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.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SIP-ping the Good Life

Our annual SIP audit reminded me that I haven't done a blog post in a while about this wonderful program. It's time.

Three years ago, Riverbench Vineyard became SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certified by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. The process was lengthy, involving a full record inspection, questionnaire, and paperwork audit.

We at Riverbench chose this program over other certifications because it supports many great things. It limits our use of harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. It makes us pay attention to natural resource use and conservation. And, importantly, it considers our reputation in the community and the safety and attention we pay to our employees. People matter at Riverbench, as much as our vineyard, so the program was a perfect fit for us.

We're proud to have our vineyard and wines certified by the program. It does so much, more than I could ever describe, so for more information, check out

In talking to Jim about the audit this year, he said he was asked lots of questions to make sure we are keeping up with our commitments.

"Like what," I urged, always bugging him for more information.

"Like...owl boxes," he said.

Wait, we have owl boxes?! How have I worked here six years and not known that we have fifteen...count 'em!...fifteen...owl boxes! How cool is that? I've known owls were great for rodent control (you know, mice and gophers) but never considered they were so vital that SIP would include questions about them in our audit. Very cool!

Photo credit: Stolli, taken early one morning before he had coffee.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

New World Meets Old World: Wine Girl Goes to France

I was born a francophile. My mother instilled in me a love of anything French, and my father made a career of selling French wines. So my recent trip to France was a special treat, as I absolutely love spending time in that country. The food, the language, and oh-my-gosh the wines just all make me so happy.

This trip, we concentrated on an area I hadn't visited before: the Dordogne River valley and Bordeaux. To start we spent a few days in Paris indulging in the gorgeousness that is the city of lights. When in northern France, I always try to order wines from the Loire region which is nearby and focuses on pretty whites made of Chenin Blanc and lighter, more acidic reds primarily made with Cabernet Franc. These wines tend to pair so very, very well with food, making our experiences at each place even more magical. Additionally, Champagne is always allowed, anywhere, anytime. In fact, I personally find it a necessity as an aperatif at each meal. In Bordeaux, I have found that the younger wines tend to be a little rougher for my tastes, so they need some bottle age. Or maybe I'm just weird like that since my birth year is 1982 and that's the most amazing vintage there on record. You be the judge!

I found myself thinking a lot about wine and food each and every day. I've made it my mission in life to study the two, and their relationship to each other. The perfect meal doesn't have to be fancy or planned; all you need is a great bottle of enjoyable wine that doesn't overwhelm the senses and lets you enjoy what you're eating along with it. Food and wine should work together to create the ultimate sensory experience. And when they do...oh my, that's what makes life worth living.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Show Some "Spirit!"

Being a part of the Anacapa Project in Santa Barbara has been eye opening. We have delicious beer thanks to Figueroa Mountain Brewery, amazing wines (especially imports-yay!) thanks to Les Marchands Wine Merchants, outstanding food a la Lucky Penny and The Lark, and artisan spirits made right on site by Ian Cutler.

It's been a pleasure getting to know all of the people involved with these various entities, but Ian of Cutler's Artisan Spirits struck a chord with me and the Riverbench owners for different reasons. My family is from moonshine country, so distilling has always fascinated me, and one of my owners loves (loves loves loves) grappa. We have been making a small amount of honey infused grappa through Riverbench for the past year or so.

Last Thursday, Ian granted me the extreme privilege of allowing me to shadow him for a few hours to watch him in action. His chemistry know-how is mind blowing, and it was pretty cool to see the commonalities and differences between making spirits and making wine. Ian's place is like a mad scientist's lab, except he's methodical, organized, and deliberate (aka, not a mad scientist). Not to mention he's super talented and making truly remarkable spirits. (Try his Apple Pie. Seriously. Try it.)

