Despite broad American traditions, no two households celebrate the winter holidays alike. Yet invariably, the table is the heartbeat of family gatherings, from the recipes passed down from generation to generation, to the comfortable conversation and camaraderie among people bound by their shared history.
Two multigenerational Sonoma County farming families share the touchstones of their gatherings — the boisterous, deep-rooted Benziger winemaking clan of Glen Ellen, and the revitalized Hopkins family, where a new generation helps grow grapes and food crops, and raise heirloom poultry, sheep and goats, off Eastside Road in Healdsburg, on land that has been in the family for 60 years.
“I want to give a toast to my best helper in the vineyard, Bob Benziger,” says Mike Benziger, general manager of Benziger Family Winery, at a fall meal in the winery cave.
Family gatherings with the Benzigers are epic. It doesn’t matter the occasion: holidays, weddings, graduations, meet-ups at the Tuesday Night Market in Sonoma and the mandatory family dinners they hold every six weeks, with every family taking a turn at hosting. Benzigers celebrate hard, with high energy, affectionate ribbing and unrestrained sentiment.
“We work hard at staying together as a family and a family business,” says Kathy Benziger Threlkeld, at 48 the youngest of seven siblings, the original brood spawned by Bruno and Helen Benziger. “Ninety percent of family businesses fail in the third generation, so we work on it.”
And a major part of the effort is breaking bread together.
“My mother Helen, god bless her, it was all around the table,” says Threlkeld, who is the keeper of all of the matriarch’s pots and pans and Pyrex dishware, as well as the near-sacred recipes with which she was capable of feeding an army, not only of family but also winery workers, five days a week. “She was the heart and soul that kept us together. And it was always through the community of food.”
Helen was known as the CEO, or Chief Emotional Officer. When she died in 2000, 11 years after her husband, the family found itself drifting apart. So they redoubled their efforts to stay close.
Holiday and special-occasion meals among this Swiss-German, Catholic clan invariably include grace and toasts that invoke the spirits of Bruno and Helen and other family members who have died.
“And there are cheers. There’s always three cheers for Bruno,” says Threlkeld. “Three cheers for Bruno! Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray!”
In-laws are welcomed into the fold. Meals at Mike’s house – he hosts the traditional family Christmas Eve bash every year – are particularly popular since his son-in-law, chef Ari Weiswasser, who runs the Glen Ellen Star restaurant, is apt to contribute to the menu.
Weiswasser married Mike’s daughter, Erinn, and the young couple now have a 2-year-old, Noa, and 7-month-old twins, Hayley and Riley. That makes for lively interaction at the table.
Mike shows granddaughter Noa how to toast. When she nearly knocks over a wine glass, he deftly switches to fist-bumps. Meanwhile, Ari scoops up one of the twins and plants a kiss on her cheek before being called upon to carve the bird.
After toasting, the family members join in with the signature cheer, then Mike exhorts everyone to “dig in.”
There’s always lot of laughter and talking, as the family passes the roasted vegetables, the bread board and the cheeses, making sure everyone’s plate is full.
Although the winery’s extensive organic and Biodynamic gardens speak to the Benzigers’ evolving definition of good food, some traditions are sacred. Like Mom’s potatoes and gravy.
Kathy is the designated gravy maker. “It’s ingrained in me because I helped her at the stove. I can make Mom’s gravy to perfection. You should see my brothers salivate.”
“If there’s anything that is an anchor in the Benzigers’ Thanksgiving diet, it’s mashed potatoes, center stage,” says Mike, who with his wife, Mary, first discovered the Glen Ellen vineyard in the late 1970s and brought his parents and the rest of the Benzigers to California from White Plains, N.Y.
At 63, he is now the new patriarch of a clan that includes his six siblings, their spouses, 16 grandchildren (some with spouses) and four great-grandchildren.
With 26 Benzigers living within 15 miles of each other – 11 of those working full-time at one of the wineries — the Benzigers don’t have to go very far to stay connected.
Clustered around Glen Ellen is not only Benziger Family Winery on Sonoma Mountain, but also Imagery Estate on Sonoma Highway in Glen Ellen, where Mike’s brother, Joe, is the winemaker and general partner. Third-generation Michael is a partner in Envolve Winery in Sonoma. Four others in the third wave also work at the family winery.
