Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Winery or art gallery?

Joe Benziger isn’t the only California winemaker to appreciate fine art, but none embraces it more enthusiastically and more openly.

Each vintage, Benziger buys several pieces of original art, one for each wine he makes from that harvest at his Imagery Estate Winery in Sonoma Valley.

The pieces can be realistic and accessible, or abstract and elusive, but all are given more play on his labels than the standard information concerning vintner, vintage, varietal and so forth. Each is chosen for one specific wine, then retired.

This has been going on for nearly 30 years, since the Benziger family introduced Imagery as a second label for offbeat varietals that could use a bit more marketing snap to catch the quick-moving eye of the browsing wine consumer.

At that time, the Benzigers owned Glen Ellen Winery, which they founded in 1980 in Sonoma Valley and quickly built into one of the country’s more successful wineries. By the time they sold it in 1994, Glen Ellen was producing more than 3 million cases annually.

Glen Ellen Winery’s following was built largely on “fighting varietals” – cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and the like that sold inexpensively, intended for everyday consumption.

As Glen Ellen prospered, the Benzigers combed the state for grapes, and often ended up with lots of obscure varietals – aleatico, lagrein, petit verdot and so forth – for which they had no need in their mainstream wines. Thus, Imagery as a way to use that fruit.

Today, Imagery Estate Winery is entirely separate from Glen Ellen Winery. Joe’s brother Mike remains in the business with neighboring Benziger Family Winery, while Joe has Imagery.

There, he’s amassed such a huge collection of art – more than 400 pieces – he can exhibit just a small portion of it at any given time in a small, crowded wing off the Imagery tasting room.

In part for the art – there’s also bocce courts and an outdoor lounge – Imagery has achieved a rare and enviable accomplishment in California’s wine trade: All 14,000 cases that Imagery produces each vintage are sold direct to customers at the winery.

For sure, wine also is part of the site’s allure, in particular Benziger’s obscure varietals. “You can get chardonnay and cabernet and pinot noir anywhere,” he says. “Ours aren’t typical wines, they’re uncommon.”

Thus, the wines being poured at any one time in his tasting room are apt to include such offbeat varietals as cabernet franc, sangiovese, mourvedre, primitivo and barbera. “We have a brand that is very different. We’re not competing with anyone else in the valley,” Benziger says in explaining why Imagery draws a steady stream of tasters.

“And our wines are good,” he’s quick to add. They aren’t shy wines. He favors richness, effusiveness and muscularity in his releases. Most of all, he wants his wines to capture all the character that a variety is capable of yielding.

Judges on the wine-competition circuit appear to concur that he is succeeding. At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January, for one, they awarded Imagery gold or double-gold medals for several wines, including its 2011 barbera, its 2011 blend called “Wow Red,” and its 2011 merlot called “Pallas.” At the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition last summer, judges decreed the fat and layered Imagery 2010 Sonoma County Cabernet Franc the best red wine in the field.

Benziger’s willingness to take risks doesn’t end with uncelebrated varietals and with the sometimes strange art of his labels.

Imagery also was the first winery to release a wine, its acclaimed 2010 malbec, from the young Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak American Viticultural Area, a small, rocky high-elevation appellation on the northeast side of Alexander Valley.

“It’s probably the highest vineyard land in Sonoma County,” says Benziger. The appellation’s 230 acres of vines generally are at about 1,800 feet.

As he looks to the future, Benziger hopes that within the next five years he can add a fully fledged art gallery to the Imagery complex. “It needs to be shown in its entirety,” he says of the label art he’s amassed.

He’s had the collection appraised, but isn’t saying what it’s worth, though he acknowledges being stunned by the total. Many of the participating artists are undiscovered, while others have well-established reputations, including Timothy McDowell, William T. Wiley, Sol LeWitt, Robert Arneson and Chester Arnold.

Benziger says he gets almost 300 requests a year from artists who want to be part of the collection. Typically, they’re paid $1,000 and five cases of wine. Their only requirement is that they include somewhere and somehow in the work a nod to a partial replica of the Parthenon that was on the property they acquired for the original Glen Ellen Winery.

The structure was in a sorry state and about to be torn down when artist Timothy McDowell included it in the original Imagery label.

“The bulldozer was about to level it, but we liked it on the label and agreed that it should be on all the labels, so we called off the bulldozer and rebuilt it,” Benziger recalls.