I love stories about wine; they deepen the pleasures of opening a bottle and help me appreciate the wine almost as much as the taste and feel of it. One of my
favorite wine stories of the last year involved a small Sonoma winemaker called Benovia, which is owned by a husband and wife team, Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, as well as winemaker Mike Sullivan. Benovia makes sophisticated yet accessible pinot noir and chardonnay, and smaller amounts of sparkling wine, zinfandel and grenache.
But the Benovia wine I particularly appreciated in 2019 was a special pinot blend, called Liberation (pictured right), that Benovia made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Liberation was largely driven by the passion of Anderson, a former healthcare executive whose father and two uncles fought in World War II. Benovia is donating some of the proceeds of the sale of Liberation, which costs $160 for a magnum, to the D-Day Squadron, an organization devoted to preserving the memory of D-Day and the men who fought in that operation.
That’s a great story in and of itself, but there’s more to it. Anderson is also a pilot, and in 2008 he bought and began the process of restoring a 1942 Douglas DC-3. The two-prop plane, originally known as a C-53 Skytrooper, was designed to carry paratroopers, but in World War II it was also pressed into service as a gunship and used to tow gliders. Earlier this year, Anderson and his full-time pilot, Jeff Coffman, flew the 13-seat plane, which Anderson named the Spirit of Benovia, from Arizona to the East Coast before heading to France to participate in D-Day commemorations. At several stops, Anderson invited World War II veterans, men in their 90s, to come on board the plane. “They would look around and be transformed right back to their 20s,” Anderson told me, an experience that sounded almost as emotional for him as it was for them.
I had a chance to fly on the Spirit of Benovia when Anderson and Coffman stopped at Westchester County Airport, not far from where I live. Joined by Dewane, who had flown commercially to the East Coast, they hosted me and several other journalists in a small conference room at the Million Air terminal. Anderson and Dewane are genuinely kind, humble people, grateful for the good fortune they’ve had in life and deeply engaged in philanthropy. And Anderson’s excitement at the upcoming journey to Normandy was palpable.
After a background briefing, we boarded the Spirit of Benovia, rumbled down the runway and took off, heading west toward the Hudson. When we reached the river, we turned south, enjoying a stunningly close view of Manhattan’s West Side before Coffman and Anderson looped around the Statue of Liberty, flew over lower Manhattan and took us back to White Plains. The flight lasted about 40 minutes. (The Spirit of Benovia flies at a maximum speed of 172 miles an hour, Anderson says, “when there’s no wind.”) Spirit of Benovia is a beautiful plane, clearly a labor of love for Anderson, but it’s also 77 years old. Piloting it looks like a lot of work and near-constant attention and, frankly I wouldn’t be first in line to fly across the Atlantic in it. “The worst problem,” Anderson told me, “would be losing an engine halfway.”
After leaving New York, Anderson and Coffman flew up to Labrador, then across the Atlantic to Iceland, then on to Ireland and Duxford, England, a staging point for some of the D-Day commemorations. “When we landed, there were 50,000 people there to greet us,” Anderson said. Another 14 World War II-era DC-3s had made the journey from the United States, and they would meet up with eight more planes, from countries including Russia, Sweden, Scandinavia and France, to participate in an anniversary flight over the beaches of Normandy. “The French did their show first,” Anderson recalls, “then the Americans, then here come these 20-plus DC-3s in formation…coming right up the beach. It was very, very emotional.”
Before The Spirit of Benovia returned to the U.S., Anderson and Kaufman took it around Europe, with stops in Italy and Germany. Everywhere they landed, they met with active military personnel and veterans. “The thing for these guys was the importance of the [NATO] alliance,” Anderson says. “France and England and Germany, Italy. That’s the key to maintaining world peace. Everybody understands that.”
Liberation is an excellent pinot noir, with hints of strawberry, raspberry and cherry, as well as some spice notes, all beautifully balanced. It’s made with heirloom and Dijon clones of pinot noir from an estate property near Freestone, Calif., just a few miles from the Pacific. But Liberation really comes from respect and memory and love, which is an excellent thing to know while drinking it.
For more information, visit benoviawinery.com.