Waconia Winemaker: Ben Banks of Sovereign Estate

Sovereign Estate’s Ben Banks relishes the art and science of winemaking.
Ben Banks at Sovereign Estate in Waconia.

While a background in graphic design and photography might not seem like a natural pathway to winemaking, it makes perfect sense after chatting with Ben Banks, the award-winning winemaker at Sovereign Estate in Waconia.

It takes the precision of a scientist and the soul of an artist, whether building a brand, shooting a picture or making a bottle of wine, and Banks has built his career doing all of those things. As a member of the family who owns Sovereign Estate, he’s also used those talents to support the family business. “When you have a small family business, you don’t have a job description,” he says. “Your job is to make the business work. You do whatever you have to do.”

Sovereign Estate was founded in 2008 when Terri and Paul Savaryn planted their first vines on the property surrounding their home. When the couple decided to start a vineyard and winery, they invited all nine children from their blended family to take part in the new venture.

Banks, who is Terri’s son, took the leap, moving with his wife from Pittsburgh to Waconia in 2008. Before making the move, Banks had studied photography and graphic design at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, and he thought his graphic design background would be a great fit for the new business.

For the first few years, Banks and Terri ran a small photography studio until the winery got established. As the winery and vineyard began to grow, Banks served a number of different roles, including developing the Sovereign Estate’s logo and website.

Banks also began working in the vineyard, trellising and pruning, and working in the winery during the first harvest in 2010. For the first couple years of harvest, Sovereign Estates’ wine was made by Thijs Verschuuren, who was an exchange student at the University of Minnesota. When he returned to France in 2011, someone had to take over the winemaking, and there weren’t that many “someones” to choose from. Banks, who had assisted Verschuuren, took on the role. “I nearly went into microbiology right out of high school” Banks says. “Since so much of wine-making is scientific, it came very naturally to me. The other half of winemaking is very artistic and that also came naturally to me, so it ended up being a pretty nice fit.”

Prior to helping his family start Sovereign Estate, Banks never had much of an interest in wine and never considered making it. “I did approach it as an outsider, which I think helped because [Minnesota] grapes are so different,” he says. “It kind of let me evaluate them in a very bias-free setting. I wasn’t trying to make a wine that came from California. I wasn’t trying to make it taste like it came from France. I was just tasting the grape as it was and seeing what did I think was the best for this grape.”

Banks says making wine has developed his appreciation for it, although he still doesn’t drink it often. “I do try to taste wine from all over the world so that I can get an appreciation for what other people are doing,” he says, noting that he doesn’t drink much of his own wine to avoid developing a “house palate,” which makes it difficult to find the defects in the wine. “I tend not to do that very much so I can be very, very critical,” he says. “For me, being critical has been the best thing I could have done for the business… If there’s something I don’t think is that good, I won’t do it.”

Sovereign Estate wines have received many awards from the International Cold Climate Wine Competition, and in 2014, the winery took top prize for the best Minnesota grape wine—a trophy known as the Minnesota Governor’s Cup—for its single varietal 2013 LaCrescent Wine. “That was very exciting, and it was a very nice validation that we’re on the right track,” Banks says. “But there’s a lot more work to do. One award is not going to mean anything if you can’t do it again every single year.”

Roughly a million decisions go into every bottle of wine, starting with the grapes to use. Sovereign Estate grows La Crescent, Frontenac Blanc and Marquette—cold climate varietals developed by the University of Minnesota. Their vineyard accounts for about 45 percent of the grapes they use to make the wine, so they source grapes and juice from other growers. Banks says that about 75 percent of the winery’s juice came from Minnesota-grown grapes. The winery produces about 6,000 gallons of wine a year.

Grapes grown in Minnesota typically have more acid and sometimes more sugar, and since the winemaking industry is relatively new, local winemakers are still working out the best ways to develop the grapes. Banks says these grapes turn into wines that are higher in acid with more fruit expression. “They’re not necessarily rich or subtle,” Banks says. “They’re usually quite direct and very bright with their fruit, crisp on the palate.”

Banks looks at his role as helping wine-drinkers understand why Minnesota wine is important even though it tastes different from wines they’ve had before. As a part of that education, Sovereign Estate hosts wine dinners and events that feature food and wine pairings.

While his work with the winery is all-encompassing—he’s helped with everything from managing the books to picking the grapes—and time consuming, Banks says that even during peak season, he can still find time for dinner with his 5- and 6-year-old children. “As tricky as a family business can be, that’s where it’s really helpful,” he says. “They were around a lot, even though I was here all the time.”

This is the first in a series of three stories profiling the winemakers of Waconia. Watch for stories highlighting Aaron Schram of Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery in our May issue and Steve Zeller of Parley Lake Winery in our June issue.