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.