based County wineries.
Benessere’s core focus is specializing in making wines from Italian varieties. Their first vintage was merely 135 cases of a Sangiovese in 1995. As of our latest update to this review they produce Pinot Grigio, Moscato di Canelli and two Italian varieties we have seen growing nowhere else in the Napa Valle: Sagrantino, and Aglianico. Sagrantino, a red variety is from Umbria in central Italy and is known for having the highest tannic levels of any grape variety known. Aglianico is originally from Greece but grows in select parts of southern Italy. It is a variety that thrives in warm, dry and sunshine filled growing regions. Benessere grows small amounts of each variety.
A tasting at Benessere offers a variety of wines one won’t often find from Napa Valley based wineries where especially up-valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is almost an obligatory offering in most area tasting rooms. This is uniquely refreshing as you will be tasting mostly Italian varieties and various unique blends. Their wines are produced in limited quantities; some of the wines typically available for tasting are their Rosato di Sangiovese which is a wonderful Sangiovese rosé, a “Black Glass” Zinfandel and the “Phenomenon” the signature wine from Benessere Vineyards.
A “fun” wine that you won’t find at any other Napa wineries is the Muscat di Canelli Frizzante – a semi sparkling Muscat wine. This wine is not overly sweet. Their winemaker often makes “fun wines” typically in quantities of 100 case or less and sometimes they are available for tasting in the tasting room – usually during the winter holidays.
The 2015 Benessere ‘Collins Holystone’ Zinfandel shows mostly red fruit notes on the bouquet including raspberry and red cherry – underlying spice notes also are present including white pepper, rhubarb and a hint of mint. As the wine breathes mocha and vanilla show. A very lively palate with decent acidity, it is medium bodied with soft supple tannins lingering quietly on the finish. Also finishes with some darker spices.
The 2015 Benessere Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon smells like ripe freshly pressed blackberries dripping their juice all over a sweaty leather glove. The aromas are sweet in nature – also showing red licorice and perhaps a hint of anis. Mostly red fruit shows on the palate with lingering moderate structured earthy tannnins and a hint of red fruit tartness; this is a wine that has no harsh edges and is well-balanced.
The 2015 Benessere Phenomenon (31% Sangiovese, 31% Merlot, 25% Syrah, and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon), a Super Tuscan-style blend is prominently layered on the bouquet with notes of chocolate, blackberry, white pepper, dry dust and an appealing Graham Cracker nuance (especially as the wine has time to breathe). This is a big wine across the palate – the most layered of all the Benessere reds we tried. Plum flavors with darker spices show; the muscular and robust tannins are immediately evident. These sizable tannins persist on an extremely long finish.
Are you visiting the Napa Valley, but can’t make it to their winery for some reason – not to worry, Benessere is extremely well distributed at local Napa area restaurants. Oh we haven’t yet mentioned their prices – for a small winery, their wines are among the more reasonably priced wines in the Napa Valley.
Benessere @ Feast it Forward
Benessere is one of up to sixteen vintners featured in The Studio by Feast it Forward (opened in June 2018). This showroom is located directly across from the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa and packs in numerous experiences in a small space. This two story building houses an “experiential showroom” as founder Katie Hamilton Shaffer calls it with a focus on wine, food and music.
Each vintner represented offers several wines – several of the showroom’s sponsors have prominent placement including the Gibson Guitar Lounge. A Chocolate tasting is also offered and there is a vinyl station for playing a variety of old records. Upstairs features a demo kitchen – when shows are being filmed here, televisions downstairs will broadcast the live feed. This kitchen can also be used for guest chefs to offer culinary classes.
And visitor’s will want to stop by their bathroom – a television embedded in a mirror plays Feast it Forward culinary shows. The site can be used for a number of events (and Benessere hosts select events on site) – they have plenty of space in the back of the building. The Ultimate Airstream Film Lounge trailer is often be parked in the back – they use this trailer when they are on the road hosting unique lifestyle events. One such event at the showroom might be the “Terrible Tuesdays” in which bad films with cult like followings will be shown.
The second floor has a sizable surround building deck – and features swinging ‘beds’. This is an ideal perch to watch passerbys going to Oxbow Public Market or those enjoying the park next to the Napa River. These are also some of the best seats in the area to watch live performances at the nearby green.
The winery is located at the end of Big Tree Road about 1/3 mile from the turnoff at Highway 128 – the final push into the winery is on a gravel road. A prominent 1949 red Chevy truck with a Benessere logo is parked at the turnoff to Big Tree Road (this can be used as a helpful landmark for where to turn off of the highway). Tastings at the winery are inside their tiny tasting room, or weather permitting outside overlooking their vineyards from tables on the patio with Italian music sometimes playing – or perhaps tunes by Frank Sinatra. Private group tastings can be reserved ahead of time held inside a hospitality ‘barrel’ room. For more information and or to join their wine club, visit: www.benesserevineyards.com
Collins Holystone Vineyard