posted on April 23, 2008 12:27
California Winery Hits the Fast Lane
by Brian Goodell
A few sounds that are music to Rob Hunter's ears: The pop of a cork on one of his Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons, the roar of the engines at a NASCAR track and the chatter in his headphones between driver and pit crew during the race.
Mr. Hunter is the winemaker at Bennett Lane Winery in Calistoga, the first California winery to own a NASCAR team. Although he's certifiably hooked on it now, it wasn't always that way.
"When this (the NASCAR team) started, I didn't want anything to do with it," he says. "Then I got invited to a race down in Florida where I got to wear the headphones and listen to the driver and the crew chief.
"I never knew there was so much strategy. All of a sudden I was cheering and feeling like, 'that's my car!' Now I can't get enough of it."
Bennett Lane Winery and the glistening yellow cars that run in the Grand National West (formerly Winston West) Series are the brainchild and labor of love of owner Randy Lynch. The wines have already achieved several ratings of 90 and above and driver Mike David won the 2007 championship, despite 2005 being their inaugural vintage.
A few years ago, this might have seemed like a most unusual marriage, but the recent surge in wine consumption among NASCAR fans, in addition to the overall upward trend in popularity of both simply shows that Mr. Lynch was right on the leading edge.
"I want to turn beer guzzlers into wine drinkers," he says, "one race at a time."
Mr. Lynch has a penchant for being in the right place at the right time and for knowing when to take action. After earning his fortune in advertising, he decided to buy a second home in the Napa Valley, right during a downturn in the wine business.
The house had acreage and vineyards, but no one was buying the grapes.
When Mr. Lynch was told that there was a custom crush facility nearby, he visited.
After learning the custom crush location was for sale, he bought it and turned it into Bennett Lane Winery. Soon after, Mr. Hunter, former winemaker at Lyeth, Markham, and Sterling Vineyards, was brought on to oversee production.
Now, Bennett Lane makes 6 wines: a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), a Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($95), a Los Carneros Reserve Chardonnay ($45), a limited production Port style dessert wine ($60), and their two popular Maximus blends. Dubbed "feasting wines," these are nontraditional blends of Cab, Merlot and Syrah in the red ($35) and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat in the white ($28).
Visitors to the tasting room will enjoy the friendly atmosphere and free picnic area. There is also a "petting vineyard" where tourists can see the differences in grapes up close.
If you want to go all out with the custom blending experience, the Bennett Lane Limo will pick you up and take you to the winery to blend, label and bottle your own Maximus blend. To make an advance appointment, call the winery at (877) MAX-NAPA.
Although the wines are limited production bottlings, they are distributed in many states. They can also be purchased online at www.bennettlane.com