Imagery Estate Winery
Sonoma County region
91-Points - Tastings publication
When Joe Benziger and Bob Nugent joined forces to help break up an altercation at a Sonoma wine tasting back in the mid 1980’s, neither realized the occasion would serve as the basis for both a marvelous friendship and also a long-term business relationship.
Joe Benziger was at the time part of the family of owners of the gigantic Glen Ellen Winery that the Benziger Family later sold to industry giant Heublein in 1993. Bob Nugent was director of nearby Sonoma State University’s art program and used the occasion to interest Benziger in a pet project of his, the utilization of artists and artwork in a specific winery environment.
Benziger embraced Nugent’s idea and found that it fit perfectly into a new project his family was developing that was originally called Benziger Imagery. Nugent was also a prominent artist in his own right and produced the first artwork for the new entity that consisted of a grape cluster triptych label.
In its inception, Imagery allowed both professional and amateur artists to provide its early labels. In recent years however, as the winery’s statue and success has grown, recognized professional artists from around the world have solely provided the much-heralded labels. Bob Nugent is still around and serves as the curator for the program, receiving as many as ten samples per week from recognized artists wishing to be part of the Imagery Artist Program that has been termed “A coalescence of the Arts.”
Imagery’s artists have few boundaries in which to work, but must include as part of their label a signature Parthenon-type building that exists on a small hill in the middle of the winery’s property. A former owner built the landmark structure as a spiritual place to taste wines. Benziger considers the Parthenon symbol as the single thread that binds together both artists and property on the Glen Ellen estate.
By all accounts, the Imagery Artists Program is among the most successful projects in the entire wine world. The number of artistic works currently in the Imagery collection now numbers over 125 and continues to grow while being insured for well over $2 million dollars.
As winemaker and family principle for the venture, Joe Benziger is careful not to let the artistic side of Imagery Estate Winery dominate his remarkable wines. He has been in the business since 1980 when his famous father Bruno and mother Helen brought the Benziger family west from their home in White Plains, NY. The lessons learned from the remarkable rise of Glen Ellen Winery to one of the industry’s premier entities gives Joe Benziger insight as to what it takes to make Imagery successful. He has developed a most specific and practical plan for his favorite winery.
“We try and concentrate on a number of eclectic varietals at Imagery,” he related. “We produce many varietals that are not household words and in quantities as little as 100 cases. We are adamant that the wines at Imagery are every bit as good or better than the superb artwork we receive, so we are always on our toes to make our wines better.”
For his grapes, Benziger draws upon a group of properties Imagery owns and leases, and also from a large number of family-owned vineyards. Most of these grapes are from small, family style vineyards that include the Petite Sirah from Shell Creek and the truly incredible Chardonnay from Dale Ricci Vineyards on the Sonoma side of the rich Carneros Region.
Back in 1985, Imagery’s first production was released with a mere 200 cases, a figure that has grown steadily until it has reached its present 6,000-7,000 case level. Benziger concedes that additional slow growth to the 10,000 case mark can be expected over the next few years, but he is in no hurry to reach that figure.
He prefers Imagery’s wines to be nearly all locally distributed and favors upscale restaurants along with a few direct customers for Imagery Estate Winery’s relatively limited production. He wants to sell his wines to people whom actually “know what they are getting and who realize exactly what sweat and hard work went into the making of any Imagery wine.”