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Dark Star Cellars

Dark Star Cellars Norm and Susan Benson have a great thing going with Dark Star Cellars. It’s always nice visiting there, and we like their wines too. We got an hour plus of their time in the middle of the week in August, sort of the calm before the storm of harvest. Gracie, their boxer, joined us in the tasting room for the interview, but apparently had heard it all before, as she slept through our talk.

Wine-Food pairing with Dark Star wines

ViciVino.com: Has the winery led you in a different direction than you thought you would be in?
Susan: I never knew that we would be going in this direction at all.
Norm: It was your dream, honey (laughter).
SB: Well if I knew that we would be in the wine industry I wouldn’t have chosen September 30 as a wedding date!
NB: It’s pretty much the way we envisioned it.

VV: What is the history of Dark Star Cellars? NB: It all started in 1990. We were living in Thousand Oaks (Southern California) and my parents announced that they were buying a 160-acre ranch up here in Paso Robles, and that they were going to grow wine grapes. This announcement came out of nowhere! It turned out that they had some friends that had planted a vineyard up here. My mom and stepfather would go up to visit their friends and they thought that it was a really cool way to live. So with them being up north we would frequently come up to visit them. I helped them plant the grape vines. Susan and I put a travel trailer on the property and started to spend longer periods of time up here. We started to meet the locals. Back then there were only about 28 wineries so it was pretty easy to get to know that community. I would drive up here after working a 60 hour week, get in around midnight and was put to work cleaning out the wine presses. Back then there was no warm water at the wineries. They gave me the worst jobs to do, but I did them with a smile. I figured this is how I’m going to learn this industry. I quickly gained the respect of the wine community.

We befriended Robert Nadeau who was the winemaker at Mission View Winery, which isn’t in business anymore. Through Robert I met Art and Lei Norman of Norman Vineyards.

In 1993 we crushed ½ ton of grapes at my parents house with the help of a bunch of friends. In 1994 I decided that I needed to make wine commercially. So Art Norman let me ferment 5 tons of Merlot at his facility. This was all done with Robert telling me everything to do. Then I announced that we should be in this business and should be living up here full-time. In 1995 we bought this property that we are on today. That year I crushed 15 tons of Merlot. The 1994 Merlot was getting ready to be bottled and it occurred to me that I really had no way to sell this wine. I wasn’t bonded or anything. There was no way that I could physically sell it. So, Art Norman graciously bought my wine and bottled it under his name. We spent seven years building clientele here until I finally quit my day job in 2000 and moved up here permanently. Between 1996 and 2000 I barely had 10 days off all year between working both jobs. Somehow I was elected to the board of the Vintners Growers Association. Susan stayed down in Thousand Oaks until our daughter graduated high school in 2003.

VV: Did you always have a love for wine?
NB: No, as a matter of fact I despised wine up until 1990. But then I thought that it was politically incorrect to not like wine, since my parents were growing wine grapes. So I made this huge effort to always order a glass of wine when we went out to dinner. I would have two sips of it and then end up with beer or Seven and Seven. I used to play a lot of golf with the guys I used to work with. On one hiatus we went off to Arizona for a long weekend. Three of us played 8 courses in 7 days! We were at this fancy restaurant in Sedona. These two other guys were way into wine. The sun was setting over the red rocks of Sedona and I order my obligatory glass of Merlot. It comes, I tasted it and it was like I saw G-d! It was so amazing. I told my buddies, “You have to check this out.” It was a really expensive glass, like $8.00 back in the 90’s. I said to my friends, “I get it! You have to drink good wine for it to taste good.” What I didn’t know is that always in the past I was ordering “house wines”. And they were just awful. Previous to this revelation, I never had any interest in making wine. I liked the people, the industry, the life style and so on.
SB: Norm really liked the fact that it was so low key up here. That everything was done with a handshake. Everyone looked out for everyone. No one would ever say anything bad about anyone else.
NB: Back when we started we became the 32nd winery. We knew everybody, and now there are 250 bonds and 85 tasting rooms. It has grown so much that we don’t know half of the people in the industry here.

VV: How did you come up with the name Dark Star?
NB: Symbolizes my passion to produce stellar red wines or dark stars.

VV: Do you have any partners?
NB: Interestingly enough, we had two investors in the beginning and we just recently negotiated buying them out. So the answer is NO!