The main takeaway was that making spirits requires the distiller to taste and smell to find the best balance through the distillation process. The first distillation is reputedly foul (Ian uses it to clean his car parts!), but as a liquid is distilled more and more, it becomes more refined and pure, with more concentrated flavors. The art is knowing how to find the balance, which is a sensory judgment. I loved that the three stages of distilling are called heads, hearts, and tails. How cool is that? Overall, it was a really interesting explanation of mashing, fermenting, and distilling that just made me want to learn more.

This harvest, Ian has agreed to experiment with grappa. Having never done it before, we'll supply him with various types of pommace to see what he can do, as we'd love to make our grappa locally. Do we have the best neighbors ever or what?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Taste Testing

I always love it when Clarissa lets me tag along on her frequent grape tasting expeditions during harvest. She's got such an amazing palate and it's absolutely fascinating to hear her talk about certain flavors in ripe grapes and not-so-ripe ones. She likes to walk a whole row at a time, tasting grapes every 10 to 15 steps. She says she carefully but randomly grabs them off each cluster, but I end up choosing the prettiest one each time because I like pretty. (Which is probably why I should never be a winemaker. That and the whole "gotta be patient" thing. Ugh.)

We tasted the blocks she uses for Rosé. She noted that color seems lighter than normal this year, so she might have to soak the juice with the skins a little longer to make sure our rosé is pink. The grapes weren't quite ready: they were still rather simple tasting and lacking that "hint of rose petal" Clarissa looks for in riper Pinot Noir.

Next, we headed to the Tributary block, where we get rows 12-16. She noted the drying leaves around the fruit zone, which is a sign that the grapes are ripening. She anticipates picking these grapes early next week, so she has already asked Jim to cut off the water so that they don't get diluted. The flavors here were lovely: That rose petal and some red cherry. She pointed out the slightly dimpled berries, and a few areas of botrytis, which seems to be more common this year than most. That means she's planning to sort the grapes not only in the vineyard but also on a table once they get to the winery. Extra work, but it's worth it to get all of that botrytis out.

We checked out the Riesling and some Chardonnay, too, neither of which was quite ready. She did mention that the Chardonnay tends to be ripening right there along with the Pinot Noir, which is rather unusual considering we typically have about two weeks between the two varietals. 2013 is shaping up to be a different harvest from years past, which is always what keeps us on our toes. :)

My favorite vineyard block, where our Clone 115 grows. Love that view!

And here is me as an excellent gate opener for your viewing pleasure:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Harvest 2013 Begins!

Warning: I pulled an all nighter by accident; too excited about harvest beginning! So this blog post might seem rather...delirious.

I dragged myself out of bed at 4:30 after finally falling asleep around 4:27 to meet Jim in the vineyard. He had been there since 1 AM, so I really couldn't complain. First pick: our Mesa Pinot Noir for our sparkling Blanc de Noirs. Since this is my favorite wine, it's a thrill to see it get started every year. The fruit looked really gorgeous - tiny berries, tight clusters. There is apparently a little more botrytis this year due to these tight clusters (if a berry breaks, this can cause botrytis to rock and roll), so the pickers have been more careful than usual looking for this.

Clarissa likes the bins to be super clean, so two guys oversee the clusters being put into the big bins and pick out anything that doesn't make the cut, plus leaves and stuff. The thing that always amazes me about picking crews is how fast they go. Literally, they're a blur! I get in the field and cut about 3 clusters, and they've already filled up a cajone.

This morning was cool and the fog strangely didn't roll in until around 5 AM. How gorgeous does this fruit look? Lucky harvest 2013...will this be some of our best wine yet? Time will tell!

Happy Harvest, everyone!

Monday, August 12, 2013

It Was Just Meant to "Bee!"

Jim and his vineyard assistant, Will, came running into my office the other day all excited!

"Will found a beehive in the vineyard! Can you move it?" Jim asked.

Wow. Wowwowwowwowwow. Ok, so I've had multiple opportunities to move wild hives before through some other local beekeepers, but haven't had a chance to learn because I've been at Pepperdine every single time something like this has come up. Now, just a few days out of school, and there's a hive of Riverbench bees just for me! Ecstatic!

