Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Benessere Vineyards and Tra Vigne Restaurant – A Taste of Cal-Italia in St. Helena

In keeping with my Cal-Italia theme from my previous trip to Sonoma, in which I visited Viansa and Jacuzzi, this past weekend I drove up to the Napa Valley to visit Benessere Vineyards. Benessere (“beh-NESS-eh-ray”) means “well-being” or “prosperity” in Italian. It is situated along the Napa River between Calistoga and St. Helena.

Surrounded by an ocean of Cabernet and Merlot in the Napa Valley, Benessere is one of the very few wineries in the Napa Valley that specializes in Italian varietals producing Sangiovese, Moscato di Canelli, Zinfandel (a cousin to Primativo) and Sagrantino. They also grow a bit of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon which they add to their Sangiovese for making “Phenomenon,” their version of an Italian Super Tuscan. They also make an Aglianico which they source from the Collins’ vineyard, a close neighbor. Unfortunately it was not available for tasting during my visit.

The estate was previously occupied by the notorious Charles Shaw of “Two Buck Chuck” fame who ran into economic difficulties and the land consequently laid in disrepair for some time. In 1994, John and Ellen Benish purchased the 42-acre property and restored the winery, vineyard and residence. The following year they had their inaugural release of 135 cases of Sangiovese.

The winery is and the end of a long dusty driveway, far off the main road among estate vineyards and gardens. The tiny tasting room is set in a charming, sunny-yellow farmhouse. But, if you don’t want to stand at the tiny tasting bar you can enjoy the wines and the view while relaxing out on the rose-bordered garden patio overlooking the vineyard

While visiting I tasted the following wines:

My first wine was the 2010 Pinot Grigio – Carneros. This wine has pronounced floral aromas along with a vibrant bouquet of apricots, peaches and nectarines. On the palate it has refreshing acidity that delivers dried apricots and peaches with a fairly lengthy finish. This wine sells for  $15 a bottle and I took one home.

The second pour was the 2008 Estate Sangiovese – Napa. This wine has aromas of dark cherries, pomegranates, spice and anise and a very strong oakiness. On the palate it has medium acidity and tannins and the oak appears again. The wine isn’t overly oaked but it does seem to be a bit overbearing. This wine sells for $28 a bottle.

The next sample was the 2007 Estate “Phenomenon.” This is a proprietary blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Sangiovese, 11% Merlot, 2% Syrah.  This wine has pronounced aromas of red and black currants, dark chocolate covered cherries, black licorice, leather and dried black fruits. The flavors of this wine are complex and multilayered that deliver something different each time you return to the glass. On the palate it has medium tannins, medium (+) acidity and a prolonged finish. There is no doubt as to why they named this exceptional wine because it is phenomenal!  But it also has a big price tag to match at $50 a bottle.

My final pour was the 2008 Estate Sagrantino.  Sagrantino is native to the Umbria region of Italy, confined to 250 acres of vineyards around the ancient hill town of Montefalco. California produces only 70 tons, just two of them from Benessere’s half-acre and they produce 100 to 150 cases annually. I have only tasted this varietal once before, and only recently at Jacuzzi, so with such limited experience with this wine it is difficult to evaluate it. I need to find more domestic and imported versions of it in order to really get a sense of what this grape is all about. Over all, this wine was more impressive than Jacuzzi’s who source their grapes from the Tracy Hills. On the nose I picked up very exuberant cherries, raspberries and other red fruits with just a hint of spice. The palate, on the other hand, hand was not as pronounced and it basically says, “Hi, my name is Sagrantino and I’d go well with pizza.” So, I wasn’t overly impressed with the wine but I’m not sure if this wine is true to the varietal or if this grape is just an everyday drinking sort of wine. Unfortunately the price wasn’t so an everyday-drinking  at $50 a bottle. But, for my personal wine education I bought a bottle to save and compare with other versions of this wine.

Benessere also had available two Zinfandels, one from 90+ year old vines. But because I only was interested in tasting distinctly Italian varieties, with the exception of the Super Tuscan-esquePhenomenon,” I didn’t taste them, However, Zin is a close relative to Primativo (if not the exact same thing) but I kind minor differences to the California grape so I chose not to taste them. If you visit the winery and liked their Zins, make a comment below!

For more information or to visit:

Benessere Vineyards
1010 Big Tree Road
St. Helena, California 94574
Phone: 1-707-963-5853 ext. 105

Tra Vigne

After visiting Benessere Vineyards I then went to one of my favorite restaurants in the Napa Valley that specializes in Italian cuisine – Tra Vigne in St. Helena. They have two restaurants, a fine dining restaurant and a pizzeria. I haven’t tried the pizza yet so perhaps I’ll do so on my next trip. The restaurant’s menu changes periodically but I try to keep my eye out for their pasta dishes that feature agnello (lamb). The service is excellent, their serving staff are well informed and attentive without being annoying. They’re prices aren’t cheap so for two people with 2 glasses of wine each with appetizers it cost me $160 with the tip.

For more information or to visit:

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Ave
St. Helena, California 94574
Phone: 1-707-963-4444