Benevolent Neglect: Minimal Intervention Magic

Matt and Ben in Las Madres Vineyard.

Matt and Ben in Las Madres Vineyard.

Last month I sat down to chat with Matt Nagy and Ben Brenner, owners/winemakers of Benevolent Neglect, a micro-winery making exceptional wines sourced from select vineyards in Napa and Mendocino. As their winery's to-the-point name implies, Matt and Ben believe in minimal intervention winemaking. They are part of the “New California” wave of vintners pushing boundaries and rebelling against the homogenization of California wine. They find the best fruit they can get their hands on and don’t shy away from making ‘less commercial’ varietals (really, how much California Riesling or Counoise do you see in stores?). Benevolent Neglect is the definition of a boot-strapped wine brand--just two great guys making awesome wine.

When did you know you wanted to work in the wine industry? Did you ever want to do something else?

Matt Nagy: In college, I worked harvests in Upstate NY and Washington State which really turned me on to the industry. After that, I explored other industries. I thought about going to grad school for Urban Planning. I tried cheese making. But, winemaking just kept calling my name, so I moved to Napa and have been doing that ever since.

Ben Brenner:  When I was younger I wanted to pursue music, but I became interested in wine through working in restaurants. Once I visited wine country, it was pretty much love at first sight and I decided to make the leap to moved out here in 2011 to try to break into the industry.

Neither of you formally studied wine, how did you learn the ropes?

Matt: I learned how to make wine while working under Thomas Rivers Brown at Outpost and Mending wall. During those years I was able to hone my style as a winemaker and learn what types of wines really made me tick.

Ben: My education in wine was also on-the-job. I had a general manager who was a great mentor and taught me the basics about wine. Eventually, I had the opportunity to take over for him as beverage director at the restaurant I worked at and that really expanded my horizons. It exposed me to wines that I never would have tried otherwise.

What is your favorite thing about working in the wine industry?

Matt: The collaboration and comradery. This industry is unique in that everyone is invested in helping each other out and supporting one another’s efforts.

Ben: The people that live here are so focused on making great wine, it inspires us everyday to keep on working… Also, the weather in Napa is a bit better than the Northeast where we both come from.

When did you decide to launch Benevolent Neglect?

Ben: When some fruit became available from Las Madres Vineyard, we decided to jump at the opportunity. The Las Madres Vineyard is one of the premier Syrah vineyards in the country and we both love Syrah.

Your name indicates a bit about your winemaking, can you  elaborate on your approach or philosophy?

Matt: We really try to make wine that is the truest expression of the vineyard and the vintage. We believe that minimal intervention in the cellar is the way to make the best wine possible.

Ben: The name also refers to the fact that we believe that vines produce the best quality grapes when they are pushed to the limit of survival. The vineyards that we source our fruit from take time to make sure that the best possible fruit is produced.

What had the biggest influence over your winemaking style?

Matt: The producers of the Rhone Valley. They are able to express both the vineyards that they source from and the style of the individual house.

So, you love Rhone wines, is that why you are also making Grenache?

Ben: Grenache is such an interesting grape. It can really be almost anything based on where its grown and how its made. The vineyard we source from sits above 1200 feet and produces some amazing aromatics and darker fruit flavors.

What about Riesling, given that many consumers quickly dismiss it as sweet (even though many are dry)?

Matt: We love to drink Riesling—dry, off-dry, sweet, the spectrum. Our hope is that with our enthusiasm, we can help more people overcome their preconceived notions and start to enjoy Riesling as much as we do.

Where do your source your grapes and how did you pick those sites?

Matt: We source from several different regions and vineyards in addition to Las Madres. Our Grenache is from Eagle Point Ranch, which is an organic vineyard in the Mendocino Hills at about 1500 ft of elevations. Our Riesling is from Nelson family Vineyards, also in Mendocino, which consists of 53 year old dry-farmed, organic vines. We pick sites based on both what they are growing and what our relationship with them would be like.

Ben: We want our growers to be more like family than business associates; that makes a huge difference in the end.

How would you describe the style of your wines?

Matt: Our wines could best be described as 'old world inspired,' but they are still definitively Californian.