“Family gatherings are loads of fun,” says Joe. “We have a lot of personalities, when you include our wives and kids, who are now in their 20s and 30s.”
For those who have married into the family, it often takes perseverance to be heard above the fray.
“You have to be very loud and determined,” Ari says. “It’s like driving a car onto I-95 (in New York). You have to be very persistent.”
Those who want to join the fun-loving Benziger clan are always asked to prove their athletic ability after a dinner and many glasses of wine.
“We had to do a table walk, blindfolded,” says Ari. “I broke a lot of glasses.”
The every-six-weeks clan dinner is mandatory.
“You have to have a family relationship with your siblings, not just business,” Kathy explains. “With Mom, it was always about connecting through eating and being together. We make sure we keep that going.”
The chickens cluck noisily for attention as Lynda and Emmett Hopkins shop their Foggy River Farm for a family feast.
Eggs nature-dyed in green and brown are gathered from the mobile coop and placed in a basket, along with salad greens, sorrel and late tomatoes.
Emmett scales a ladder and tosses down Golden Delicious apples that Lynda unfailingly catches like an expert fielder. Baby Gillian, who turns 1 just before Thanksgiving, observes from a backpack while happily smearing a cherry tomato into her mouth.
This is a familiar routine for the young couple who, fresh from Stanford University, returned to Emmett’s family land in the fertile Russian River Valley five years ago and taught themselves to farm from the ground up.
Up on the hilltop overlooking the land he shares with his son, grapegrower Bob Hopkins is also gathering for the feast – a pinch of tarragon, the last of the basil – from a kitchen garden where the sunflowers are just starting to drop their heads. The site of the tomato vines reminds him of an old poem, which he wistfully recites before heading inside to put finishing touches on a meal made from scratch.
“We really do eat and drink what we grow. It’s really fun because we’ll have some meals where everything but the pasta is from the property,” says Lynda, a suburban girl turned self-described “milkmaid” and “henpecked vegetable farmer,” who a week before giving birth to Gillian helped harvest 22 heirloom turkeys for Foggy River’s CSA holders.
On Thanksgiving, which draws to Foggy River a gaggle of up to 25 aunts, uncles, cousins and strays from all branches of the family, even the table will be decked with the farm’s bounty. One annual tradition is to go down to the vineyard to gather gold and orange leaves for the table.
Bob Hopkins and his wife, Toni, took over the land from his widowed mother after he finished college in the early 1970s. They slowly replaced prune and pear orchards with premium grapes. Invariably, family meals are accompanied by wine made from his grapes, which are sold to La Crema, J Vineyards & Winery and Hartford Family Winery.
On this night the family — Bob and Toni’s daughter, Whitney, works for the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. — gathers on the deck outside the modest home Bob’s mother built in 1970. On the rare warm Thanksgiving, they might even dine here at the redwood picnic table, looking out at the blazing vineyards and a farm road lined with Lombardy poplars turned bright as bullion by late autumn.
Everyone contributes to meals, whether small get-togethers or holiday feasts. Bob, who got interested in cooking in college, has his specialties: succotash, corn pudding, roasted beets, and kale salad with cranberries and slivered almonds. Toni makes a killer apple cake. His sister, Susan Coolidge, of Petaluma, brings her signature Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, plus cranberry pie.
Most of the Hopkins’ family heirlooms perished in a house fire more than 40 years ago. But among the surviving touchstones are a set of silver napkin rings, each with a different design. Every guest selects his or her own.
“Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday,” says Emmett, “because it’s focused around family and food rather than a bunch of manufactured traditions.”
One immutable custom on feast day is a midday walk after the turkey.
“Either we’ll walk downhill or around in the hills and then come back and have dessert,” says Toni. “So everybody brings their walking shoes.”
Lynda loves the ritual of feasting from the fruits of their land and own labor, right down to the bird, which the Hopkins have been doing for 60 years, starting with Emmett’s grandparents in the 1950s.
“When you grow everything you eat, almost every meal is a bit like Thanksgiving because of all the work that goes into it,” she says over a plate of heirloom Bodega Red potatoes, carrot salad, beets and chicken, all from Foggy River Farm. “There’s something very special about sitting down and saying thank you for this food and thank you for everybody around the table. In a way, I wish we did it at every meal.”