Christina Benz

Christina Benz

Winemaker (Winemaker Emerita)

Christina Benz was considered a “late-starter” by her family, and indeed, she came to study winemaking at the University of California, Davis, after checking out cab driving, art restoration, and medicine as career choices. She was finishing a degree in Chemistry at UC Berkeley, putting in volunteer hours at a local E.R., and reached a point where she didn’t want to spend another minute of her life in a hospital. So now what? Wine seemed an enticing blend of chemistry and art and so Christina was off to graduate school at UC Davis in 1979. Her husband Jason, also a chemist, came with her to Davis, studied viticulture, and spent the last 10 years of his career managing the university’s experimental vineyard, the Oakville Field Station, in the Napa Valley.

Christina’s professional course was further set by an established winery owner who told her “you will never work in a small winery because you’re a woman.” So small wineries it was!

She was very lucky to work her first harvest in 1980 at Roudon-Smith in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The work was physical, exhausting, exacting, and she loved it!

During her time at UC Davis, during which she completed the coursework needed for an M.S. in Food Science, Christina worked at Joseph Phelps Vineyards under Walter Schug, gained experience in the Southern Hemisphere by working the 1982 harvest at Lindeman’s in Australia, and came back to work at the newly formed Schug Cellars in Calistoga. Walter Schug was a great teacher and was responsible for finding her first winemaking position in Amador County, at Winterbrook Vineyards. As the sole employee there, she learned fast and furiously, to wit: farming 60 acres of grapes, repairing the irrigation system, doing all the cellar and lab work, running the semi-automatic bottling line, serving as the tasting room host, and bearing responsibility for government compliance. The wine she was most proud of was her White Zinfandel—it’s trickier than it looks to make a good one!

Christina was at Winterbrook from 1984 until 1987, when she was hired at Murphy-Goode in Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Again, she was the first employee. But this was a growing concern based on the Murphy-Goode and Murphy Ranch vineyards located along the Russian River. She spent 14 years there working with a remarkable group of people that included her mentor, Merry Edwards, the Murphy, Goode, and Ready families, and the tight-knit grower community of Alexander Valley. The winemaking team had success with Sauvignon Blanc oak-aged in the Chardonnay style, but Christina’s favorite wines were from the hillside blocks of Cabernet. Named after Tim Murphy’s grandkids, each block had a distinct taste and texture—just like the kids.

In 2001, Christina moved to Laird Family Estate in Napa Valley to become production manager for the custom-crush operation. It was a challenge she welcomed—to work with several dozen winemaker clients, to handle superbly farmed Napa Valley fruit, and to manage a large group of employees. Her clients, including Celia Welch, Mia Kline, and Alison Doran, taught her their approaches to winemaking, broadening her knowledge, and improving operations at the facility. The general manager, Rebecca Laird, was Christina’s people-management guru. She finished her career at Laird working with Judy Matulich-Weitz, a long-time friend and an original member of the tasting group they had started as students at UC Davis, and felt very lucky to do so.

Since her retirement in 2015, Christina has become active in Napa County issues, advocating for policies that will preserve its natural resources and keep the agriculture and wine industries viable far into the future. She currently serves on the Napa Sierra Club Executive Committee and is particularly concerned about how, at the individual and local and state levels, we are responding to climate change.

And for fun, Christina tries to spend as much time as possible outdoors, hiking, backpacking, and chasing grandkids.