The reality behind 'Bachelor' Ben
Published: Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 20, 2012 at 1:12 p.m.
Ben Flajnik walks through the lobby of Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa at a clip, ducking his head, hoping not to be recognized.
Flajnik is best known to the masses as “The Bachelor,” ABC's reality-TV star who was wooed by 25 women in exotic locations from Belize to Puerto Rico to Switzerland. The season's last segment aired in March.
The winemaker of the Envolve label is passing through Santa Rosa after checking out a vineyard in Mendocino County. Today, he doesn't look TV-polished, but rather a bit rustic. His face has an unshaved stubble beneath his San Francisco Giants baseball cap and he's wearing a maroon T-shirt, jeans and boots.
This reality-TV star has been in living rooms across America, but in reality, who is this bachelor? Flajnik, it turns out, has plenty to say on the topic.
“I'm not a reality-television star,” he says. “I'm not interested in being famous. It was an experience, a story, a springboard, a catalyst to make a change in my life's direction. ... It's television and you can't believe everything you see. It's there for entertainment purposes.”
Flajnik, 29, lives in San Francisco with his business partners and childhood friends Mike Benziger and Danny Fay. He commutes to Sonoma Valley four or five times a week to produce the Envolve and Epilogue labels.
“We work really hard on our wines, but we're not serious people,” Flajnik says. “We know how to enjoy life really, really well, probably better than most.”
Flajnik laughs, an energetic laugh that alludes to his late-night dinners in the city, capped off with drinks until dawn. The gregarious Flajnik says the TV camera didn't always tell the truth.
“It was kind of like the muted version of me,” he says. “I am really quite energetic and funny and outgoing and I don't take myself very seriously, and I have thick skin, obviously.”
While naysayers think Flajnik did the show to promote his brand, Flajnik said that isn't the case.
“Everyone is going to speculate on why I did the show,” Flajnik said. “A lot of it stemmed from my father dying at a young age (55) and these opportunities were being presented to me. I ultimately said, ‘What the hell? What's the worst thing that can happen to me?'”
For the curious, here's what Flajnik has to say about his controversial choice of prospective brides, Courtney Robertson, who some viewers did not like.
“I'm still in love with this girl,” Flajnik says. “Things are good, but we're both realists. ... We just started dating. She has a ring on her finger but we're dating. ... I want people to know that I'm really, really smart despite what they may have seen and heard. ... I understand what I'm doing. I understand what all this means. And I get it.”
Flajnik, resident chef
Flajnik is at his apartment in San Francisco's Marina District, where his roommates Benziger and Fay jokingly call him the “resident chef.”
“You eat with your eyes,” Flajnik says.
He puts a chicken breast, blanketed in a rich marsala sauce, on a bed of pasta and garnishes it with asparagus — three stalks.
“Ben's presentation has become kind of his new obsession,” Benziger says.
Flajnik and Benziger, also 29, have known each other since sixth grade when they went to St. Francis Solano school, a Catholic elementary and middle school in Sonoma. They met up with Fay, 29, in seventh grade, while playing baseball. Mike Benziger is the son of Bob and Kathy Benziger, while Bob is the son of the late Bruno and Helen Benziger, the founders of the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen.
“We couldn't have done it (this business) without the Benziger family,” Flajnik says. “To have those resources for the last four years and still today is why we're here.”
The trio has a winery within a winery at the Benziger Family Winery, and their mentor is Joe Benziger, the winemaker at Imagery Winery in Glen Ellen. But they also work the second shift out of their apartment. On a cabinet in their dining room sit 100-plus bottles containing bulk wine they're considering for their Epilogue label.
Fay points to the bottles and laughs, “Eight, nine, 10 o'clock at night, this is our tasting room right here. This is our blending room.”
The apartment is full of surprises. For one, Flajnik's closet stores 90 pairs of shoes. “I'm a shoe guy,” Flajnik says with a laugh. “I have an endorsement deal with Lacoste Footwear.”
In the living room there are fishing rods in one corner and a bed in the other. (The room doubles as a bedroom.) In the middle of the room there are three connected leather chairs facing the big screen TV where they like to watch the Golden State Warriors. It's here where they spend their scant down time in what they refer to as their “man cave.”
After graduating from the University of Arizona, Flajnik says he created about five startups, ranging from Internet advertising to consulting firms, before creating a brand with Benziger in 2008. Fay joined the team in 2011.
The team began their venture with 400 cases. Envolve is at 3,000 cases right now and they expect to cap that at 7,000. But Epilogue is taking off at 10,000 cases, and they may pump that to 50,000 cases next year.
“Distribution channels outside of California have picked up,” Flajnik says. “We're in 25 Krogers and a bunch of white-tablecloth restaurants in Michigan. They committed to 1,400 cases this month, primarily in Epilogue. They heard of us because of the show.”
Dan Kosta of Kosta Browne in Sebastopol says the team is off to a good start. “They are well on their way to establishing a serious brand,” he said, “and I'm sure they'll want to base the brand not on a stint on reality TV but on the quality of the wines themselves.”
Joe Benziger, their unpaid consultant, says the winemakers are “very hands-on.” “They're buying grapes from some really high quality vineyards,” he said. “They know making good wine starts there.”
Flajnik says after four years of working on his brand, he got his first paycheck last July. He declined to say what he earns from his Lacoste footwear endorsement deal or what he was paid for starring in “The Bachelor.” However, the general industry average for reality celebrities is $10,000-$25,000 per episode, according to Career Builder, an online Hollywood insider magazine.
While Flajnik's current reality is grape-growing, he still often gets stopped for a photo. “I really appreciate it, but my life is so busy. So I often keep my head down, get in, get out,” he says with a laugh. “I realize my head is down a lot more than it used to be.”
Will the bachelor ever run out of his 15 minutes of fame? Flajnik hopes so.
“This reality TV stint won't define me,” Flajnik says. “It's just a little blip. And, you know, the positives did outweigh the negatives.”
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