Immediately I emailed and called my local bee resources, asking for instructions, advice and help. They responded with all of the above and, most surprisingly of all, seemed confident I could handle it alone. The hive was small and completely exposed, just hanging right off of a vine. They all talked me through various methods, and I decided to go for it.

Last night was the night (you want to move them at night so most of them are "home"). I suited up, got my supplies, and drove out to examine the hive. With just the light of Jim's trusty headlamp, I found that the hive was actually attached to three separate grape clusters. I started dissecting, cutting the clusters one by one. The hive buzzed but not a single bee moved.

Then the action started. Once I cut away one cluster, the hive became unstable and started to fall. I got the bucket underneath and caught it just in time. A few more clips and most of the rest of the pieces fell in, too. The bees remained relatively calm until I covered the bucket with a lid to seal them in. The buzzing that ensued was angry and not just a little terrifying.

I carefully transported them in the backseat of my car, then dumped them into their new home. About 15,000 bees were at this time flying all around me, landing all over me. My gloves were black, completely coated in them. The light buzzing sensation on my hands was pleasant, though I was still a little nervous about hurting them or messing things up.

I closed up the hive, let the rest of them fly off, and left the scene. They were still there this morning, buzzing around and holding my bucket hostage, but they seem to be settling into their new home. Their view is really gorgeous, actually, overlooking Block 44 and the San Ramon Chapel.

Successful bee extraction #1. (I hope.) That enough excitement for this week.

Note: I'm an idiot and didn't take pictures. I thought I'd have time but things got crazy pretty quickly. Next time.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Last night, we held our very first staff meeting for the SB team. It was a chance to get all of us in the same room and talk about things, mainly of course, wine. While we do a pretty intense training program for new employees at Riverbench, we hadn't had a chance to sit down as a group and taste through ALL of the wines together. We took the time to do this last night.

Telling stories about my first days at Riverbench six years ago, and the history of the property and the owners, made me a little nostalgic. I found myself remembering the evolution of the Mesa Pinot Noir and missing our former winemaker Chuck Ortman a bit.

I was sitting in the dusty back office (while Riverbench North was being renovated, I worked in the back building with the mice and forklift) my first October at Riverbench in 2007, and Chuck came by. He was going through the vineyard to taste Pinot Noir and asked if I'd like to come along. Of course I jumped at the chance. Tasting grapes with a winemaking celebrity? Yes please.

We tasted row by row and block by block, ending up at the four acre Mesa block. Even to my untrained palate, I could tell those grapes tasted different from everything else we had tried that day.

"Why don't we make this on its own? These grapes taste...different," I asked him. Chuck just smiled his mischievous little smile.

"We could, and they do," he said.

I still don't know if he took me to the Mesa block last on purpose just to see if I'd react. It's long since been, according to Chuck and Jim, the most highly demanded fruit on the vineyard. So that year we kept those grapes separate from the others. The resulting barrel samples that spring blew us away, and the Mesa Pinot Noir become a staple in our wine portfolio.

I miss Chuck sometimes, and he usually somehow senses that and gives me a call to check in. He was such a legendary talent not only on the Central Coast, but in California's wine history. And certainly he was a big part of shaping Riverbench early on. What a sweet and funny man. We miss his goofy sense of humor now and again around here. I count myself super lucky to have worked with him; experiences like the one above will be the things I remember forever.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

It All Comes Down To Your People

It's been a while since I've posted here. Things got a bit hectic with summertime rolling in and the new tasting room opening its doors. Opening a second "chain" should have been easy, but it turns out it's not. In fact, the second tasting room has a completely different vibe, a whole different way of marketing, and a full set of new challenges. This isn't a bad thing at all; in fact, it makes Riverbench as a whole all the more interesting and exciting, and allows two entirely different groups of people to have access to our wines.

