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Strong ties between Benziger winery, Becoming Independent

It’s just past 9:30 a.m. as Chris Benziger starts work at his extended family’s renowned winery on Sonoma Mountain, above Glen Ellen and below Jack London State Historic Park.

A helper, Robert Brown, carefully unfurls the involuntarily clenched fingers of Benziger’s right hand, then places in his grip the handle of a 5-gallon, green plastic bucket.

With Brown pushing Benziger’s wheelchair, the pair sets out to scan the scenic and heavily visited grounds of Benziger Family Winery for so much as a speck of litter. One of the international destination’s people-moving trams rolls by and the driver calls out, “Hey, Chrissy!” Benziger’s head tilts back as he smiles.

Minutes later, the operator of a passing forklift bearing four oak barrels hails Benziger: “Hola, Amigo! Hola! Hola!”

It happens all the time, observed the man powering Benziger’s wheelchair.

Brown is an instructor with Becoming Independent, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that helps people with developmental disabilities to cultivate work and living skills, secure employment, fend and provide for themselves as independently as possible, socialize and move about in the world, and create art. Many clients work at businesses and public facilities throughout the community; Brown oversees Chris Benziger and other members of the paid Becoming Independent crew that picks up, cleans, rakes and sweeps daily at Benziger Family Winery.

“Chris seems to know every single soul at this winery,” Brown said. “Everybody stops to say, ‘Hi.’?”

Benziger, born with cerebral palsy 30 years ago this fall, is connected by blood to many at the biodynamic winery and at the allied Imagery Estate Winery on Sonoma Highway. Among the heads of the operations are his father, Bob Benziger, uncles Mike, Joe and Chris Benziger and Tim Wallace, aunt Kathy Benziger-Threlkeld and cousin Erinn Benziger Weiswasster.

The younger Chris Benziger is the link that binds the family’s premier wine enterprises to Becoming Independent in a multifaceted and mutually beneficial partnership.

“The lines between Becoming Independent and Benziger are blurred,” said uncle Mike Benziger, eldest of the seven children of the late Bruno and Helen Benziger, and the family operation’s general manager and winegrower.

Evidence of the blending of the two prominent Sonoma County organizations includes the large Becoming Independent fundraising galas conceived by Chris Benziger’s mother, Kathy Benziger, and held many times over the years on winery property.

“Kathy and Bob both have been just phenomenal supporters of Becoming Independent,” said Luana Vaetoe, chief of the nonprofit that serves nearly 1,000 clients and employs a staff of 350. Additionally, Vaetoe said, the agency benefits greatly from the connections and advocacy of members of Chris Benziger’s large, accomplished and engaged family.

“The Benzigers have a great reputation in the valley,” she said. “They inspire their friends to become friends of BI.”

Also key to the symbiosis of the nonprofit and the Benziger clan are the litter-abatement and cleaning workers who are viewed as essential to the winery near Glen Ellen, but are trained, transported and overseen by Becoming Independent.

“When they come every day, it just brightens up our day,” said Joe Benziger, whose roles include that of winemaker for Imagery Estate. “They are so much fun to be around.”

Agreed his brother Mike, “They bring such good, positive energy.” He added that what his nephew and the other members of the Becoming Independent crew do is not make-work.

“They really keep our property looking beautiful and clean and very, very well-represented to the public.” Continuing, Mike Benziger said the members of the Becoming Independent team “provide real work that gives them a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. And they’re a joy to be around.

“We have a relationship with them like they are regular employees. And as far as I’m concerned, the star of the show is Chris Benziger.”

He’s clearly adored by the other Becoming Independent clients, generally three to six of whom board a van at the agency’s downtown Sonoma center at about 9:15 a.m. each workday for the ride to Glen Ellen and the winery.

“He’s a good guy all around,” said crewmember Larry Johnson, better known as LJ, as he wiped down a counter on the winery’s events patio. “His whole family is a cool family.”

Chris Benziger is the one member of the work team unable to walk or to use his hands much beyond the gripping of the litter bucket, or to speak. Johnson and other co-workers said they like his laugh, and they communicate with him largely by asking him “yes” or “no” questions.

Benziger answers in the affirmative by looking directly at the person speaking to him, and indicates “no” by looking away

Said Brown, the Becoming Independent instructor, “It’s great working with that guy. He’s quite the comedian, actually.”

Benziger is part of the winery work crew three mornings a week. In addition to holding the litter bucket, he spots trash and other issues of concern to the workers. Because of his popularity and social nature, he may soon take on more of a role of host/greeter.

Typically in the afternoons and on weekends, he can be found wheeling about Sonoma with a family member, his primary caregiver Tina Hinkley, who has been with him 25 years, or with caregiver Alexis Wingo.

Benziger likes also to travel, go boating, ride on the back of a Jet Ski or take to snowy slopes on adaptive skis. His glee beams as he tours Sonoma on a three-wheeled mechanical wonder whose electric motor is controlled often by Wingo.

“He loves everything with action,” said his mom, Kathy.

At a several-day Benziger family reunion and meeting earlier this summer, a central event was a tour and barbecue at the main campus of Becoming Independent off of Santa Rosa’s Sebastopol Road. Everyone present received a copy of a new, 21-minute video, “A Day in the Life of Chris Benziger.”

It celebrates him, his unifying role in the family and his bringing together ?the Benzigers and Becoming Independent. The camera rested for quite some time on the large family portrait that visitors see as they arrive at the well-groomed winery above Glen Ellen.

There are a lot of Benzigers in the photo, and smack in the middle is the only one with a wheelchair and his own movie.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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