Local Hero Spotlight: Back of House

An Interview with Assistant Winemaker/Distiller at Vara Winery & Distillery

Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Djuna Benjamin at Vara’s production warehouse.

“I still have much to learn, and I look forward to all the lessons I have in my future,” says Djuna Benjamin, whom her employers call “a veritable powerhouse and an integral part of team Vara.” A native of Albuquerque’s South Valley, she earned a degree in biology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. During her sophomore year, she studied in Alsace, France, where she was introduced to truly outstanding wines, sparking a lifelong passion for the ephemeral, beautiful relationship between two of life’s greatest pleasures: food and wine. After spending nearly a decade in Oregon, and like a true New Mexican, she bid farewell to the rain and returned to Albuquerque in 2019. She stumbled across Vara in July 2019 and became production manager in January 2021. In her free time, Benjamin hikes with her dog, Morty, writes songs on her guitar, cooks bountiful meals for her friends and family, and puts glitter on everything. And she has more than a hundred houseplants!

You started at Vara as a server; now you’re the production manager. Why Vara, and how has your role evolved over your time there?

When I interviewed at Vara in 2019, I loved the product right away. The story, people, and passion behind the project immediately resonated with me. I began working as a server with no expectations as to what it would lead to. About five months after I took the job, I was asked by cofounder Doug Diefenthaler if I had any interest in production. I jumped at the opportunity, and it changed my life.

I started with just a few hours a week in the winery, caring for barrels and observing the processes of production. I fell in love with the work and began to focus all my energies on learning as much as I could about all that goes into making it happen. I learned both outside and inside Vara, and I am very proud of what I have accomplished.

Tell us about your interest in wine. What sparked it? What are some of your favorite blends or varietals?

I have always been an enthusiast of fine food and beverage. I honed a lot of my knowledge early, working in fine dining establishments while earning my bachelor’s degree in Portland. There are few things that can bring me as much contentment as a plate of good food and a great glass of wine to complement it. My interest in wine began because of its epic ability to elevate a good meal. I am now convinced that most situations can be made better with a glass of something good (red, white, or pink) in your hand.

Djuna Benjamin and Vara bright tanks.

Describe a typical work day. How does it start? Where do you work? What aspects of the job might surprise people unfamiliar with wine and spirits production?

In my role, my day is split between the production floor and the office. I always start with a look around the facility to determine what needs to be accomplished. I spend the first few hours each morning with my amazing production team, bottling our products, distilling, pressing grapes, tasting, blending, and cleaning—so very much cleaning! After the grunt work, I am in my office handling all orders, budgets, taxes, communications, and planning for our yearly production goals.

There are two aspects that I think may surprise those unfamiliar with this type of work, because they certainly surprised me when I started: the amount of time you spend cleaning and the amount of time you spend on a forklift. I spend what feels like half of my life with a hose in my hand or behind the wheel of a forklift.

What’s a dish you want to prepare this holiday season, and what wine or spirit will you pair it with?

I find no greater joy than in spending time, energy, and love on a meal and sharing it with family and friends. I absolutely adore a good dinner party. In the winter, I like making roasts. The process of marinating, slowly cooking, and finally tasting the fruits of a forty-eight-hour labor of love is something I do often in the colder months. With a meal like that, I have never been disappointed with a nice Bordeaux or a central coast California syrah.

What’s a local food issue that’s important to you?

Mutual aid, sustainable farming, and sustainable production practices are all very important to me. Two organizations that I have immense respect for are ABQ Mutual Aid and Three Sisters Kitchen. Both are committed to creating accessible spaces and systems that make food available to members of our community that need assistance.

Reducing waste and use of plastic, as well as reusing glass and other packaging materials, are just a few ways to make the production of food and beverage more sustainable. As a winery and distillery, we create a lot of organic and inorganic by-products. In the past year, we have found ways to reuse our leftovers by composting, feeding local livestock, and saving our bottles to be refurbished and reused. It is an important practice to look at what you are about to throw away and think about how it might be useful somewhere else.

Anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

In my experience, women, nonbinary folks, and minorities are not often found in leadership positions in this industry. I never thought I would have this career, but after finding it I can’t imagine doing anything else. I hope that others are inspired to pursue paths that aren’t readily accessible to them.

Learn more about VARA Winery and Distillery.