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Q & A: Sarah Cahn Bennett, Navarro Vineyards
By Tina Caputo
Dec 20, 2011
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Of all the gorgeous wine regions to visit in California, the Anderson Valley is probably my favorite.  You won’t find any trendy, high-end restaurants or chic boutiques in towns like Philo -- set in a remote location three hours north of San Francisco -- but you will find acres of majestic redwood trees, beautiful vineyards and some really nice people.  Oh, and plenty of delicious Pinot Noir, too. 

Whenever I find myself winding my way up curvy Highway 128 through Anderson Valley, I always make a stop at Navarro Vineyards to pick up a few bottles.  (Most of the winery’s 40,000-case annual production is sold through the winery’s newsletter, so I consider myself lucky to live within reasonable driving distance of the tasting room.) 

The winery makes wonderful Pinot Noir -- subtle and pretty, with lots of red fruit character -- along with some beautiful Alsace-style whites, including Navarro’s dry Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris.  And as a bonus, most of the wines are priced around $20. 

You may not have heard of Navarro, but it’s far from a newcomer on the California wine scene.  In 1973 Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn bought a 900-acre sheep ranch in the Anderson Valley with the intention of growing Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir.  The region’s coastal climate and gravelly clay soils -- similar to those in the Alsace region of France -- made Anderson Valley seem like the perfect place to set down roots -- literally and figuratively. 

While waiting for the vines they’d planted to mature, Ted and Deborah purchased grapes from neighboring vineyards and began wine production in 1975. 

The couple also produced two children, including Sarah Cahn Bennett, who now farms Navarro’s vineyards and makes wine alongside her parents, her brother Aaron, and head winemaker Jim Klein. 

Sarah took some time out from a hard-earned, post-harvest vacation in Hawaii to tell me about her role at Navarro, and the future of her family’s winery. 

Wine Review Online (WRO): Given that you grew up at Navarro, did you always know you wanted to be involved in the family business?
Sarah Cahn Bennett (SCB): My wine education started particularly early, even though I didn't realize that I was being groomed to be in the wine industry.  My parents always tell the embarrassing story of me asking my dad when I was 6 or 7 if I could work the labeling line.  My dad agreed to pay me 1 cent per bottle for putting capsules on the bottles.  Apparently at the end of the day I had only made $10 or something, and I argued with my dad that everyone else made more money than I did. 

He told me, “Well, they have families to support.”  And I apparently said, “It's OK -- when you die I'm going to be the boss.”  So apparently at a young age I knew that I wanted to return to the winery. 

WRO: In addition to learning from your parents, did you have formal training?

SCB: I decided to get my undergraduate degree from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, because after graduating from Anderson Valley High School with only 17 others, I wasn't ready for large schools and life outside the Anderson Valley.  After getting my BS in business administration, I applied for the MS program in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.  I got my MS in 2005.   

WRO: What is your role at the winery compared to your other family members?

SCB: My first few years back in the family business I spent mostly in the winery -- I actually did most of my graduate research during the 2005 harvest at Navarro's lab -- acting somewhat as an enologist for our winemaker, Jim Klein.  After a couple years in the winery I discovered how much I really enjoyed farming and being in the vineyards.  Like in most family businesses, we all get to do a little bit of everything. 

My brother, Aaron, is the tech guy of the family.  Navarro has mostly been selling direct from the winery since my parents started the business.  My brother worked for a number of tech start-ups between high school and the present, so he designed and created our website.  Online sales have become a major part of our business model. 

WRO: What about your parents?

SCB: They are both still very involved in the daily operations, although I now have to yell at my father to be safe on the crush pad instead of him yelling at me.  They also still continue to write all of Navarro's newsletters.  A few years ago my father gave my mother bound books of all the Navarro newsletters they have written together for the last 30 years.   

