A native of Bordeaux, Camille Benitah’s Merus Cabernet became her first landmark vintage produced in California. Since that time Camille has partnered with Montesquieu Winery to produce some of our finest wines. We caught up with Camille to discuss her life’s work and to familiarize Montesquieu’s customers with the winemaker behind many of our finest vintages.
My first memory of wine… my Dad bought the premiere when I was born. I had a collection of wine from my birth year. My childhood was about wine, and I wasn’t born in a very good year. So as the years went by my dad was always opening a bottle of ‘72, and he was kind of disappointed every year. We were put out of our misery from this high quantity of wine that he bought when I was 14 or 15. There was a huge storm in Bordeaux and our cat got scared and ended up in the wine cellar, jumping on the shelves, and most of the wine fell off. That’s what happened with all the wine from my birth year. Between my dad and my grandmother I was always served like 1/10th of an ounce (of wine) at every Sunday lunch. Not every meal, but the Sunday meal on weekends. I was always served something.
When did you realize that winemaking would become your life’s work?
It was later. I thought I wanted to be an agronomic engineer. But as I was doing an internship I realized I was missing a part, which was the creative part. I worked in a lab for many years and in my mid-twenties, and eventually I said, “This isn’t going to cut it.” At 24 I switched careers and went to school for winemaking. But I thought engineering was going to be my passion, and I worked as a technician in France and the Netherlands, then I went back to France for wine school. I’m very, very happy I made that decision. I loved working with PHDs, it was very interesting, but I missed the aspect of making. Wine brings everything – you’re always researching, experimenting, but at the end you end up with a product and not a bunch of spreadsheets!
What is the single wine or vintage you’re most proud of as a winemaker?
2007 was one of my favorite vintages (of Cabernet), but the ones I’m most proud of are 2010 and 2011 because I made some good wine, I mean I believe I did, but it’s my favorite vintage because of the challenge. Coming from Bordeaux, I had left Bordeaux for 10 years, and I sort of didn’t even remember the challenge of rainy years so it brought back memories. 2011 especially, I’m very proud of that vintage. It was rainy, cold, and there was winter frost. It was like a bad year in Bordeaux, but it cannot be a bad year because it’s California.
If you had a personal philosophy on winemaking, what would it be?
Listen to the nature, listen to the grapes. Make sure you grow the grapes with respect to nature. Do the best you can with what you have. It’s not very deep, but basically grow the grapes with high respect to nature and everything will be OK.
You’ve been making wine for a long time now. What gets you out of bed every morning and excited to do what you do?
Every morning I wake up at 6:15am and I’m happy to go check the vineyard. I’m checking the break, it’s always something new, there’s always something to look forward to and improve. You need to be in constant tune with the vintage, and how the vines are growing, how the grapes are growing, and anticipate and look forward. You follow the year in a very organic way.
You’ve spent most of your life and career in either California or France. What difference do you see in terms of wine drinkers from both areas and their respective attitudes? What do you appreciate about both wine cultures?
I think in France, coming from Bordeaux, my family only drank Bordeaux all their life. My mom adventured a couple of times in Burgandy, but that’s pretty rare. What I really enjoy in the US is the curiosity – and that’s at every level not just wine – of the American people. If it’s food, people, wine, they always have questions and always want to know more, always want to try more. They’re very, very open. And that’s very enjoyable.
Say today is your last day on planet earth and you get to enjoy one more bottle of wine before you go; what’s in that bottle?
I hope that’s not the case! What’s in the bottle… it’s probably chauvinistic but probably something of mine!
There are lots of magnificent vineyards in Napa Valley. Magnificent. There are more than one or two. Stagecoach is amazing – we sourced some grapes from there recently for Montesquieu. Another that’s particularly beautiful is Kitoko on Atlas Peak.
Outside of winemaking, what are you passionate about?
I love cooking, baking… that’s very generic. I love arts and crafts. With my husband we are always sewing, making tables. Whatever material we have, we look at it and say what can we make with that? Whether it’s a piece of fabric, a piece of leather, a piece of wood, whatever it is. That’s what we do in our free time.