Chris Dearden grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, with farming and agriculture in his blood. Soon after graduating from UC Davis with a degree in enology, he assumed his first winemaking post in the Napa Valley at William Hill Winery.
Not satisfied with knowing only the enological aspects of the wine business, Dearden returned to school, attending the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, where he received his Master’s Degree in business administration. Currently, all of Dearden’s passion for the wine “business” — not just the winemaking and viticultural aspects of operating a winery, but also the administrative facets that are vital to the successful operation of a winery — is focused on his role as winemaker and general manager at Benessere Vineyards in the Napa Valley.
Benessere, Italian for “well-being” or “prosperity,” is a lovely, quaint little winery set back off of the congested Highway 29 corridor in St. Helena, California. “Just off the 29,” as locals say, the more adventurous visitor will find Big Tree Road, the proverbial tree-lined country road upon which Benessere is located. A peaceful, idyllic tableau of California oak trees and rolling vineyards, this road is everything wine country brochures often promise but rarely deliver — an authentic “getaway” for true wine-loving explorers.
At Benessere Vineyards since 1995, Dearden has, during the past decade, created a portfolio of Italian-style wines that have steadily gained critical acclaim and an increasing popularity amongst die-hard Italian-style wine fans. His approach to winemaking is measured and vineyard-centric. His wines are never heavy-handed or overly wrought. Instead, they are representative of the vineyards that Dearden manages and cares for. The Benessere Vineyard is comprised of 34 acres, and flanks the picturesque Napa River. The soil composition there includes clay-loam with gravelly bands — the perfect type of soil for sangiovese. Dearden has hired famed Italian winemaking consultant, Alberto Antonini, to assist him in his quest to continually improve upon his already wonderful selection of wines. Antonini has also consulted for Frescobaldi and Piero Antinori in Italy, and Seghesio in the Napa Valley. My favorite offering from Benessere Vineyards is the 2003 Benessere Phenomenon, a Super-Tuscan style blend, comprised of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot. This is not a wine for the faint-hearted. Though it has great structure, a long, bold finish, and layers upon layers of flavor, it is never tiresome to drink. This is due to Dearden’s love affair with well-balanced wines. The Phenomenon begs to be enjoyed by wine lovers who are not in a rush. During a period of about two hours, it revealed, at turns, notes of bacon fat, eucalyptus, violets, kir, and leather. It is simply gorgeous.
A visit to the Benessere Vineyard Web site is a must for anyone planning to stop by. Not only are directions to the winery vital, but a general overview of the wines it offers for tasting is helpful to the serious wine lover who wants to make the most of their visit to this first-rate producer. Visit www.benesserevineyards.com. 2003 Benessere Napa Valley Sangiovese ($30)
A lovely, hallmark sangiovese with ample notes of backyard plum and crème brûlée on the nose. Never too overpowering, this sangiovese manages to be fruit-forward and exciting without ever being cloying. Perfect with aged cheeses, a fresh loaf of sourdough bread, and a picnic blanket.
2004 Pinot Grigio ($22) I love this wine. It has an attractive green apple and ripe pear nose, with a great acid note that literally dances on the palate. It pairs well not only with sharp cheeses, but also with Hog Island Oysters, or other, briny oysters from the Pacific Northwest.
2005 Rosato de Sangiovese ($12) This sangiovese rosato deserves a mild chill, a leisurely afternoon, and a wide-mouthed wine glass that can do justice to its heady, suggestive nose. Look for hints of watermelon, white peaches, and strawberries. Bone dry and well-structured, this is a rosato for serious rosé lovers.