Last night, we held our annual employee appreciate barbecue at the vineyard. More than ever, our ownership took the reins, cooking and serving all the food, setting up the festive flower arrangements and tables, and planning a great time for all. The main difference, however, is that our staff has gone from a simple little group of 12 people to a much larger group of 23! And we're still growing. Yet even though the two store locations are in two different places an hour apart, every single member of our team came together beautifully. It was pretty remarkable to see the two groups co-mingling and having a great time getting to know each other.

I've always said that the best hires I've ever made were of people who had never worked with wine. Instead, they all had one thing in common: they smile a lot and know how to be friendly. Such a basic thing, yet so hard to come by.

I know good people exist, but finding them isn't always easy. Somehow, though, I've managed to find two incredible groups of people to build two entirely different segments of the same business. And that, my friends, is a bit of a miracle.

It's not enough, but I do want to give a special shout out to the three most amazing managers with whom I've ever had the pleasure of working: Amber (Tasting Room Manager in Santa Maria and Wine Club Manager), Krysta (Hospitality Manager), and Christina (Tasting Room Manager in Santa Barbara). Without the three of you, things wouldn't be this amazing, and our future wouldn't be as bright. Thanks for all you do.

Here's to an exciting future at Riverbench!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Great Unveiling!

I'm pleased to announce that Riverbench Santa Barbara will officially be opening on Tuesday, May 28! Come in, taste some delicious wines, and check out all we've done to make the space gorgeous.

Enjoy wine by the glass or the bottle, or do a fun tasting. Our staff is awesome and we're running on a high right now with all the excitement.

Short and sweet, but again, come see us from 11 AM to 6 PM in the Funk Zone!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Rain, Rain, or Lack Thereof

"It's been a dry year," said my skin, cuticles, and hair.

No, really. We're wayyy under average for rainfall in 2013, and fire season is off to an early start already. It's going to be interesting.

So how does less rain affect the vines? Jim Stollberg answered this question, and the response isn't what I was expecting:

After harvest, in the early parts of the year, the vines get more water to recharge and rejuvenate them after all the hard work they do producing those lovely little grapes. Without much rain this year, we watered with water from our wells. Apparently, while this is fine, well water is not nearly as clean as rainwater, and can result in more salt deposits than usual. Short term, this isn't a big deal, but if we were to be in a drought for, say, five years, it might become an issue.

See, rain helps dilute the salt in the soil, which is good, because if you get too much buildup, the vines can't absorb water and nutrients as easily.

So there you have it. We need more rain.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Riverbench Goes to the Windy City

I love cities. Their energy, the masses of people, the endless list of things to do. It's like being on a sort of high with overwhelming options for entertainment, especially for people who love food and wine and excitement.

Needless to say, I couldn't wait to visit Chicago for the first time. It's an absolute haven for amazing restaurants and people who love to eat and drink. An assortment of distributors and friends had given me many recommendations of places to go, which ended up being all combined onto one document which became affectionately known as "The List." I just unpacked that crumpled and stained piece of paper, which will have to be edited and retired because everywhere we went someone added their own recommendations to it. The result? "The List" is now longer than when it started, though we did manage to hit up several amazing places every day.

This just means I'll need to go back.

Among the favorites were Girl and the Goat (goat empanadas! nom!), Pops for Champagne (no explanation needed), Longman and Eagle (tete de cochon, anyone?), and this awesome little cocktail joint called Billy Sunday (giant ice balls - Enough said). But every place we visited was outstanding, serving delicious food, fun wines, and upbeat atmospheres.

The main reason I planned to visit Chicago was to pour at Pinot Days there. Riverbench has participated in the event in Los Angeles and San Francisco for years, but never this one. Man, we've been missing out! This event at Navy Pier had some of the most fun wine lovers in attendance! There wasn't a drop of Riverbench wine left at the end; wine drinkers in Chicago apparently have wonderful taste. I was also invited to participate in a Diversity Seminar to talk about the Santa Maria Valley that morning which was really awesome, and featured some lovely wines as well. Overall, a killer event. We have sold wine in Illinois in the past, and have now re-established ourselves there with a new distributor, so will be back in the area a little more often. (Thank goodness, as I'm already suffering from withdrawals.) :)

See you again soon, Chi Town!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

It's NOT A Puff!

