5 Minutes with Benovia Winery Founder Joe Anderson
Anderson is a big-time fan of Southwest Florida, donating generously to both of our wine festivals.
Joe Anderson under the auction tent at the 2018 Naples Winter Wine Festival.
Dorothea Hunter Sönne
It’s not uncommon in Southwest Florida to bump into Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, the husband and wife dynamo and co-founders of the award-winning Benovia Winery in Sonoma. The two not only have a deep commitment to philanthropy, but they also have a particularly a big space in their heart reserved for this area. Initially invited here by the Naples Winter Wine Festival, they have been invited back again and again by that organization as well as the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest (becoming some of the biggest donors to the new Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida in the process). For 2018, they donated two auction lots to each festival. We spoke with Anderson about their connection to the Gulfshore, their critically-acclaimed Pinots, the state of Sonoma after the wildfires and what giving back means to them.
Tell us about what initially drew you to SWFL and why you kept coming back.
I was invited a long time ago to participate in the Naples Winter Wine Festival. This year it was my third time participating. It’s such an iconic event; being invited here is such an honor for a vintner. I was also at the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest for 7 years (he donated and attended) and saw the children’s hospital being built, which was incredible. All of the charity work is a continuation of what I had done for 40 years during my career. I worked for 17 years in state government in Arizona and then created a health care consulting firm. We continued that work even after we bought the vineyard, and we sold it in 2007.
And how did you come about buying the vineyard?
It was a little by happenstance. Mary and I were doing a bike ride in Santa Rosa, and we fell in love with the area. I was helping Burt Williams at Williams Selyem during crush, and I went up and helped in September 2002, and he said, “You know, there’s a property up the road for sale.” That November we bought the property and closed on it in 2003. It was a unique opportunity—a production winery of 15 acres of Pinot Noir.
Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane (Courtesy of Benovia Winery)
How did you get involved with the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, of which you have been a pivotal force over the years?
We were invited to the Naples Winter Wine Festival in 2010 by Congressman Rooney. While there, we met Dave and Cheryl Copham, who were involved in both festivals. We met Dave Gibbons—who is also part of both—at the children’s lunch (Meet the Kids Day). We turned around and started talking, and we became fast friends, and he said, “Joe, you have to come to Southwest Florida [Wine & Food Fest] in 2011. So I did, and I really got hooked on building that children’s hospital. I myself had a cardiac incident in 2012 while I was down here, and I was treated at Lee Memorial—so it meant all that much more to me to help out. We have two auction lots there and two auction lots at the Naples Winter Wine Festival.
Can you describe your other philanthropic involvements?
We’re very involved in the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend—we were chairs in 2015 of the Sonoma Wine County Auction. We broke $4 million for them (a record at the time).
How do you go about forming lots and deciding what to donate to the festivals?
The wine country people are very giving in general. We have collaborated with many other wineries in the past, and you learn how to put together the lots. People like wine, and if you have other assets, like dinner at a winery or a boat, you put those together. (Editor's Note: Anderson and Dewane donated trips on their 127-foot, tri-deck yacht to both Southwest Florida wine festivals.)
The lot we put together with the Hamels for the Naples Winter Wine Festival this year, September in Sonoma, was heartfelt. The wines we got were donated, and the point was that we wanted people to be back in Sonoma after the fires. (Editor's Note: There were two dozen Magnums rated at least 95 points from various wineries, along with excursions, activities, VIP tickets to the Sonoma auction and visits to both vineyards.)
Did Benovia suffer any damage from the October wildfires? Were you there when it happened?
I was in Italy, and I opened my computer, and I saw the fire was jumping 101 (a highway in Sonoma County). Some of our employees had to run for their lives as their homes were about to burn down.
From the wine side of it, we were all in—all of the wines were in barrels, and none of our vineyards were hit. Napa was more hit—they weren’t all in. 5,400 homes in Sonoma alone were burned to the ground. Three of our employees were burned out and were living on our vineyard in the guest houses. They are looking for rentals now.
That’s amazing you let them stay there, and it’s great they’re getting back on their feet. Switching gears: What is your favorite wine that you produce and why?
What I pick depends on what I’m eating. As for our Chardonnays, the Three Sisters Chardonnay from the coast is fabulous. Our Russian River just got a 94 from Wine Enthusiast. The other (La Pommeraie) goes great with nearly all food.
The reason why I got in the wine business in the first place is because when I tasted the 1993 Cohn vineyard Pinot Noir with Burt Williams, that got me hooked on wine. That really got me hooked. (Editor's Note: The Cohn vineyard was the original parcel of land purchased by Anderson for Benovia; among the oldest Pinot Noir plots in Sonoma, it was planted in 1970, and the grapes had been used to make wine for Williams Selyem, among others.)
Sentimental-wise, the Pinot Noir grown around the winery is named after our moms, Martaella. It’s classic Russian River. Our highly acclaimed one is Tilton Hill—that got more than 90 from Robert Parker, and it goes great with lamb.
Benovia's Cohn vineyard in Sonoma County
Are there any others in your portfolio that you’re particularly proud of?
The 2012 vintage Blanc de Blancs—it is a sparkling wine that was released last July. We made 200 cases, and we worked on it for five years. The next release is 2019, a brut from our estate vineyard.
What are your favorite wines that you don’t make and why?
We have a year-end party at the winery, and I told everyone we couldn’t drink Benovia. [laughs] I did that so we don’t have a house palate. That turned out to be so much fun. Williams Selyem is a favorite—I really, really like their wines very much and always have. I also like Burgundy. Italian wines, too, like what Marilisa Allegrini is doing (for Allegrini Estates). I also love Jean-Charles Boisset’s Raymond Cabernet, and of course Joseph Phelps Cabernet, Insignia.
If readers of our magazine want to visit Sonoma in the next year or beyond, do you have any words of advice for them—what is your dream Russian River Valley itinerary for interested travelers?
In Healdsburg, you’ve got to go to Valette, Stark’s steakhouse and Willi’s Seafood. There are so many things to do: I ride horses—we ride on Bodega Bay. You can canoe or kayak on the Russian River. Go racecar driving on the Sonoma Raceway. The lot for the 2018 Naples Winter Wine Festival that I coauthored with George Hamel was our “Best Of” list—with winery visits, a cheese-making class, clay shooting at Wing & Barrel Ranch, a tour of Quarryhill garden and more.