VV: What are your roles in the winery?
NB: I am the king! (Laughter) And Susan handles everything that is important.
SB: Norm’s forte is the winemaking. He will bring out a blend every so often for me to try, but in general I try to leave him alone and let him do his magic. I am in charge of the tasting room, the wine club and the shipping. Each year our goals are to make a better wine and wine experiences for our customers. That is what we concentrate on.
NB: Every year, on some scale, not 100%, we do something different. One year we introduced dry ice in the destemmer and evaluated what that did. We’ve tried cold soaks, extended macerations; last year we tried fermenting our reds in barrels. We don’t repeat what we didn’t like, and continue to build on what we did like. We have lived our whole “wine life” believing a theory that there are only two things you need to know about wine. One is, did you like it or not? The other is when the bottle is empty, were you happy with what the experience cost you or not? If you say to yourself yes, then you should go get more of that wine. That should be true weather it’s a $5 bottle of wine or a $500 bottle of wine. Honestly, the hardest thing I had to do in the beginning was to figure out how much to charge for my wines. I went to other wineries and tasted their wines, looked at their prices and compared my wines to theirs to get what I felt was a fair price. Then I priced my wines $2.00 per bottle less than theirs. I was looking at the long haul of people wanting another bottle, not trying to make everything on that one bottle that they bought. And now, 10 years later, we have a wine club of over 1,000 people, which is 65% of our wine sales. The rest, except 3% for distribution, is for the people who come through the door.

VV: Are you still getting grapes off of your parent’s property?
NB: No. The end of that story is that in 1994 my parents retired and moved up here full time. They were building their own home and were living on the property in a travel trailer. My stepfather had in his mind that “we bought this property and moved up here so I should do the farming and help build our retirement home.” He wasn’t very good at delegating, as he loved doing the work himself. After about 1-½ years they realized that farming life was way too much work and stressful for them. So they sold the property, moved back down south and now they travel and have no pressures and are living happily ever after.

Dark Star Cellars VV: Do you get all your grapes from your property?
NB: We have 2 acres of Zinfandel grapes planted on our 10-acre property. At this time we are getting 95% of our grapes from long-term contracts with other vineyards in Paso Robles, mostly on the Westside. Eventually we will plant the other 5 acres here and will only have to farm out 50%. I’ve always felt from day one, that if I’m going to crush 20 tons of Cabernet I want 4-5 tons lots from 4 different vineyards. Because that is where it gets interesting. That is where the complexity and uniqueness comes from. The variety of the vineyards absolutely adds to the complexity and interest of the wines. So these long-term contracts I have are for variety. You get a little bit of cherry from the Eastside, and another vineyard’s grapes have a European nose to it that I haven’t smelled from any other vineyard in all of Paso Robles. If I used grapes from only one block, then that is what it would taste like.

VV: Is this what you feel makes your winery unique?
NB: I’m the most unique thing about my winery! (Laughter). Susan taught me just last month, that I should not try to be funny, that I should try to be charming.
SB: Norm tends to have a very dry sense of humor. So sometimes when he comes into the tasting room to help me, his sense of humor doesn’t always work with all of our customers. I finally had to say to Norm, “If you think that you are going to say something funny, don’t say it! Just try to be charming.” Sometimes when he tries to be charming he tends to be funny too, because he is a funny guy, but this way he won’t get into trouble. It only took us 30 years to come up with that!

VV: What year was your first release?
NB: 1995, in our own label. And our vines just made it to the bottle of our ‘06 Zinfandel. And in ‘07 we will have our first estate Zinfandel.

VV: How many cases of wine do you produce each year?
NB: 4,000.

VV: Are you comfortable with that number or do you plan to produce more in the future?
NB: That is “the” number. We were at 5,000 cases when our son Brian worked for us, and were heading towards 10,000 to create a duel family income. But Brian decided that he wanted his own label, and rightly so. Check it out at Brian Benson Cellars. After Brian left we worked the numbers backwards to the kind of life we wanted. And the idea is that the 4,000 cases get sold out just as we are getting ready to do the next release. Other than seasonal help (one guy who comes from April – December), I do it all myself.
SB: Our daughter worked in our tasting room every Saturday, while she went to Cal Poly. She just got her first job and has moved down to L.A. So we have now just hired our first employee since I’ve been up here full time. This is challenging: finding, working with and training an outside employee to put all the love into the pouring and selling like we do. We take such pride in representing ourselves. Our philosophy in the tasting room is “I will treat the person on the other side of the counter the same way I would hope to be treated if I was somewhere”.

