Mike Sullivan, Benovia's Artisan Winemaker
By W Peter Hoyne
Mike Sullivan, co-founder and artisan winemaker at Benovia Winery in the Russian River Valley, is a 5th generation Californian whose enduring passion of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was forged in the vineyards. Mike has always had Sonoma County soil in his blood and a lifelong quest to master Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Along the way he would place an indelible mark on the region, creating some of the most expressive single vineyard wines from the Russian River Valley.
After his parents retired from their careers in the 1980’s, they purchased 12-acres of vineyards in Sonoma Mountain. Mike and his brother planted the vineyards, each ended up using some of the grapes to produce wines.
His first job out of high school, Mike began working in the cellars at Chateau St. Jean Winery when acclaimed winemaker Dick Arrowood was crafting California’s first single vineyard Chardonnay. Also present were icons Don Van Staaveren and wife Margo Van Staaveren who would become the future winemakers at the winery. Mike had a love for Sonoma County and thrived on the passion and lessons he learned from many renowned winemakers in the region.
Before graduating college, he had a brief stint working at DeLoach Vineyards when Cecil DeLoach owned the winery. Cecil DeLoach was known as the leader of the Russian River Valley movement and was among the first to use that designation on his label. After graduating college in 1993, Mike took an assistant winemaker position at Chappellet Winery in Napa, because Napa had more available jobs. at that time.
Mike also worked as assistant winemaker at Landmark Vineyards, during this same period, working briefly with Helen Turley. She was a pioneering female and influential winemaker who brought acclaim and recognition to many wineries for her style of lavish winemaking. Later she would establish her own label, Turley Wine Cellars. According to Mike, Helen “influenced him by her passion, wine knowledge and vision.”
Mike’s inevitable love of Sonoma County transitioned him to Hartford Family Winery as winemaker for nearly a decade. According to Mike, “it was an incredible learning curve because Jackson Family had so many amazing properties in California. I had input on clones and rootstocks and then shepherding those vineyards through to bottle.
Also, at that time, Bob Cabral was the assistant winemaker and Dan Goldfield was the winemaker. Cabral would soon advance to fame at Williams Selym and Dan Goldfield founded Dutton-Goldfield winery with Steve Dutton. Considering these were sizeable winemaking shoes to fill, Mike’s forward-thinking style brought numerous accolades to himself and his wines from the Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits Magazine.
For Mike, the journey had just begun. In 2002 Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane purchased the Cohn Vineyard in Russian River Valley. In 2005 they bought a winemaking facility where they founded Benovia Winery. Joe and Mary wanted a local partner who knew the area. It was a perfect fit for Mike as he directed the winemaking at Benovia. Mike admits “I really wanted to have a blank slate to create something from scratch. With Joe and Mary Dewane, we created a brand from scratch that was our own. That entrepreneurial spirit was the thing that excited me.”
Mike is a local devotee to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “Having cut my teeth at Chateau St Jean, Chardonnay was always something of interest. It is a varietal that I love whether it is from Old World or New World. To really make something unique that stands out and is exemplary in the varietal, that is what I strive to do. I love Burgundy. I love Old World Chardonnays and hopefully there is a little thread that comes through with the Benovia wines.”
Currently, Benovia produces about 6,500 cases of which 65% is Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and the balance is a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Zinfandel and Gamay. They also craft a modest amount of Rose´ of Pinot Noir and sparkling wine with some Sauvignon Blanc planted in 2022 for the future.
When I asked Mike if there was a Benovia style, he responded, ““What sets us apart is our Chardonnay winemaking. We are looking for a balance in terms of the acidity and the pH of the wine that translates through the alcohols. Fermentation happens with native yeasts. Malolactic happens with the natural bacteria of the environment. We hold wines for a longer time in barrel. All the single vineyard wines are aged somewhere between 14-16 months in barrel. The reason I love that is there is an integration of the wood. The additional time in barrel really allows the new wood to integrate more… A lot of producers in Meursault will age their wines 13 -16 months and I think additional time in barrel gives the wine a little more texture and it wraps that acidity with a little more richness. I would say that is what differentiates our style. “
For example, Benovia’s Martella vineyard has been producing fruit since 2011. “This is the warmest site of the Chardonnays that we produce. It tends to be really floral, textural; the fruits tend to be a little more stone fruits, sometimes melon. Versus some of the cooler coastal properties that tend to have more citrus and are a little more zesty with a little more acidity. “
There are differences with the La Pomeria vineyard, which they have made the longest, since 2006. “It tends to be really low pH, sparkling wine pH. We tend to pick it later so it lets the pH comes up. That is a wine we leave in the barrel longer. It tends to have a lot of unripe tropical fruits, like green papaya or slightly unripe pineapple. It tends to have a lot of green apple, citrus fruits and lots of floral citrus blossom quality.”
According to Mike, “I’m not trying to make one type of Chardonnay. I’m really embracing the character and quality of the site. We don’t want to step on the fruit character or texture of the wine.”
When asked, how do you account for the continuing success of Benovia, Mike responded “I go back to the consistency of the wine.” We are hoping there is an intrinsic value to the price point. Offering very high quality to the customer at reasonable and rational prices. Quality drives our business.”
As far as the future, Mike plans on continuing to refine his sites while growing the brand slow but sure. He is intent on “finding some really cool and unique sites. We’ll produce three or five barrels, and they are not a distraction. Our focus is Pinot and Chardonnay. They allow us to flex our creative muscle.”
When asked about his legacy, Mike responded, “Professionally is different from personally. I want my two sons to be good members of the community, good people that give back. From a winery perspective, if there is one thing that I want to be remembered for it producing exceptional, traditionally styled wines from a region that has blown up globally. I applaud young winemakers that are trying to make a mark by pushing the envelope and trying new things and different styles. I have made some wines that have endured and are exceptional expressions of site.”