Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ladies of Champagne...and the Santa Maria Valley

If you've ever heard any of the stories of how Champagne got started (read: The Widow Cliquot by Mazzeo), then you're familiar with those hard-working, brilliant, inspiring women of the region who, let's be honest, made it all happen.

Mme. Cliquot was essentially the heroine of those days, which were particularly unstable and troubling thanks to wars, weather, a terrible economy and lack of funds, and, of course, the attitude of the world against women in business.

Most people, even the strong willed ones, would have given up trying to make Champagne successful, but Mme. Cliquot just kept at it. She believed in her product and relentlessly studied the science behind making sparkling wines, constantly set about improving the process, and knew, very deep down, that someday it would all come together.

Now, I'm not about to start comparing myself to this extraordinary woman, but I can't help but be inspired by her as not only a woman in the wine industry, but as one who has fostered a deep and passionate love affair with all wines sparkling for many years. This obsession has led me to not only taste, examine, and enjoy countless bottles of bubbly, but to learn the process of making exquisite sparkling wines from the grapes to the end product. It's fascinating and relatively untouched, especially in Santa Barbara County, where few pioneers have dared to even try it. (Definite props to Flying Goat Cellars, who really got into it first.)

We started experimentally making sparkling wine in 2008 out of only Chardonnay, operating under the assumption that if it turned out tasty, then one made with Pinot Noir would be outstanding. Winemaker Clarissa Nagy is an admirer of sparkling wines and Champagnes as well, and immediately showed excitement in our budding program, adding her own unique touches. Gerald Ployez, a Frenchman whose family hails from Champagne and has made it for centuries, offers his insight, experience, and equipment, which help us as newbies make the best quality sparkling wine. The process is long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous (Gerald's arms are scarred from explosive bottles!). Yet we have continued to combat the obstacles against making sparkling wine to introduce the three in our portfolio that have, quite simply, become some of the most gorgeous bubblies made domestically.

Trust a girl who's tasted 'em all.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wanna See My Shake Face?

My world is wine with a little beer mixed in, so cocktails are relatively new to me. But they're making a comeback, and the more I taste some of the purer, fresher quality concoctions, the more intrigued I become. I gotta start out slow, so right now I mostly enjoy drinks made with a little wine.

Making cocktails is a little like being a mad scientist. Limitless different ingredients, mixed together in different ways to make thousands of different drinks. And when you shake your masterpiece with some ice, the expression on your face is called your "shake face." One bartender I met claims to have seven different faces; I'm gonna stick to just perfecting one.

My friend Jason Burton (pictured here with Brent Anderson, Stir Branding) from The LAB is a pro, and this summer he invented a drink that uses Riverbench Chardonnay. He served it at a recent tasting we hosted, and it was, in short, eye opening. I might be in love with St. Germain Elderflower. I bragged about our Riverbench cocktail to my owners and it ended up on the Far Western Tavern's bar menu, named, embarassingly, for me: the Mohseni. I'll probably always think of it and remember this past (unbearably hot) summer's trip in Kansas City, where it was invented, but I'm super honored.

The takeaway here? Dive in, folks. The cocktails are fine.

Try our very own Riverbench cocktail, and work on your own shake face. Here's the recipe:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alien Invasion

The other night, I was driving home from class around midnight and saw intensely bright and somewhat eerie lights throughout vineyards as I passed. Hulking machinery, which vaguely resembles alien space craft, lumbered through rows of vines, and tiny tractors pulling huge bins wove in and out. Extra-terrestrial invasion? Nope, just vineyards picking their grapes by machine.

While hand harvesting grapes is all around better, most large scale production wineries use machines to harvest their grapes. It's not as delicate, but it doesn't really matter because the fruit that is picked goes into lower priced wines. (It costs about $55 per acre to pick by machine, compared to over $350 per acre to do it by hand, so the math speaks for itself.) At Riverbench, we pick the fruit for our wines by hand, but for one of our vineyard clients, machine harvesting is it.

Picking by machines is done at night because it's cooler, and nobody wants a hot bin of grapes. They have high beam lights to make sure everything is illuminated, so it really does give the impression, at least from far away, that alien craft might be landing in the vineyard.

