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Bennett Lane Winery in the race to win over NASCAR fans

The Napa Valley’s northernmost winery, Bennett Lane, is the picture of tranquility in its quiet vineyard setting off Highway 128 north of Tubbs Lane.

But glance around the tasting room, and you might hear in your head the sound of a powerful engine: Randy Lynch, who co-owns Bennett Lane with his wife Lisa, is a former racing driver who, in 2004, became the first vintner to sponsor a Nextel Cup car in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
Among the wine awards and accoutrements in the small but welcoming room, a photo of the car looms large on the wall — “Bennett Lane Winery” emblazoned across its hood.

“Wine is something I came into later in life, but racing is something I’ve been involved with since I was a teenager,” said Lynch, who wants to convert more beer-swilling race fans into educated wine consumers.
Already, according to a Nielsen Sports survey reported in Time magazine last year, wine consumption among NASCAR fans rose 22 percent in 2006 compared with the previous year.

Most recently, race team owner-turned-vintner Richard Childress is reversing Lynch’s approach with the checkered-flag-themed Childress Classic, a cab-merlot blend aimed at first-time wine drinkers.

But at Bennett Lane, it’s the wine that comes first. A typical $10 tasting includes four very different examples of winemaker Rob Hunter’s craft, beginning with the fragrant white Maximus Feasting Wine ($28) —“Our breakfast of champions,” as hospitality manager Stefanie Longton said with a smile one recent afternoon.

Made with 86 percent sauvignon blanc, 12 percent chardonnay and 2 percent Muscat and cold-fermented in stainless steel tanks, the 2007 white Maximus would indeed make an excellent brunch or picnic wine. Its alcohol-by-volume percentage is given as 14.5; Bennett Lane produced 7,000 cases.

Hunter, formerly Sterling Vineyards’ director of winemaking, also makes a Carneros reserve chardonnay for Bennett Lane ($45, ABV 14.9 percent). The 100 percent varietal is aged in French oak, and just 175 cases were produced in 2005.

Bennett Lane’s reds include a 2005 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($55, ABV 14.5 percent) made with 5 percent merlot. The grapes came from Bennett Lane’s estate Lynch Family Vineyard, the Barlow Vineyard in Calistoga, the Oakview Vineyard in Oakville and the Lewelling and Taplin vineyards in St. Helena; the wine was aged in 20 percent new French oak barrels.

Hunter and his team made 2000 cases of the Napa Valley cab, but just 800 of the Bennett Lane Reserve cab ($95, ABV 15.5 percent), with fruit sourced from the Lynch, Taplin and Lewelling vineyards. Aged in 30 percent new French oak, the blend is 93 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6.5 percent merlot and .5 percent petit verdot.

The 2005 red Maximus ($35, ABV 14.5 percent) is an appealing blend of 64 percent cabernet, 25 percent merlot and 11 percent syrah, aged in both new and previously-filled French and American oak.

The cab grapes for the 2005 Maximus came from the Deming Vineyard in Calistoga, the Kletter Vineyard in St. Helena and the Trio-B Vineyard in Yountville; the merlot is from Paoletti in Calistoga and O’Shaughnessy in Oakville and the syrah is from Oak Knoll Ranch in Yountville.

But the next year’s blend could be completely different; unlike the white Maximus, the red changes with the vintage. Hunter isn’t joking when he says that to build his blends, he begins with an Excel spreadsheet listing the 40 or so lots he can use.

“The permutations and combinations are endless,” he said.

Visiting groups of six or more people can create their own versions of red Maximus in what the winery is calling its Custom Blend Experience.

For $175 per person — Upvalley limo transportation included — the group will sample wines in the tasting room with Hunter or another staff member, then move to the barrel room for a hands-on blending session.

After a sensory-evaluation tour of flavor components including oak dust, fresh raspberries and dried cherries, each guest receives a glass each of cabernet, merlot and syrah, with an empty glass for blending.

Magnums stand ready should the glasses run low, while the table setting also includes a pipette, a measured flask and a pencil for noting the proportions of each person’s favored blend.

Like a little bacon-rind aroma? Add more syrah. Too much tannin from the cab? Back it off with a little merlot.

Once each participant has arrived at a favored formula and noted it down, Hunter, Longton or another Bennett Lane staffer will blend a 750-ml bottle to those exact specifications. Every guest then gets to cork, foil and label her own bottle — and for good measure, a gold sticker announces the name of the custom blender.

After that, it’s back to the table for a cheese tasting and — why not?— a little more wine before the Bennett Lane limo whisks guests back to their lodgings.

The Bennett Lane Winery Custom Blend Experience is available by reservation only; the tasting room and picnic area are open daily from 10:30 to 5:30.

Welcome to Bennett Lane Winery  - Home of 36 90+ Point Wines from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate


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