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

Monte Castello Olive Grove

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

Lake Garda Olive Oil

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.

Why Lake Garda?

Lake Garda

I was interested to know how Jeffrey came to choose Lake Garda to purchase a property?

I’d been through here when I was in the wine trade, visiting agencies in the north of Italy. I didn’t stop off much, maybe for the odd night. When my wife Clare and I decided that we wanted to buy somewhere, we wanted to be looking over water rather than undulating hills like in Tuscany. We thought about France, as we both speak French, but

decided on the Italian lakes. I did some research and the thing I like about Lake Garda is that as you are driving around the lake, unlike Como, you can drop down into little villages, have lunch or go to a café or bar right on the lake. Como everything is up above, there are only a couple of places you can get down onto the lake. Around here especially, Salo round to Gargnano and around Bogliaco, it’s just amazing. You can drop down to restaurants and bars and little marinas, it’s absolutely beautiful

I asked Jeffrey, if it was love at first sight?

Yes, I think so. The mid west is the nicest part for us

Lake Garda Wine

Lake Garda Wine

We’d spoken a lot about olive oil and a bit about wine but I was interested to know Jeffrey’s answer to the direct question, “What do you think of the wine from this region?”

When I was a wine maker, for over 40 years, I travelled to virtually every wine making country in the world, making wine and buying wine for the company I was a director of, but we didn’t do a lot in Italy. We had a fair range but the Italian wholesalers very much dealt among themselves, it was very much an integrated community. But travelling around Italy, there’s some amazing wines coming out of Italy, but I think there’s very little known and it’s totally underrated are the wines from Lombardy. People know Bardolino and Valpolicella and Soave. But on this side of the lake (Lombardy) they have to get better known. There are some simply terrific wines, whites, red’s and rose’s or chiaretto’s. Lugana is a grape variety with some top end producers here. There’s Groppello that I like very much indeed. There’s a grower called Leale (near Pueugnago), his chiaretto is excellent, but his red’s (are fantastic). His Groppello is very reasonably priced, but he discovered this grape variety Rebo,

that’s a rare grape variety. His top wine Simuit is 100% Groppello and it’s unbelievable. Put it into a blind tasting and people will say this is a first growth (Premier Cru) Claret. Quality wise it’s absolutely stunning, it blew me away when I first tasted it, couldn’t believe it’s quality.

Jeffrey told me that last year he’d taken some friends to taste wine at Le Chiusure, the cantina owned my Alessandro Luzzago, who is the president of the Consorzio Valtènesi (Valtènesi Wine Consortium).

“His top end stuff is excellent, excellent. Malborgetto it’s called, it’s excellent”

Jeffrey told me that he’d visited many of the growers because he knows the owners of one of my favourite restaurants Lido 84, Ricardo and Giancarlo Camanini. Ricardo gained a Michelin star when he was chef at Villa Fiordaliso.

Ricardo is such a great chef and over the years he’s become a very good friend of mine. He was the chef at Villa Fiordaliso for fifteen, maybe eighteen years. I’ve known the sommeliers there (during that time), if you tell them you like a wine, they will tell you where it comes from and give you the brochure from the winery. So over the years we’ve been spending time driving round to the various wineries and tasting their wines and buying their wine for here(Villa Chiara). The quality of the wine is exceptional and I’m surprised there is no PR or marketing behind Garda wines

Lake Garda For Wine Lovers

Lake Garda for wine lovers

The last question I asked Jeffrey was whether or not he would recommend a holiday in Lake Garda to wine enhusiasts.

Sure, we are very lucky, we have some phenomenal restaurants, with excellent wine lists with the wines of this region, they have all the top growers. If you say to them that you like a wine, they are very happy to give you the brochure and tell you where the grower is. Just yesterday I had a desert wine after lunch. I’d never heard of it. The restaurant owner gave me the brochure and I’m going to investigate it

Jeffrey found it very refreshing that the restaurant owners weren’t bothered that you know their margins. That they sell bottles of wine for €80 that you can buy direct from the cantina for €20. I asked him whether that was normal.

No, in other countries they just say, we have our contacts, we don’t disclose

So one of the advantages of being in this fantastic wine region is that you can experience really good wines that are usually very expensive by visiting the cantinas and buying at source. There aren’t many cantinas here where you can’t just turn up and taste without an appointment. It really is a great place for a wine touring holiday.

I must admit I’d been quite excited at the prospect of meeting Jeffrey; not just because to me he is a celebrity in the wine world, but because I wanted, hoped that he would confirm what I thought about Lake Garda wine and olive oil, which he did. He also gave me an education about the production of olive oil, and besides all that he is a very nice man and it was very nice to meet him and his wife Clare.