We’ve got a working theory that the only thing better than drinking wine is actually working in the wine industry. After learning about the careers of wine experts Laura Barrett, Jessica Altieri, and Chaylee Priete, it seems like wine is the latest industry that’s really giving women room to lead, express their creativity, and grow (sometimes literally!). Sisters Jill and Jamie Benziger of the Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, CA are two more women in wine who are proving that case as they slay the family business. We chatted with the sisters to get the scoop on their individual career journeys, what wines they’re currently craving, and what it’s really like to work with your family.
B+C: Jamie, we read that you initially moved away to go to college and pursue a completely separate career but decided to come back to the family biz. Was there a defining moment that brought you back or was it a gradual process?
Jamie: Growing up, I always thought that I wanted to work in a big city doing some big-time marketing gig, so I decided to head to LA for college. During the summers, I’d work at the winery and realized how much I love the country and that the big city wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I had my first job in the lab at Benziger for the 2009 harvest. I fell in love with the fast pace of production, getting to come to work on a beautiful property, and seeing my family every day. I knew I wanted to work for the family business. My dad, uncles, and I started to pave a path for me, which included getting outside experience in all areas of the winemaking process at different wineries and a vineyard management company.
B+C: Jill, on the flip side, you’ve said you always knew you wanted to work at the winery. Tell us more.
Jill: Yes, I always knew I was going to end up at the winery. My first job here was selling tickets for our winery tour when I was 14 years old. Over the years, I worked in every department to see which part of the industry I wanted to be in. I’ve loved every minute working at the winery and getting to know all the employees in every department. The passion that every employee and family member expressed was infectious. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of something so special?!
B+C: Okay, aside from the obvious (hello, happy hour), what’s the best part of working in the wine industry? Do you think you would’ve found your way to the wine industry without your family?
Jamie: Seeing the fruit on the vine, harvesting, and then putting it into the finished bottle gives you a great sense of accomplishment, especially when you’ve had a hand in the making of it. I’m not sure I would’ve found my way to wine if it wasn’t for my family. A part of my love for wine came through because of the love I have for my family and wanting to be a part of the amazing story my grandparents, dad, and uncles have worked so hard to create. It helped too that my family is quite fun to be around and work with!
Jill: The people are the best part — coworkers, guests, distributors, growers, and winery owners. The Sonoma Valley wine industry is filled with so many amazing, passionate people — and we all like great wine! I’m lucky enough to work in customer service and hospitality, and I get to meet people from all over the country and the world every day. It’s pretty special when your guests not only make a connection with you, but also with the wines and the property.
B+C: Can you speak a little bit about what biodynamic wine is and why it’s an important process?
Jill: Biodynamics is the highest form of organic farming. It’s a holistic approach to farming your property and making very expressive wines. This farming practice is about becoming stewards of the land and working with nature to restore balance onto your property. We feel biodynamics is important for winemaking because we are trying to make wines that are authentic, less manipulated, and very expressive of the specific place it is coming from. We believe that all these variables are what make a high-quality wine and biodynamic farming is what helps achieve that quality.
B+C: From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the wine industry is predominately male. Is that the case? If so, do you feel like women in the industry have a particular set of challenges to face?
Jamie: This industry is definitely perceived as predominately male; however, women are finally seeing the spotlight! I’ve had the pleasure of working under some spectacular women winemakers and I know that it didn’t come easy for them to acquire their titles. Women [in the industry] need to have a strong backbone and thick skin and need be prepared to receive criticism.
B+C: For those women who are relatively new to the wine industry, what’s the one piece of advice you’d impart before they get started on their oenophile journey?
Jamie: You’ll never know everything about wine. There’s always things to learn and it’s important to constantly be a student and keep educating yourself. Jill and I grew up in a wine family that taught us it was a work hard, play hard industry.
Jill: The wine industry is so fun but it’s always changing. Be open-minded to change and always be willing to learn. There’s so much to know about wine. Educate yourself but, most of all, have fun doing it.
B+C: What does a typical day look like for the Benziger wine sisters? Do you get to see much of each other on the regular?
Jamie: There’s no typical day for me — each day is different but filled with lots of planning and tasting to help ensure quality. I do always have a 10am visitor (my dad) that stops in my office to say hi, and I always see my sister at least once a day. We aren’t just a family that works together either. Most Sundays we’re all together enjoying wine and hanging with our favorite nephew, Ian.
Jill: My typical day at the winery starts out with a morning meeting with the hospitality, tour, and tasting room teams. The morning is a time for us all to get on the same page for that specific day, since we are usually pretty busy around the winery. Throughout the day I’ll host two or three trade groups (restaurateurs, distributor reps, etc.). I’ll give them a tour of our property and educate them on our farming practices and our wines so that they can go back to their restaurants or markets and teach their staff how to sell our wines.
B+C: We have to get some wine recs from you. What’s your current favorite Benziger bottle to open on the weekends with family and friends?
Jill and Jamie: We live together, so I think we can both agree that our vino of choice is Imagery Estate Riesling and Albarino for a Saturday afternoon and an Imagery Malbec or Benziger Tribute on a Sunday evening. The Riesling just won best of class in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Malbec won a double gold!
Do you work with your family too? Tweet us @BritandCo and let us know what you love best about it!
(Photos via Jill and Jamie Benziger, Benziger Family Winery)