Thursday, March 27, 2014

Smell Up

In February, winemaker Clarissa Nagy and I attended Alexandre Schmitt's Olfaction Seminar in Napa. She had seen him do a short presentation previously, and told me she learned more in that few minutes as a winemaker than any other seminar. We signed up as soon as we could.

I'm going to brag a little here: Clarissa and I have amazingly detailed and exact palates. When we taste together, we both pick up minute details that most people wouldn't, and since we're both foodies, too, we love to use analogies and make pairings as we do so. In fact, I would put our palates against those of almost anyone in the county as far as identifying flavors and nuances in wine. The cool thing is, the two of us work well together because we pick up different things. Because I cook so much, my knack for noting spices and savory food flavors is impeccable, whereas her strengths are unparalleled in flowers and fruits. Seriously, she nails it almost every time, even if she's unsure. It's remarkable.

Through two days of building a sensory library, which included scents from oils of specific things but also certain chemical compounds that are found in wine, our noses were exhausted. But it was intriguing, and left us wanting more. We committed to meeting once a month to do more sensory evaluation, and made that happen recently.

Even smelling some of the same scents you've smelled before is challenging: they fade or become more concentrated, and smelling them in a different environment changes everything. Your mood or what you had for breakfast affects it, too. We take over the VIP room and surround ourselves with 300 tiny pieces of paper, each with a different scent, and talk like geeks. "Is it resiny?" she'll ask. "Definitely dry and woody," I'll respond. It goes on like this until we get tired, usually about an hour.

All in a day's work, for sure.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hot Like Fire

I'm a little late in reporting this, but in January, Riverbench was given a truly special honor. Wine Business Monthly Magazine selected us to be one of their Top Ten Hot Brands of the year, allowing us the opportunity to be part of a big article in the publication and also to pour at their Bottle Bash, which took place on the opening night of Unified Symposium in Sacramento. What an epic way to start 2014! Our wine, the 2011 Estate Pinot Noir, was so well received at the party that we ran out early. The truth is that being selected legitimized everything we've been building here for the past several years, so I couldn't be more thrilled.

Building Riverbench has been an adventure, to say the least. We started with a vineyard. That's it. Now we've got two gorgeous tasting rooms, high end restaurant accounts throughout California and in several other states. We have a killer team who makes it all happen. And we've got a positive reputation in our community among other wine industry folks and businesses, which was the main goal all along.

I'm proud of what we've done and excited for what we will do. Next up: Take over the world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sparks In The City

San Francisco is one of my favorite places in the world. I've always called it the most European city in America, with its distinctive architecture and charm. It's loaded with culture. When I arrive there, I can almost feel the whirlwind of thoughts by people who know more than me about so many things. It makes me want to learn (Yes, I want to go to the Cartier exhibit! Yes, show me Fort Mason!) and it makes me want to just get lost. Mostly, though, the food and wine culture just envelops me completely.

I have a dilemma whenever I visit: do I visit my favorite restaurants and wine bars, or try some new ones? Inevitably I end up doing both, though when I go for work I end up typically being given a list of accounts to visit. I keep a list of places I want to go, and this list is infinite because I'm constantly adding to it. All I can say is I thrive in a city where I can get Burmese food on a Tuesday night.

I visited last week to work with my most awesome sales rep, Leif. The coolest thing about having worked the market for six years now is seeing how Riverbench has gained presence as a brand. Yes, the food and wine culture there is amazing, but that also means it's seriously difficult for a new wine label to break into, especially considering the Napa/Sonoma proximity. Having so many accounts in San Francisco, thanks to Leif mostly, is pretty rad since we started with none.

Some of my favorites include this kickass little Italian place called Frascati, whose wine buyer Justin loves great wine and loves pairing it with great food even more. If you haven't been there, go. And order...well, everything.

Another fun one is Say Cheese, a gourmet shop that has obscure and funky cheeses and really fun wines. I get intoxicated by stinky cheese, so it's the place to be.

Finally, it's not one of my accounts YET, but it WILL be someday when I have bubbles to sell wholesale. The Bubble Lounge is my kinda place: laid back, a little dark but comfy, and fully stocked with great Champagnes and sparkling wines from all over the world. Heaven.

See you again soon, SF. I'll be back.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Life From the Seat of a Tractor

When I was little, my dad bought a farm.

He's a beer and wine importer and was, at the time, working 100 hours a week growing his company. But he still bought a farm.

The years following were a series of pretty comical stories as he attempted to, with the help of his neighbors, become a part time farmer living off the land. Always his faithful sidekick, I remember tagging along (at 4 AM, no less) when he went to his first farmers market to sell his organic lettuces. It was then that I realized a few things: first, there's way more to growing your own stuff than I realized, and second, my dad is a true salesman. I don't mean the latter in the used car kind of way; on the contrary, he engaged his customers, spoke to them like he understood them, and showed them all how passionate he was about his damn lettuce. He cared so deeply and genuinely wanted his customers to like what he was selling, and he sold every bag of greens effortlessly.

