Life is good. On a Tuesday evening, I explored the emerging Dogpatch neighborhood in San Francisco, was introduced to young entrepreneurs and enjoyed a sublime dinner at Studio Table hosted by Jamie Benziger to introduce her new tier of Imagery wines.
After discovering that we were neighbors in Santa Rosa, Benziger, 31, and I discussed her new endeavor. She was articulate and passionate in describing the quality of and potential markets for her new wines. Yes, she is the daughter of Joe Benziger, who started the Benziger Winery 35 years ago. The kids, however, don’t get special treatment and are expected to earn any role that they play in the business.
Jamie Benziger’s story is one of a young woman who grew up in the wine industry, went off to study at Loyola Marymount University before transferring to Sonoma State University to study wine marketing. She has paid her dues inside and outside the family business, including a stint in New Zealand, and is now partnering with her dad to create tasteful, affordable, food-friendly wines intent on broadening the palates of the next generation or anyone seeking a good value enhancement to their next dinner party table.
By all accounts, she has succeeded. From my perspective, the pivotal needs of her market have been addressed: artistic labels (c’mon, how many of us have purchased wine solely for the label art?), screw caps that fit the modern lifestyle better than corks, affordability ($16.99 per bottle) and complex wines that leave you with that “big bang for my buck” feeling. Let’s speak to the wine in the context of the food pairing with comments by me and Chef Ben Roche.
Wine: 2016 Imagery Sauvignon Blanc
Dish: Winter nicoise — “a hearty salad of frisee, scallops and potato cream to complement the minerality and citrusy acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc.”
This sauvignon blanc blends 20 percent muscat from Lake County. In the New Zealand style, I found floral notes on the nose and balanced, fruit-forward flavors with hints of grapefruit and a soft mouthfeel. I enjoyed it solo as an introductory wine and with the scallops in potato cream.
Wine: 2016 Imagery Chardonnay
Dish: Butter-poached vegetables, buttermilk and Buddha’s Hand — “a buttery-but-light dish with a floral touch bring out the mineral-forward quality of this unusual Chardonnay.”
The blended chenin blanc adds to the crispness and citrus elements of this wine that paired well with the vegetables.
Wine: 2016 Imagery Pinot Noir
Dish: Pancetta and leek quiche with cabbage and caviar — “rich, caramelized pancetta and eggs from the land and the sea make this Pinot Noir sing.”
The addition of 20 percent petit verdot to pinot noir is unusual, but here it adds structure and body while softening the tannins for an accessible wine. A terrific value.
Wine: 2016 Imagery Cabernet Sauvignon
Dish: Duck breast with cherry, mushroom and spinach — “earthy, savory flavors, bright cherry puree and robust duck come together for this big Cabernet.”
The enhanced spice element from the blended 15 percent petit sirah is evident throughout and there are soft “code blue” and cherry notes on the palate. It would be difficult to find a better cab under $20.
Dish: Hazelnut brownie with goat cheese and raisins — “a rich and savory dessert, finished with olive oil and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt, help the chocolate and dried fruit notes of this delightful port shine.”
This is a Sonoma County non-vintage blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and touriga nacional that is shipped direct to consumers. The high 18 percent alcohol level was balanced and paired well with both the sweet and savory aspect of the dessert.
Studio Table is located in the loft and working studio of artist Heather Day. She has partnered with Michelle Wei and Chef Roche in creating a unique, artistic fine dining concept with stated goals “to challenge expectations and create conversations.”
Jamie Benziger’s wines, with the design representation of a drop of paint running down the label, matched the elegance of the table with Heather’s hand-painted menus.
These are the finest food-friendly wines under $20 that I have tasted in a while. The new tier of Imagery releases will help to grow interest in wine through good taste, quality and value. I recommend you try them.