Craving my own alien encounter, I ventured out for a night picking experience. Earlier that day, Jim showed me every part of the machine up close so that I would understand what would happen and how it would work. It's hard to explain, but you can see by the pictures that the machine is pulled over each row, and the arms inside shake the vines to remove the grapes. These are then pulled by a conveyor belt into a gondola a few rows over, which collects the fruit. I don't mean to romanticize something that is rather aggressive on the vines, but the machinery is astounding. All those moving parts! Additionally, those guys driving the heavy machinery in pitch black dark perfectly? Stupefying. I can't even parallel park.

Jim and I followed along behind the machine to make sure it was picking right. It's a ton of walking, and dust, leaves, grape matter, and who knows what else completely covered us after just a few minutes. It was cold, but we were walking so much I didn't feel it. Riding on top of the machine was pretty killer, too; you can see every working part. Being about 10 feet up in the air is kind of empowering, too, especially for someone 5 feet tall. It was an adrenaline rush, and probably one of the coolest things I got to do this harvest.

Afterwards, we had a little while to just chill and wait for the fruit to come in, so me, Jim, and Raul, one of the foremen, watched the stars, talking about everything from beers to grapes to families to beers. And the aliens...well, they were probably up there just laughing at us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Clarissa Explains It All

Well, harvest is officially over for Riverbench Winery. The vineyard still has another week until all of the fruit is picked, but for the most part things are starting to calm down as cool weather approaches. And while I didn't get to work nearly as much as I wanted to with the fabulous Ms. Nagy (the day job got in the way), every moment was full of new things to learn. Here's a recap of the highlights:

Inoculations! Not only is it a cool word, but it's a cool thing to do. Clarissa explains that while native yeasts (those which occur naturally in the vineyard) are beneficial, they're not always predictable or constant. So if you truly want the best quality wine, it is best to inoculate with yeast which, by the way, is not man-made, but the real thing just produced in bulk. Adding it helps prevent stuck fermentations and other problems in a wine's baby stages.

I loved learning to inoculate, and I especially loved mixing the warm yeast/juice slurry with my hands. It smells amazing, and made me feel a little like a mad scientist.

Punchdowns! I didn't have time to do my usual kickboxing some mornings, but punchdowns more than made up for it. Clarissa showed me how to stand on top of a wooden plank balanced across the fermenter and then use a punchdown tool to mix the red destemmed grapes and juice. This keeps the color strong throughout and releases the most intoxicating smells of fermented wine. I find it super therapeutic, and man, your arms and back ache after! I not only got to do these by hand, but also got to "drive" the pneumatic punchdown tool this year, too. "Laura has the cleanest punchdowns ever!" See, I knew there would someday be a perk to having OCD.

Sorting! Again, the OCD makes me good at this, I think. Clarissa uses a very efficient sorting/destemming machine with a long conveyor belt which allows someone to stand over it and pick out pieces of vine, raisins, and leaves. Then off it goes to remove the stems from the grapes. I LOVED this- you have to work fast or it will get away from you, and it involves grabbing handfuls of grapes and picking out what shouldn't be there. Ultimately, this helps remove what could lead to undesirable flavors in a wine before you even start letting it ferment. With a new sorting table at our facility, this is the first year Riverbench has really been able to do this.

Overall, what can I say? Actually doing a little harvest work this year was pretty invigorating, exciting, and nerve wracking, but also so much fun! And Clarissa is truly an outstanding teacher. She explains things clearly and without being pretentious. She's calm and patient, the mark of a truly great winemaker. I learned so much just watching her and asking her a million questions. She is one of the most inspiring people I know, not only in the way she approaches her work, but in how she lives her life and shows such kindness to others. That, and she kicks ass and takes names in the cellar.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's A Beautiful Day In the Vineyard

Day. Night. It all starts to blend together for Jim Stollberg, our vineyard manager, this time of year. He's up for hand picks at 2 AM most mornings, and often not sleeping for days at a time. When he walks into the Riverbench house and slams the door in his signature way, we're often surprised to see that, all in all, he's in a pretty darn good mood considering.