I was inspired. I used some of our hard-earned profits to buy a mini pecan pie from the baker's booth next to us. And then I set out to spend my life trying to become just like him.

Now that he's been farming for twenty years, he has a few words to live by, and I find that those are applicable lessons to all of us farmers, whether you're growing grapes or lettuce.

You cannot unsay a cruel word. This goes for slightly unkind words, too. Keep it real, keep it polite, and keep it as pleasant as you can.

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer. People talk too much sometimes. Quiet stands out.

If you get to thinkin' you're a person of some influence, try ordering someone else's dog around. Yep.

Riverbench may never be the trendiest, loudest, or even most popular winery. We won't elbow our way into the spotlight. We'll passionately and persistently share our relentless quest for quality, and tell you about our efforts because we simply love what we do so much. Because at the end of the day to us, that's what counts.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Comparatively Speaking

Working for a winery is tough business.

Stop laughing. I mean it. Ok, it's only tough part of the time; we DO get to do some fun things now and then.

Like yesterday, when Rawley, Clarissa, and I met for our quarterly comparative blind wine tasting. Four times a year, the four of us get together to taste wines from all over the world blindly. Usually, I slip a Riverbench wine into the mix to see if we can identify it without knowing. We focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but this year we plan to include Riesling, Rose, and maybe even sparkling wines into the mix.

For evaluation, we use an adaptation of the fabulous Mr. Olken from The Connoisseur's Guide's tasting sheet to look at color, body, aroma, and flavors. Then we rate the wines in order of our preferences. The great thing about wine is that you can never be wrong; it's more about practicing using our palates and identifying flavors along the way. It's a super fun and challenging exercise.

Yesterday's tasting was unusually difficult. We tasted four California Chardonnays, and they were all very different. We left with a few interesting takeaways:
- It IS possible to identify wines made from one vineyard. I have gotten better and better at this for Riverbench, having tasted and contributed to our wines for almost 7 years now. I think if you spend that amount of time examining wine, you can definitely learn to do this. The trick is doing that for every vineyard in the world, which is virtually impossible.
- Once again, Riverbench wines make me happy. Seriously. The Chardonnay that turned out to be Riverbench had comments like "fruit jumps out at you" and "happy nose!" I remind you, we were tasting blindly.
- Finally, Riverbench wines are well priced. Our Chardonnay came in first in the lineup (our retail price: $26) among wines priced $30 to $40 a bottle Wowza! A perfect illustration of our wines being approachable.

Now, I better get back to the tough parts of my job.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Circle's over. Harvest came and went, fast and furious, and now the vines are changing colors and we start moving on to other things like the hollidaze. The weather's still truly gorgeous but a few cold nights have reminded us that winter is coming. The vineyard is going to sleep, and the end of the year is approaching.

I'll go ahead and share our big announcement: Harvest 2013 was Jim Stollberg's last here at Riverbench. He's been farming these grapes for a while now, and was a part of the brand when it was just beginning. He's an expert in his field, a hard working and charismatic individual, and always good for a laugh. He interviewed me and was part of the team that hired me, and for that I'll always be grateful. Jim has given his heart and soul to this place, and it will forever have a little piece of him. I know I'll miss him dearly. I mean, really, who else is going to be willing to paint my new beehive so I can rush to put in a wild swarm, or not laugh at my crazy ideas for this place?

But it's a special time for Riverbench, too, as a family business. We're building a legacy and bringing the second generation into the fold. Rawley Hermreck, son of owner Randy Hermreck, will be taking the reins in the vineyard. Rawley has worked for Hampton Farming and is a graduate of Cal Poly's viticulture program, so has deep local roots. Santa Maria is in his blood, and it's time for him to get in the field. No doubt Rawley is ready for the challenge, and ready to put his own touch on the place for the future.

So one cycle ends and another begins, in life and in the vineyard. That's just how we keep things exciting around here!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Sometimes, especially when harvest ends, I get a little down. It's rare, but it does happen, and as a naturally positive person I despise feeling sad.

So, in times like that, I like to think about the things I'm super thankful for.

The best dog in the world. Ever. Seriously, ever.

A sweet mom, smart dad, kewl sisters, and other loving family members.

Wine, specifically Champagne. Chocolate. Uliveto's Tre Funghi pasta. A chance to travel. A lifetime of happy memories. A rockin' job and kind owners. A fun loving and outstanding group of co-workers. Taco Fridays. A good cry. Bubble baths. Les Marchands (do NOT laugh, I seriously have been dying for a wine shop like this to exist in my area for YEARS). My health (and my admission that I'll just never be skinny). Truffles. Foie gras. Really good smelling dirt (I shouldn't admit this, but I've tasted Riverbench dirt, too, and it's rather...nice). Copper pots. Indian food. Friends, who support me no matter how stupid I am sometimes. Indoor plumbing. Croissants. Really good coffee. Oysters. Sunsets. Love, even if it's unrequited. The fact that my MBA program is over. (Ha!)

So many things to be thankful for. And that puts a smile back on my face.