Lisa Amaroli is director of winemaking at Benziger Family Winery and Jamie Benziger is head winemaker at Imagery Estate Winery. Neither woman set out with the singular focus of becoming a winemaker, but both found their way to winemaking through hard work and a passion for their craft. I had the opportunity to meet both women during a recent virtual gathering. Lisa and Jamie shared their stories, the connection between the two wineries and we tasted their wines, which were provided as tasting samples.
Benziger Family Winery and Imagery Estate Winery are sister wineries. The common thread between the two is the Benziger family. The Benziger Family Winery was established by Mike and Mary Benziger and Mike’s parents Bruno and Helen. In 1980 the family purchased an 86-acre ranch on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain. By 1982 the rest of the siblings and their families had moved out west to join the effort.
Mike Benziger was an early advocate of sustainable farming and then organic and biodynamic farming. Today about 35 acres are planted to vines complete with insectaries to attract beneficial insects. In April 2020 Benziger Family Winery celebrated 20 years of biodynamic certification.
Lisa Amaroli, Director of Winemaking Benziger Family Winery
Lisa Amaroli was raised in what she describes as a conservative Italian family where girls were encouraged to marry and boys went to college. Lisa had her sights set on becoming a veterinarian, but first she took a summer job wielding a chain saw cutting trees. Then she promptly took her earnings and headed to Europe. She spent several years working and falling in love with the food and wines of Germany and France before returning to earn her degree in Biology and Chemistry at Sonoma State University.
While in college Lisa discovered winemaking as a potential career and her life would head in that direction for good. Over several years she worked as a cellar hand and then moved to the laboratory. Eventually she met the Benziger family and was struck by Mike’s passion for sustainability and biodynamic practices.
Lisa’s first job at Benziger Family Winery in 1999 was in the laboratory, but she had her eye on a winemaking position. By about 2005 she was put in charge of making the Benziger Family sustainable wines. Lisa describes the freedom to build the team and make these wines as a gift, one she appreciated even more as she recognized how heavily male dominated the winery was at the time.
The next great gift came in 2015 when, upon Mike’s retirement, Lisa also became winemaker for the organic and biodynamic range of Benziger wines that were so close to Mike’s heart.
She acknowledges she has had big shoes to fill, but over time Lisa has learned that the Benziger way, as she puts it, “is to play hard, work hard and just have fun while making really good wine.”
2019 Benziger Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast — straw color in the glass with generous aromas of stone fruit and just a hint of dry grass. Flavors of ripe peaches, apricots and pears with gravelly minerality and plenty of acidity are layered and have a bit of weight. 13.5% abv. SRP $16
The Benziger Family Winery’s style is to retain natural acidity in the wines, so grapes are picked earlier rather than later. Most grower vineyard sites are planted in fertile, rocky river bed. The Sauvignon Blanc is picked early, whole-cluster pressed and made entirely in stainless steel.
2018 Benziger Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County — medium ruby in the glass with earthy blackberry, red currant and dried herb aromas. Flavors of blackberries, raspberries and plum are supported by dusty earth and dried herbs. Tannins are drying and well integrated with the flavors in a medium body. The flavors are lively and bright. 14.1% abv. SRP $20
Both wines are certified sustainable and sourced from grower-partners. Over the years the Benziger have forged relationships with a number of growers who are at least certified sustainable. Some have achieved organic and biodynamic certification with the assistance of the Benzigers.
With regard to making the organic and biodynamic wines Lisa noted that a gentle hand is required, natural fermentation is used and there are fewer additions allowed during winemaking. This means the wines speak for themselves.
Jamie Benziger, Head Winemaker Imagery Estate Winery
Jaime Benziger grew up in a wine family, but the opportunity to make wine in the family business wasn’t automatic. She laughed that for the second generation of the family to move into the business, “the flaming hoops of fire,” must be negotiated. After earning a degree in marketing and wine business, Jamie’s hands-on experience began by working in every department with in the winery before working in the lab at Benziger. Even after that, in 2009 Jamie’s uncle Mike told her she needed to gain experience beyond Benziger before advancing. She went off to work at wineries in California and New Zealand before returning to gain experience in the vineyard with Phil Coturri, noted organic and biodynamic vineyard manager in Sonoma.
In 2016 Lisa had an opening in the lab at Benziger and, after sitting for a formal interview, Lisa hired Jamie. In 2017 Joe retired from Imagery and in 2018 Jamie assumed his role as winemaker. Lisa and Joe have both become mentors to Jamie.
Joe is a larger than life figure according to Jamie and he didn’t like being in the shadow of his brother Mike. Imagery Estate Winery grew out of Joe’s experimentation with small-lot fermentations of lesser-known varieties. Originally the wines were bottled as the Imagery Artist Collection under the Benziger name after Joe and a local art professor came up with the idea of commissioning artwork for the labels. Eventually Imagery Estate Winery became a stand-alone brand. A large collection of original artwork is on display at the winery.
In keeping with the artistic theme the labels of this tier of wines, which are distributed nationally, depict a drip of paint on an artist’s white canvas.
2019 Imagery Estate Winery Chardonnay, California — light golden in the glass with aromas of ripe pears, white flowers and yellow melon. Flavors follow with citrus, ripe melon, pear and oat hay with a citrus pith finish. The wine is a bit round in the mouth with ripe fruit flavors. 13.5% abv. SRP $17
The intention with this Chardonnay, and the Imagery wines in general, is for a riper, fruit-forward style. 5% Chenin Blanc is blended with the Chardonnay. The wine is 80% stainless steel fermented, 20% new French oak with 20% malolactic fermentation.
2019 Imagery Estate Winery Pinot Noir, California — barely translucent ruby in the glass with aromas of blackberries, cedar and coconut. Flavors of blackberries, dark fruit, earth and cedar are supported by smooth tannins. Easy drinking and very sippable. 13.5% abv. SRP $20
Pinot Noir is sourced from Monterey County. Just as the Chardonnay includes a bit of Chenin Blanc, this Pinot Noir includes a splash of Petit Verdot for flavor and color. Expect Joe’s penchant for blending unexpected varieties to be reflected in the Imagery wines.
The Challenges of Women Winemakers
For Lisa the challenges in the industry have changed over the years. Initially, she didn’t even realize winemaking was a potential career choice for her and acknowledged that advancing can still be a challenge for women in some settings. Both Lisa and Jamie stressed that hands-on experience is essential to learn the craft, even if coming to winemaking with a formal degree. Jamie went on to stress the importance of leadership skills as a winemaker. She suggests building on any natural leadership abilities you might have and continuing to prove yourself to your team.
As you may know March is Women’s History Month, a month-long celebration of the contributions made by women in America. March 8 is International Women’s Day, which similarly celebrates contributions made by women around the world and at the same time identifies gender inequality issues. Both celebrations make March the perfect month to highlight the accomplishments of women winemakers and drink their wine.
Thanks to Lisa and Jamie for sharing their stories and to Double Forte for organizing the tasting.