VV: What did this building (the current tasting room) start out as?
NB: This building started as our production building and we had a tasting counter in the corner. When we grew we filled this building and moved the tasting room to what is now our office. Then, when we outgrew this building we built another production building and turned this one into the tasting room. We are just getting ready to break ground on another building that will be a warm/cold barrel room. This will be divided by two sides; one side we can heat up to help with ML fermentation (first year room) and keep the other cold (second year room).

VV: How do you do your fermentation?
NB: I do about 80% of my fermentation in open top vessels that I can punch down, no pump-overs.

VV: What is the primary wine you make here?
NB: We started out doing Bordeaux blends our first year with an addition of Cabernet and Merlot. The second year we added Zinfandel, so we have done Zinfandel every year since 1996. I find my passion with the Bordeaux, but as I’m learning to think outside the box, I’ve been experimenting with some other varietals and blends. The past 5 years we have done a Cabernet/Petite Sirah blend and I’m just getting ready to release a couple new Rhone blends.

VV: How do you sell your wine?
NB: We started by having a distributor selling 50% of our wine in eleven states, but now we are distributing only 3% of our wine and only it’s in our county. This way, the majority of the wines we sell to the people have tasted it at some point.

VV: What are your favorite wines to drink?
NB & SB: We like them all!
NB: Making wine is like writing a book. You start off with a blank piece of paper and nothing exists until you create it. And when it’s all done, you hand it to somebody and you say, “What to do you think?” You just work with your pants down. If that’s the kind of business that you want to be in, you have to be willing to take the criticism. It took me a while in the beginning to get that other than flawed wine, there really isn’t bad wine. It may not be your wine, and it may not be my wine, but it’s somebody’s wine. Gallo makes 4 million gallons of Chablis every year and nobody buys that and then goes to the parking lot and dumps it down the drain. They buy it because they like it. I would be honored to be able to say that I make 4 million gallons of an adult beverage that sells out every year. So I have zero patience for people who say it’s a “bad wine”. I try to be polite and educate them and say I’ve had that wine and it might not be the one you like but it isn’t bad. So instead of saying it is bad, start saying “It’s not my style.”

VV: What are some of your favorite food pairings with your wines?
NB: Buttered popcorn with Zinfandel. Shrimp cocktail with Zinfandel, any heavy red sauce with pasta, such as lasagna with any of my Bordeaux.
SB: I like chocolate and Zinfandel.

Dark Star Cellars VV: Do you have a role model within this industry?
NB: I admire Robert Mondavi. We use oak barrels and stainless tanks because of him. He did stuff that his peers were just laughing at him way back then. But look at all his techniques that are used today. Ernest Gallo’s marketing, take no prisoners. Art Norman, from Paso, who passed away about a year ago, would do anything for anybody. Doug Beckett, Robert Nadeau, Tom Westberg to name a few more locals. Some of them have showed me things that I do, and some things that I won’t do. I coined this phrase. It’s called the “dead frog theory”. So much of wine making is analytical, it can be tested and quantified, and so much of it can’t. Seventy five percent of the wineries in the U.S. are small enough where you can’t do a controlled experiment. You can do barrel trials to a certain extent, but, to really say that I did this, this and that and that is why my wine is darker or more aromatic – it’s conjecture because you didn’t take 5 tons of this fruit and do to it exactly what you did last year. A vintage is different every year. Just because it came from the same vineyard as last year is nothing as far as a controlled deal. So, if I found a barrel of Cabernet that was the best Cabernet that I ever met in my whole life and found two dead frogs in it, every year I would kill two frogs and throw them in the barrel. Because I don’t know why it was the best, I can only guess why it was the best. So since I had all these great winemakers give me their tips on making wine, I started to make my wine using what worked for them. This is the dead frog theory. Now I make wine my way. No dead frogs!

VV: Our final question: When people come in here to drink your wines, what do you hope they leave remembering?
NB: They enjoyed being here. Whether they buy wine or not, is to an extent irrelevant. We want people to have a good time, not a party, but to be comfortable. We want equal ground on both sides of the bar. We don’t offer tasting notes; because we want you to taste what you taste, not what we taste. It’s your decision as to whether you taste chocolate or blackberries. And it’s your decision if you leave here with a bottle of wine or not.
SB: I also look at our tasting room as an extension of our home. There is no pretension. We just want them to leave happy.

Dark Star Cellars
2985 Anderson Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
805-237-2389
Dark Star Cellars