Jim was kind enough to let me ride around with him (and his trusty companion, Charlie, who supervises all from the back of the truck) one morning last week, which was a little like watching a pro in action. I know the ins and outs of Riverbench the business in my sleep, but Jim can go right to a specific vineyard block, varietal, road, or gate without thinking twice (or getting a full night's rest). It's clear his vineyard crews respect him; they smile genuinely when he drives up, converse quickly in Spanish, and then he moves on to the next location. While we drove around together, Jim was simultaneously overseeing picks for Andrew Murray, Hitching Post, and several locations for our Riverbench wine program all at once.

It's this multitasking, attention to detail, and, plain and simple, the love of the vine that makes Jim so great at what he does. And I know that he's like me in that our work has become our lives, and it just isn't fair to call it "a job."

You know how when your mom makes you a sandwich it just tastes better because she made it with love? Well. Think about it.

It takes some pretty serious dedication to go without sleep for so long just for the sake of those grapes, but that's what he loves and that's what he does. And I guarantee that our wines are all the better for it.

(Check out that magical Santa Maria Valley fog we all know and love. I could barely see 5 feet in front of me driving out that morning.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Tribute to Fred

Small business seems to have changed meaning these days; in my world, a company with 50 employees doesn’t really constitute small. As a General Manager, people often ask what exactly I do, and my answer is always different. Some days, I’m out on the road selling wine, hosting dinners or tastings, or supporting accounts. Others, I'm making invoices, filling out mountains of paperwork, or attending meetings. And every once in a while I get to fix a toilet, kick a computer until it starts working again, or (my newest conquest) even drive a forklift. This harvest will involve some morning picks and then press loads and getting purple hands. Never a dull moment.

But if you really want to hear about a small business endeavor, you’ll need to think of Fred Stollberg. Fred is our vineyard manager Jim's father, and though he’s responsible for many important things around here, his most notorious job is applying the gorgeous pink wax “swoop” to our Rosé. Check this out: in the back winery building, Fred has a Fry Daddy full of pink wax, which he mixes with just the right amount of glycerin so that it’s not too hard or too soft. He applies the little pull strips to the bottles, dips, and…voila! You've got the famous rosé swoop. And you have Fred to thank for it.

(He kind of cursed himself by being so good at this, so now we apply wax to our Riesling and Tributary bottles as well.)

So at Riverbench when we say we're involved from grape to bottle, we really mean we do it all, every step of the way. Now that's one awesome small business team.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Harvest Begins: My First Day As A Cellar Rat

A few months ago, winemaker Clarissa Nagy agreed to let me shadow her this harvest. Her enthusiasm is catching, and immediately got me giddy. When she told me we were to pick Pinot Noir for our rose sparkling wine on Friday, August 24, I started to get nervous. So many things I've never done before! Those butterflies in my stomach felt like bats.

Before he left, my husband reminded me not to trip on or fall into anything.

Jim, our vineyard manager, asked if I would wear a microphone so he could, presumably, laugh at my inevitable complaints.

What can I say? I'm smiling at the fact that the men in my life are used to the girly girl in me.

But I think that's kind of the beauty of it. See, I noted on Friday that winemaking is not as easy as so many people make it out to be. Making wine, like making cheese, is an art but also very scientific. Pictures will explain this better.

Here's the fruit- seriously, aren't these gorgeous? I've seen a lot of grapes in my day, but these stand out.

We tasted the juice all through the press process, which took about two hours. It's amazing how color and flavors change as the grapes are pressed. This year's vintage comes from the Mesa block, which usually presents a darker color; we'll have to remember to notice if the finished 2012 Cork Jumper rose is a little pinker!

The free-run juice is put straight into tank to settle for a few days, with one exception. Last year, two barrels were filled with the last of the juice and apparently they contributed some really outstanding colors and flavors to the final blend, so we did that again. Two lots were put straight into neutral oak, and Clarissa showed me step by step how to inoculate them. I won't bore you with a long description of the process, but let's just say that the yeast and juice mixed together to make a cocktail of heady deliciousness that was poured right in.

