Who is Jeffrey Benson?
Jeffrey Benson has been in and around the wine trade for over 50 years. During that time he’s been involved in all aspects of the business; making, buying , selling, marketing and consulting, Jeffrey has done it all.
He was involved in the formation of Wines of Canada during the 1990’s. This was an organisation was set up in co-operation with the Canadian government, with the goal of introducing Canadian wines to the export market. Jeffrey helped ‘Wines of Canada’ sign the top fifteen wineries in Ontario and British Columbia.
Due to the respect he has in the industry he is the only non North American judge ever to join the tasting panel in British Columbia, at a three day event evaluating over 200 wines to decide the medal winners.
Between 1993 –1994 Jeffrey was instrumental in forming the Zimbabwe Vintners Alliance, which combined the three wineries in Zimbabwe for export to the UK. After four years of negotiating with the E.U. commission, Zimbabwe was registered as a wine producing country and Jeffrey obtained legislation enabling Zimbabwe to export their wines. Frequent visits led him to advise the wine makers on the correct blends required for export.
For twelve years Jeffrey ran the annual evening wine school for the International Wine and Food Society. He continues to lecture and adjudicate the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) examinations.
Jeffrey has held the positions of Commandeur in the Compagnons du Bontemp de Sauternes et Barsac and Chairman of the International Wine and Food Society (London Branch). He is a member of the International Circle of Wine Writers and an associate member of the Institute of Wines and Sprits (AIWS).
Jeffrey has written and contributed to eight books including: One More for the Road: A Life in Wine, Food and Travel, this is an extremely witty, diarised account of his travels and experiences, eating and tasting wine in hotels and restaurants around the world. He has also appeared on the BBC and other TV and radio stations in other countries.
Jeffrey is also an accomplished jazz musician. His fascination at the sounds created by Lester Young encouraged him to study the tenor saxophone. He has recorded a number of CD’s including A Handful Of Starsand teaches jazz improvisation.
Jeffrey Bensons impressive CV makes him a very well respected figure in the world of wine, when I heard that he had a property in Lake Garda I wanted to find out more about him. My research lead me to discover that for the last twelve years Jeffrey has been involved in the production of olive oil, at his Monte Castello estate near Gaino, 500m above the lake.
I contacted Jeffrey and asked if I could meet him to find out why he purchased a property in Lake Garda and how he became involved in olive oil production. I also wanted to garner his views on Lake Garda olive oil, Lake Garda wine and Lake Garda in general. He very kindly invited me up to Villa Chiara to meet him.
How Jeffrey Benson Becomes A Lake Garda Olive Oil Producer
When I turned up at Jeffrey’s very beautiful Villa he was very welcoming and very keen to tell me the story of how he and his wife Clare came to buy it.
The adventure began thirteen years ago; they’d viewed properties up and down the west coast from Desenzano to Gargnano but couldn’t find anything they liked. They were about to give up hope when the manager of an agency in Toscolano, asked them if they would consider a ‘project’. He went on to tell them about a property he’d had on his books for some years, a run down pizzeria up in the mountain above Toscolano Maderno, near the village of Gaino.
We came up, and you wouldn’t believe it; it was once a pizzeria but it was totally overgrown. We thought about it and thought about it and then we made them an offer which they accepted, that was 2002
Jeffrey was put in contact with a Swiss Project Manager Christophe Bergen and his Italian wife Verena. They had just finished working on Villa Feltrinelli and agreed to take on the project. It took Christophe and Verena just 10 months to transform the run down pizzeria into the beautiful Villa Chiara.
We moved in in 2003, we had the road built and then started clearing the land, we have around 40 acres, on terraces
It was while clearing the land that they discovered the olive grove, so they employed the local agronomist Renzo Furlani to come and take a look . After checking the records it was discovered that the olive grove dated back over 100 years. They century old trees were a mix of Casiliva, Luccino and Pendolino. The trees were still producing bountifully and so they decided to ‘go for it’ and venture into the olive oil business.
I thought if we’re going to do it, then we should do the best we possibly can with it
The clearing took a year, they discovered that the soil was 100% organic so they applied for and obtained ‘Organic ‘ status and they started to farm biodynamically.
