Wine Ink: What a difference a year makes for Imagery Wines

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
The Benziger family has deep ties to Aspen. In addition to coming to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic over the ears to pour their wines, they have spent considerable time on the slopes of Ajax. And Kathy Threlkeld (black jacket), one of the seven Benziger siblings (and Jamie's aunt), is a registered nurse who works at Aspen Valley Hospital as a patient care tech. Married to Todd Threlkeld of Caribou Club fame, Kathy is a fan of the Imagery wines that her niece makes. Imagine that.
Courtesy Photo

Last Thanksgiving, Jamie Benziger, winemaker at Imagery Wine Estate, was still reeling from the effects of the fires that had ravaged Sonoma County just a few weeks before.

“We had already brought our fruit into the winery after harvest, but on that first Monday morning of the fire we didn’t even know if we had a winery left,” she recalled in a recent conversation.

But this year? Well, it is a different story. “My dad (Joe Benziger) and I just finished tasting through all of our wines at the winery from the 2017 vintage and we are thrilled,” Jamie said with both pride and relief. “The direct-to-consumer Imagery wines and our new California tier of wines taste amazing. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, the way things turned out.”

While the hills above the Imagery winery and tasting room in Glen Ellen remain scorched and her uncle, Chris Benziger, and his family continues to reside in an old house on the family property after losing their home, the cycle of wine — for Jamie and her father, Joe, founder of Imagery — moves on. This year, Jamie, a third-generation member of the famed Benzigers of Sonoma winemaking family, is busy writing a new chapter in the family story with the introduction of the aforementioned California tier of Imagery wines.

Designed to reach a younger audience — yes, millennials — at a lower price point, the Imagery California-tier wines take well-traveled varietals and blend them with small amounts of complementary grapes to create new and interesting wines.

“We call them enhancers,” she says. “For example, we’ll use some petit verdot in our pinot noir. Right? It just brings a slightly different flavor component to the wine. We might blend as much as 20 percent muscat with the sauvignon blanc. Or even chenin blanc with the Imagery chardonnay and make it in a Chablis style that is lighter, crisper and maybe a bit brighter than some of the buttery chards that people are used to.”

It is a step that combines the experience of Joe Benziger with the youthful perspective of his daughter Jamie to make wines for a new generation.

Benziger wines first took root in the late 1970s when Bronx-born family patriarch Bruno Benziger left the wine importing business to follow his son Michael to rural Sonoma County with thoughts of being a winemaker. Together, along with Mike’s four brothers and two sisters, the pair founded Benziger Family Winery in 1980. They enjoyed early success with the release of Glen Ellen “Proprietors Reserve Chardonnay,” which tapped into the emerging love for California wines in the 1980s.

After selling the label, the family was able to purchase an 85-acre estate near the Valley of the Moon and in 1998 began the process of making the entire property biodynamic, a revolutionary and inspirational move. The result was the production of some of the best wines ever produced in Sonoma County and a legacy that will live long. In 2015, the family sold the Benziger family wines to the Wine Group for a considerable fortune.

Part of the sale included wines under the Imagery label that Joe Benziger, one of the siblings, had started in Glen Ellen back in 1985, to make non-traditional varietals from much of the best fruit that had gone into Benziger blends. It had developed a strong following over the years and a solid direct to consumer list. But the Wine Group saw something else.

“They looked at Imagery, the art and our labels, and thought there was an opportunity,” said Jamie, referencing the potential appeal to a younger audience. “Like me, a millennial.”

A plan was hatched to source fruit from California vineyards and produce the Imagery California tier featuring creative and interesting blends. “Dad is such a genius when it comes to blending wines and I have learned a lot from him as we put these together,” Jamie said.

While Imagery still makes the wines for the direct to consumer list that grew to love the label over the past 35 years, the idea with the new tier is to grow the recognition for the brand with a new audience. In 2019, the wines of the 2017 vintage will be released into the market.

Jamie has assumed the mantle as the winemaker for the Imagery wines from Joe, who has officially “retired” but still is onsite to consult on a regular basis. “Dad will come by and help with pump overs and we’ll taste together,” she says. “He has always mentored me that winemaking is a team effort and that a winemaker should be there for every part of the process. It was his drive and passion that drove me to be a winemaker.”

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at