As a note, cheesemaking has been a solo pursuit of mine, as my area doesn't have any local professional cheesemakers. I've destroyed a lot of milk and ruined plenty of cheese. So it's pretty cool to be learning at the hands of someone like Clarissa, who explains things clearly. The woman knows her stuff, but she's not pretentious or condescending, and she has no ego. It's refreshing. I owe her a huge, huge "thank you" for letting me tag along for this adventure. It's a bit of a bucket list thing for me to finally work a harvest after eight years in California.

So...overall? Successful day! I didn't break, spill, or fall into anything. And I can't wait to go back for more.

Friday, August 17, 2012

'Cause Riverbench bees are the best

Some people like massage. Others like a good bubble bath. Some people sit by the fire with a glass of wine and a good book (actually, that works for me, too). But in my opinion, relaxing is all about having thirty thousand little honey bees buzzing around me at once.

Before you try committing me to the looney bin, think on this. I just so happen to have the nicest bees in the world. I first brought them to Riverbench two years ago after being trained as an amateur beekeeper. My mentor, David, had kindly offered to put my new bees into my hive for me since I was out of town on a business trip when they came in. This, however, involved a 45 minute drive from his place to Riverbench, where my new set of 10,000 buzzing babies was put inside the car and strapped down. We went early in the morning while they were still sleeping and cold. David’s advice for if we hit a bump and the hive came loose in the car? GET OUT.

Luckily, this perilous drive ended well and my bees were happily installed in their new home in the vineyard, where they’ve been thriving ever since. And since that first day in my bee suit, I’ve never worn it again because I have the friendliest bees in the world. I don’t use a smoker, even to open the hive, because they don’t swarm or sting. I’ve taken guests out there to see them and even touch them on the comb, like in this picture, which is one of the most earth-shattering experiences. Their little vibrating bodies are warm and friendly, and give you the most amazing rush touching them.

Next spring I’m looking to convince Jim, our ever-patient vineyard manager, to let me add a few more hives around the place. You can never have enough friendly bees.

For your pure enjoyment, I'm going to post the picture below, which was taken the first time I had to wear full gear with my bees. Sometimes I put it on just for kicks, so the people in the tasting room wonder what's up. I know, I look like I'm in space, but I'll endure the relentless teasing I'm bound to get.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wine Dinner with Trattoria Uliveto

I recently realized that this week marks my five year anniversary with Riverbench. It feels like just yesterday that I donned the pink hard hat to start the construction of the tasting room. Ah, memories.

Anyway, the point of this blog is that over the past five years, we've only done a handful of wine dinners each year for various reasons. All that is about to change now that we have Clarissa, our new winemaker, who is great at hosting them. I've also got more staff now, so it gives me time for things like this. Expect great things.

Monday night was our dinner at Trattoria Uliveto in Orcutt, and it was truly one of the best food and wine pairing experiences I've had recently. I love Uliveto because it's a warm, welcoming place with awesome Italian food. But for this dinner, Chef Alfonso Curti pulled out all the stops.

The first course was a tuna tartare paired with our 2009 Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs. It was unique because he mixed the fish with avocado (love!) so the creaminess really balanced out the effervescence of the bubbles.

Next, Alfonso indulged me with one of my favorite pairings In. The. World. Bacon and 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir. If you haven't tried it, you should. This bacon wrapped scallop dish was a perfect summer starter, and one of the favorites of the evening.

As if we weren't already happy enough, the third dish, which was a sweet corn ravioli with a porcini cream sauce, pretty much made the night. You know those moments when you match a wine and a dish perfectly? I mean so perfectly that your mouth sort of sighs in relief? That's what happened with a sip of our 2009 Estate Chardonnay. I'm still thinking about it.

The fourth course had everyone asking questions, because it was sea bass paired with our 2009 Mesa Pinot Noir, which is a bit unconventional. I don't believe in the whole "white wine with fish" thing, so asked everyone to give it a try and be open minded. And it was perfect together because there was just enough pepper; a wimpy white wine would have been disappointing. By the way, do you know how hard it is to cook fish perfectly for 70 people? Kudos, Chef.

Stuffed, but pressing on, we moved to a moist and succulent quail at my request. I had a quail risotto there that I fell in love with a while back, and since the birdie goes so well with our Pinot Noir, Chef put this together as a fifth course. Delicious would be an understatment, but I'm running out of descriptive food words in this post. Something about the gaminess of the bird with our earthier single clone 667 2009 One Palm Pinot just works really well.

