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Continuing the series featuring the wines, wineries, and winemakers of Santa Barbara County in the lead-up to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference that officially begins this Friday. In this installment of the ‘get to know the winemaker series,’ we visit with Clarissa Nagy, winemaker, Riverbench Vineyard & Winery.

Please read the previous interviews in the series: Larry Schaffer winemaker/owner of Tercero Wines; Paul Wilkins winemaker at Alta Maria Vineyards; Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, and Steve Fennell winemaker at Sanford Winery.

In 2004, following an ownership change, Riverbench Winery was founded to begin producing wine from their estate vineyard that has provided fruit to many notable Santa Barbara County wineries for four decades.

Today’s featured Santa Barbara County winemaker found the wine industry while pursuing a food science degree.

Clarissa, you have a degree in Food Science. How did you transition from food science to winemaking?
I am one of the winemakers who are blessed to fall into the industry. Winemaking found me actually. I studied Food Science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. There was no enology program at the time and I graduated the year Viticulture became a minor. I worked as an intern at a sensory and marketing research company as a Food Scientist. Several of our clients were wineries. After graduating, I took a harvest internship at Edna Valley Vineyard. It gave me the opportunity to stay on the Central Coast while I was interviewing for Food Science positions. I ended up loving working at the winery and decided that is what I wanted to do. I was there for almost a year. Firestone and Curtis had a position for Assistant Enologist. I was there for 5 years and worked my way up to Assistant Winemaker. From there, I worked at Byron Winery, Longoria, and landed a job as winemaker at Bonaccorsi Wine Company. I was there for five years, until I took the job at Riverbench when Chuck Ortman retired.


Photo credit: Riverbranch Winery & Vineyard

I have worked on the Central Coast of CA my entire career. I planned to be in  Santa Maria a few years and then on to Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand to make Pinot Noir. There is just something so unique and special, that I just couldn’t leave Santa Barbara County.

Describe your wine growing philosophy?
I love aromatics and flavor profiles. I enjoy tasting grapes and the unique character in each vineyard, micro-climate, and clone. My approach is light handed. My end goal is for those enjoying the wine will have the same organoleptic experience when they drink the wine, as I did tasting the grapes and making the wine.

How has the wine narrative in California, and the larger wine world, changed since your first vintage?
When I first began in the industry, Central Coast Pinot Noir and Rose were challenging to sell. I enjoy making and drinking both immensely. Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County started to get more recognition in 2004. I have seen demand increase for Rose in the last several years. Sparkling was made in San Luis Obispo County, but not widely in Santa Barbara County. Now you can find a very nice selection from our region. It’s very exciting to see how things ebb and flow over time.

What is the one myth about wine that you would like to see ended?
People often ask me what pairs best with which varietal. By nature, I like to experiment. I like to drink wines with all types of food. I’d love for people to be comfortable drinking what they like with what they like to eat. I’d love to dispel the myth that a certain wine only goes well with a specific dish.

The Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) is a fast-paced, wine-soaked weekend with many wines, stories and experiences. What would you like WBC attendees to know about you, your wines, and/or your Riverbench?
CLARISSA: I’d love people to realize how much winemaking has become part of who I am. Hopefully, my passion is translated into their tasting experience. Our vineyards were planted in 1973. I am blessed to work with Martini clone with 40 years vine age, as well as newer Clonal plantings from 1999 and 2007. We focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which grows exceptionally well in our region.

Clarissa will be not be able to attend WBC so Riverbranch General Manager, Laura Booras will be introducing attendees to Riverbranch wines during the conference.

LAURA (Riverbench General Manager): Another exciting thing that sets Riverbench apart is our sparkling wine program, something that is rare in Santa Barbara County. We started making sparkling wine in 2008, producing the first SIP Certified bubbly in the county. Now our sparkling portfolio has grown to include four bottlings. We have a perfect site for growing sparkling wine grapes and hope to develop this program over time.

What does Riverbench hope to gain from the WBC experience?
CLARISSA: We hope to make some connections with other wine lovers, who love our region as much as we do.

LAURA: Riverbench Vineyard was planted in 1973, but since we only sold grapes until 2006, many still don’t know that we now produce our own wines, still and sparkling, under the Riverbench label. We hope to introduce as many people as we can to our wine program, which focuses on approachable and food friendly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

What wines will Riverbench be sharing with the WBC group? Why did you select these particular wines to share at the conference?
We will be sharing the Cork Jumper Blanc de Blanc. Our vineyard was planted in an ancient riverbed. The soil’s high organic matter lends to higher pH’s than in other areas of the Santa Maria Valley. I am able to pick with low sugars, 19 Brix, with balanced acid at 9.0 g/l total acidity. It produces a beautiful, well balanced wine with great cellaring potential.

What is the most exciting grape variety you work with, and why?
Pinot Noir challenges me. I make seven different Pinot Noir bottlings from our Estate and they are all unique and show specific characteristics based on their soils and clones. Pinot is very finicky and if you don’t get it right, it will let you know. It’s like the quiet child that you have to draw out of its shell. If you treat it to harshly, you won’t experience it’s full potential. When you treat it gently, it will shine beyond your expectation.

What would you be doing if you weren’t making wine?
I can’t imagine doing anything other than make wine, but if I did, it would have to be in something in the aromatics arena. It would be fabulous to shadow a perfumer and intern with them for a season.

What vintners or regions do you look to for inspiration (and favorite wines)?
I adore Pinot Noir and look to Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand, and Santa Barbara County for inspiration. I especially look to other Santa Maria Valley Vintners for inspiration, such as Byron and Foxen. We approach winemaking in a similar fashion, so I always enjoy seeing how they are approaching things. My favorites are always changing. Some of my factories right now are Domaine Perrot-Minot Chambolle-Musigny 2011 Pinot Noir and Byron Nielson Vineyard Swan Clone 2012 Pinot Noir.

What is the worst (wine related) mistake you’ve ever made?
My first day on the job at Riverbench, I was sitting with our General Manager and Vineyard Manager tasting through the current vintage. I came in after harvest and we were tasting through lots. Laura was telling me that historically our Bedrock Chardonnay was fermented in Stainless Steel with no malolactic fermentation. I was also reviewing the lab analysis for each lot as we tasted. I had to tell her, all except this vintage! Primary and secondary occurred simultaneously and it was already through Malo 100%. We had a good laugh about it. Thankfully, the wine was balanced and tasted great. I now make the Bedrock fermented in stainless with partial malo-lactic fermentation. In this case, the mistake worked in our favor.

What wine do you not currently make but would like to? (or, what variety do you not currently grow but would like to)?
I don’t make any Sauvignon Blanc, but love to drink it. Presqu’ile made a Sauvignon Blanc from Riverbench Vineyard Estate while they were waiting for their own vineyard to come online in production. I loved the character in that wine. I’d have a bit of a learning curve though. I haven’t worked with the varietal in 14 years.

What did you drink last night?
Laurent-Perrier Brut Cuvée Rose and Foxen Bien Nacido Steel Cut 2012 Chardonnay.

Riverbench Vineyard and Tasting Room
6020 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, California 93454
(805) 937-8340

New tasting room in Santa Barbara’s ‘Funk Zone’
137 Anacapa Street, Suite C
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
(805) 324-4100

Thank you Clarissa and Laura!

Readers can meet Laura during the panel discussion on Thursday and on Saturday evening.