Biodynamic farming, which I thought was a bit hocus pocus, a lot of wine makers do it, is growing, planting and pruning by the phases of the moon. When I spoke to the agronomist about it he told me that there’s nothing new, it’s old fashion farming, it’s what we’ve always done and still do
Jeffrey thought there would be a lot of common ground between wine making and olive oil, but thought that if he was going to be in the olive oil business then he really wanted to understand it. He went back to school, attending a course in Spain.
It was a very intensive course but the basics are the same in terms of growing and pruning, the harder you prune back the better quality the olive is. It’s also to do with climate and soil, you plant the right trees for the right soil and climate. Hence Casiliva is the hardy varietal that doesn’t work in hot climates, it likes a cool climate
The tastings on the course were a big revelation to Jeffrey, as with different grape varieties, olives also have a different flavour and smell. Jeffrey was very impressed with the tutors on the course, in blind tastings they could determine not only the olive variety but also the country it was grown in.
Monte Castello Extra Virgin Oilve Oil
After his education Jeffrey was happy that the combination he has at Monte Castello is exactly right for the location.
We are very lucky in two aspects; A we don’t get the bug (that’s been ruining crops further south) because it’s too cold for them. Also the Lake Garda climate is conducive to good oil because it’s not too hot and the olives can mature at a steady rate, turning purple without turning black. In hotter climates the olives turn black and too many black olives adds an unctuous, one dimensional flavour. Monte Castello’s last vintage had less than .25% of black olives into the blend, our olives are mostly purple, a little bit of green but mostly purple, which gives the maximum flavour and balance between acidity, pepperiness and fruit
Jeffrey harvests his olives in mid November, which is quite late, but necessary to get the perfect colour in the olives.
We’re very lucky we have an alpine climate, but although we are quite high up we get hardly any frosts
He went on to tell me the reason why …
In the summer months around the lake the temperatures can be quite high, mid 30’s, but in the winter the temperatures remain very mild because the lake being such a large
body of water, acts like a giant solar panel
Monte Castello Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a blend of 60% Casiliva, 30% Leccino, 10% Pendolino. Pendolino make fantastic oil and Jeffrey asked the agronomist about planting more. His response was that they were really fussy trees and are no longer planted in the Lake Garda region, but 10% into the blend gave it an extra dimension. Jeffrey told me that like wine, blended oils give a much better final product.
So Jeffrey became an olive oil producer purely by chance and took the decision to produce high quality oil. His decision paid off and Monte Castello olive oil was voted No 1 in the world by organisations in Melbourne, New York and Seville. In Melbourne in 2014, Monte Castello olive oil achieved 100 out 100 best in show, which is an incredible achievement.
Jeffrey achieved what he set out to do, which was to make the best olive oil possible, when Monte Castello Extra Virgin olive oil was awarded the HS (High Standard) certification. HS is the a level up from DOC and DOCG which is awarded by local judges, whereas to achieve the HS certification the oils has to be tested by an EU panel of judges.
Monte Castello Extra Virgin olive oil is only available from select suppliers; Fortnum and Mason in the UK and Williams-Sonoma in the US. The oil is also sold into Switzerland and many of the top resorts in the Maldives.
How Does Lake Garda’s Extra Virgin Oilve Oil Compare
Jeffrey admits his Extra Virgin olive oil is quite expensive, but questions whether Extra virgin oil being sold really cheaply is even olive oil at all. He went on to tell me about the book called Extra Virginity, by Tom Mueller, an American living in Liguria.
Tom set out to write the definitive works on olive oil, but opened up Pandora’s Box. I won’t go into all the details here, but if you’re an olive oil enthusiast then you should get yourself a copy of the books and read about Tom’s discoveries.
I asked Jeffrey how he thought the olive oil from the
Lake Garda region compare’s to the rest of Italy and the rest of the world?
From the experts I have spoken to over the years, they reckon that Garda Olive Oil the best of all Italian olive oil. I think it’s to do with the climate, the choice of tree and the integrity of the growers. Garda oil is more expensive than most because of the growing conditions, but Casiliva is a very very health giving varietal, which makes it one of the best in the world
Jeffrey gave me a copy of an in depth study of olive oil and it’s health giving properties. It states that Lake Garda Casiliva is the most healthy olive oil in the world.