WRO: What's it like, working so closely with your family?
SCB: We actually work very well together.  My father and I are both very particular about our wine, and luckily we have very similar likes and dislikes.  I think I have embraced what they envisioned Navarro to be, and a lot of the changes that my brother and I have made to Navarro have been adopted with enthusiasm by my parents. 

WRO: Such as?

SCB: For example, we stopped using synthetic herbicides and pesticides back in the late `70s.  When I returned home from grad school one of my goals was to reduce the amount of fossil fuel we use, as well, so I started grazing sheep in the vineyards (instead of running machinery).  Now we graze over 250 head of sheep and have more than 30 acres of vineyards that were designed to graze Babydoll Southdown sheep for almost 10 months of the year. 

WRO: What’s the purpose of the sheep?

SCB: The Babydolls do an amazing job not only of fertilizing, but eating ground weeds and suckering the vine trunks. 

WRO: How would you describe Navarro’s overall winemaking style?

SCB: We use a lot of “Old World” techniques to make our wine.  One of the reasons that I have so much fun being a winemaker is because we make our wine in a cuvée method -- we keep all the lots separate and then blend at the end just prior to bottling.  Last year we had probably close to 60 lots of just Pinot Noir to make our final blends with.  We mostly do this to recognize differences between lots and vineyard sites. 

We keep most of our winemaking fairly constant, but we’re constantly making modifications in the vineyards to make better wines.  Our vineyards supply an endless list of experiments in clones, rootstock, trellising, orientation, irrigation, canopy management and management techniques. 

WRO: What’s the stylistic goal for the Navarro Pinots?

SCB: I think most Anderson Valley Pinots are really delicate, feminine and fruit-forward compared to other California appellations.  Our reserve Pinot Noir, the Deep End Blend, comes from the chilly northwestern edge of Anderson Valley.  This generally produces our most delicate wines, with the most robust character. 

Our “Methode a l'Ancienne” Pinot is generally a blend of our hillside and valley floor vineyards on the deep end of the valley.  This is our main label Pinot and we are trying to give it a little more red fruit than our Deep End Blend, but still have a lot of the same sweet structure.  Our goal is to make a slightly “larger” style Pinot Noir from these new fields. 

Our Mendocino Pinot is basically what’s left over after blending the other two wines.  This wine generally doesn't have the structure -- although it typically has much more tannin -- of our other wines, but we always try to make it as fruit forward as possible and easy to drink without aging. 

WRO: Aside from the Pinot, what else does your family grow?

SCB: Navarro has 90 acres on the home ranch and 22 acres on a ranch in Boonville.  We grow Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, White Riesling, Muscat Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.  We purchase grapes for our Zin, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Cabernet, Grenache, Valdeguie and Chennin Blanc -- all from Mendocino County. 
One of the fun parts about being a winemaker in Mendocino County is that you can grow amazing Pinot Noir and cool-climate whites in the Anderson Valley, and then make some beautiful larger reds from ancient heritage vines from the warmer inland valleys of Mendocino County, only 20 minutes away.
WRO: When you're not drinking Navarro wines, which producers and varieties do you enjoy?

SCB: Growing up at Navarro we had interns from around the world stay with us for harvest every year, and at Davis I also had the opportunity to travel with a student-run tasting group to Italy and France, traveling around the countries’ varied wine regions.  That said, I am quite the locavore and really enjoy most of the wines of the Anderson Valley.  If I'm giving an international shout-out it's for Robert Groffier Les Amoumousses or their Bonne Mares, from Chambolle Musigny. 

WRO: What will be on the table for your family’s holiday dinner this year?

SCB: Wine from an area always tastes best with food from the same region, so there’s a good chance we’ll have Navarro wine.  I think with the late arrival of crab on the Mendocino coast, we will probably spend our holiday meal cracking crab with a cold bottle of Pinot Gris.  We have really been enjoying smoking more foods lately, and the meal might also include a Berkshire applewood smoked ham -- if we still have room after the crab, that is.  But there's generally room for Pinot Noir regardless.