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 Shaw (a Stanford graduate) and his wife at the time Lucy. The Shaws fell in love with wine while living in Paris where Charles worked as a bank representative. During their time living in the country, they traveled extensively and visited Beaujolais many times. They purchased their first property in Napa Valley on Howell Mountain in 1974, planted at the time to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They sold this property in 1977 to Lucy’s brother and then purchased the property which is currently home to Benessere Vineyards.
The Shaws first vintage was produced in 1978, 500 gallons of Napa Gamay produced at Sterling Vineyards that year by winemaker Ric Forman. Their primary focus was producing a true Beaujolais-style wine from California grapes. After several years Shaw diversified his wine production but ultimately wasn’t able to turn his winery into a successful financial operation. 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. In 1995, the label, his namesake, Charles Shaw was sold separately, brokered by winemaker Tom Eddy to Fred Franzia, the owner of Bronco Wine Company. Charles Shaw was not involved or privy to this transaction at the time. 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. Their Zinfandel vineyard is appropriately named “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 heresay.
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 has since 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 Valley: 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.
The 2021 Benessere Vineyards Pinot Grigio is pale yellow in color; we don’t taste a lot of Pinot Grigio from Napa Valley and in a blind tasting we probably would identify this wine as cooler grown or early harvested Sauvignon Blanc from the aromatics alone. It offers scents of freshly cut grass, lemon zest, lemon grass, green apple and as it evolves in the glass it offers a note of jasmine. The palate also mirrors the palate with herbal notes including of lemon juice, lemongrass, green apple, Chilean guavas that are not yet fully ripe (look that fruit up if you aren’t familiar with them) and kaffir lime zest. Tangy from the zesty acidity, these bright greener fruit flavors are complemented by a rounded and creamy texture across the palate. Best served chilled. We would love to pair this with raw oysters drizzled with a Thai nam prik made of lime juice, fish sauce, chopped up fresh spicy chili and a dollop of sugar.
The 2021 Benessere Vineyards Rosato di Sangiovese is medium copper in color; the bouquet sports aromas of grapefruit, recently cut lawn, raspberry, strawberry, lime and citrus blossom. The aromas are highly appealing and smell fresh. Balanced but rich, this wine offers flavors of cucumbers infused in water, mandarin, grapefruit, not fully ripe pineapple guava, lime and green apple. This wine is bright with zippy mouthwatering acidity, especially noticeable on the finish. This rosé was produced direct to press with the grapes harvested several weeks prior to their Sangiovese red wine. We are enjoying this wine with a fresh kale salad, thinly sliced white onions, cracked pepper with a light salad dressing mix of lemon juice, salt, olive oil and red wine vinegar.
The 2019 Benessere Vineyards Sangiovese is medium ruby in the glass; the bouquet offers aromas of ripe Santa Rosa plum skin, dark cherry, raspberry, cardamom and other assorted darker baking spices, white pepper, tomato sauce and a dried meaty/gamey nuance which caused us to write the word savory. The aromatics are diverse and offer an appealing mix between both fruit and spice notes. The palate is more savory than the bouquet (especially on the finish) with flavors of crushed peppercorn, a meatiness, dried bay leaf, black plum and a hint of dark chocolate. The grainy, but nicely integrated tannins accompany the fruit on the extended finish. We love this wine’s character; it made us want to fire up the BBQ and cook medium rare, the amazing tasting Thai crying tiger (Suea Rong Hai).
The 2015 Benessere Vineyards ‘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 Vineyards 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 tannins and a hint of red fruit tartness; this is a wine that has no harsh edges and is well-balanced.
The 2015 Benessere Vineyards 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 robust wine across the palate and is the most layered of all the Benessere reds. Plum flavors with darker spices show; the muscular and robust tannins are immediately evident. These sizable tannins persist on an extremely long finish.
A “fun” wine that Benessere Vineyards used to produce was the semi sparkling Muscat di Canelli Frizzante. This wine is not overly sweet. Benessere also used to produce a dessert Moscato di Canelli bottled in 375ml but stopped producing this wine in 2018. 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 especially during winter holidays.
Are you visiting Napa Valley but can’t make it to their winery for some reason – not to worry, Benessere is extremely well distributed at local Napa Valley restaurants. And we haven’t yet mentioned their prices: for a small winery, their wines are among the more reasonably priced wines in Napa Valley.
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
Benessere @ Feast it Forward
For a short while, Benessere was one of up to sixteen vintners featured in The Studio by Feast it Forward (opened in June 2018). The Benessere wines are no longer available here, but we keep our notes here for historical reference. 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.
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 passerby’s 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.