There was dessert. Chocolate cake, a berry tartlet, and...drumroll, please!...a cannoli. Chef doesn't make his cannoli super sweet, so it was magical with our off-dry 2011 Riesling. Magical, I tell you! Everyone in the place went home happy, and I'm looking forward to another awesome five years full of exactly this type of evening.

A huge thank you to staff member Jules Reuter, pictured here with his lovely fiancée, Penni, for the awesome photos.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rock Star in Kansas City

Sometimes, selling wine can be a drag. There's so much competition and so many reps on the road these days, so you’ve got to try to stand out. I’m not very good at that, as I have a knack for being unable to kiss ass. What I am good at, however, is absolutely completely truly and terrifyingly loving what I do.

It’s a jolt to stumble onto people who appreciate that, and many of those people live, unexpectedly, in Kansas City, Missouri. Without exaggeration, talking wine with folks there is a pleasure because they’re passionate, too. My bud Jason Burton (The LAB) tells me it’s because they can appreciate artisans, and I think that’s part of it. The other part might be that they’re genuinely fun folks who love to have a good time and appreciate really special things.

My opinion of those outstanding KC folks was elevated and cemented thanks to a tasting at Lukas Liquors hosted by Jodi Dyer and Dennis Schaefer. I already have a soft spot for Dennis, because he was the first journalist to write about Riverbench when we first opened four years ago. The rest of the group was just as cool; they asked awesome questions about food pairings (my favorite thing) and who puts the pink wax on our rose (our vineyard manager’s dad, Fred, who deserves a post solely dedicated to him). I don’t think I stopped talking the whole time, but the time flew by because it was just so darn fun.

I think Sean and Michael (QED Wine Purveyors) who sell our wines in KC must only take me to the good places, because every account is friendly, excited about the wine, and supportive. I do think that good people should surround themselves with other good people, as it promotes that positive energy. Seems like that’s what these guys do. They’re the epitome of a small business, a two man sales team who are working hard to spread the story of California’s artisan winemakers. It’s not an easy task, but they do it and they do it well. They treat me rather like a rock star, which is an incredible ego boost, but it’s because they love what we’re doing at Riverbench, and respect the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into it. It’s probably largely because of them that I’ve fallen a bit in love with Kansas City.

So KC, and all the charming and wonderful people there, thank you. Thanks for “getting” it, supporting it, and living it!

Monday, July 23, 2012


There's nothing like surrounding yourself with inspiring people to make you feel, well, inspired.

And for the past week, that's exactly what I've done.

I took an exam a few weeks ago, and received feedback from my professor recently. Since the tests are graded blindly, he had written something to the effect of: "I don't know who you are, but please tell me, because you are an outstanding writer." On exam essay questions?! For realz?

Those who know me know I'm terrible at compliments, and this one was no exception and caught me completely off-guard. Sure, I like writing. But only in the past few years have I thought about actually being decent at it.

Which took me to the next thought: I have so many amazing things to say about Riverbench and the wine country lifestyle, and I'm not sharing them because I've always treated this blog like my own personal cheese making complaint platform.

So from here on out, things change. This becomes the official Riverbench blog, containing accounts from my exciting sales trip visits, my "apprenticeship" with winemaker Clarissa Nagy this fall, winery updates and goodies, and, of course, the ongoing saga of being an amateur cheesemaker and beekeeper on the property.

I can't wait to share it. And Dr. W, (along with the others I have just been ignoring for a while) thanks for being my inspiration!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Get Your Goat!

I'm very excited because this weekend I was able to make some goat cheese out of some local raw milk! I've never had to actually pasteurize anything myself; the process involves heating the milk and holding it at a steady temperature for 30 minutes, then rapidly cooling it down so the proteins don't get damaged. Holding milk at this temperature for a long period of time was difficult but I did it! Next, the cheese. Easy...I've made this cheese 1000 times now. Heat, add starter, coagulate, drain. And let me tell you, it's delicious! So creamy white and gorgeous. I can't wait to play around with it some more.