Lucky me got to have a pretty amazing experience recently. Winemaker Clarissa Nagy and I headed up to Alameda for not only a chance to personally show Connoisseur's Guide's Charlie Olken and Steve Eliot our Riverbench wines, but also to participate in their daily blind tasting with them. This type of rare opportunity doesn't come along often.

We sat in a beautiful room surrounded by gorgeous river views, and I thought to myself that almost nine years ago, I packed up my little car and drove out to California, bulldog Roy smushed into the center console of the front seats, to start a career in the wine industry. I was nobody special. I'm still not. The folks at Consilience wines took a chance on me and gave me my first experiences in the tasting room. To be at Riverbench now is a dream, but tasting at the same table with Charlie, Steve, and Clarissa? That goes down as a pretty special moment for me.

Listening to Steve and Charlie talk about their years in the industry, wine politics, and wine in general led to a great time with lots of laughs. Over lunch, I happened to casually mention how getting scores and "puffs" from them in their publication makes such an impact on marketing our wines. Turns out, I needed to be enlightened, and so do many others.

"They're not puffs! Have you ever read a Michelin Guide?" asked Steve. "What do they give when they rate restaurants?"

"Stars," I answered, hesitantly.

Wouldn't you know that they're the exact same little figures that we call "stars" in the Michelin Guide, but people for some reason mistakenly call them "puffs" when talking about the Connoisseur's Guide. The guys don't know how this started, but I vowed to educate as many as I can. They're not clouds or puffs...they are stars!

Either way, the Connoisseur's Guide does it right. These two truly love wine (hearing them talk about it is a magical experience all on its own). Their blind tasting was so enlightening for us that we decided to hold monthly ones here ourselves. Maybe we'll start rating wines based solely on a "puff" system. ;)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Bucket List

Life is short. And nothing's guaranteed. Change is constant. Carpe diem and all that.

I have a very long bucket list, so each year on my birthday I make a short list of the things I'm going to accomplish that year. In year 31, the list includes the following:

Visiting Thailand:

Bonding with an elephant: (meet Yatmanim)

Playing with tigers:

Praying in a Buddhist temple:

And, among other things, opening our second Riverbench tasting room. The tasting room is slated to open in April (finally!). A productive year 31? You bet.

All that's missing from these pictures is a glass of Riverbench, because we can all agree that with the best life experiences, whether you're swimming with elephants or celebrating the fact that you made it through the day, there should be a darn good glass of wine involved! Enjoy every minute, and don't forget to pop a cork or two.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Think Pink

Everyone knows someone who has been affected by that awful curse, cancer. It's just one of those things that has become a permanent part in our world. That's why fighting it is everyone's duty, sick or well.

When we first released our Riverbench Rosé of Pinot Noir in 2009, I asked Jim and Fred to use a gloriously bright and lively pink wax on the top of each bottle. We spent hours creating the perfect "swoop" and eventually nailed it. (Fred's a pro.) People loved the packaging, but for a reason that didn't originally occur to us: it reminded them of breast cancer awareness.

This connection between our rosé, the pink wax, and breast cancer was so obvious, so instantly we decided to donate a portion of the profits from every vintage to our local cancer center's program. Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria has taken great strides to build a premium facility on the Central Coast, and we're proud to support it. In January each year when the rosé sells out, we write a check, and each year it's gotten a little larger as we add to our production incrementally. We're surely proud to contribute to such an outstanding cause.

We at Riverbench believe so much in building sustainable business, and in doing so, supporting our community. This is just one little way we want to keep giving back.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rest in Peace, Seymour

It's bittersweet, this year of changes for Riverbench. We have now become a 262 acre vineyard after removing a large section of Chardonnay vines which have hit the ripe old age of 40 and are no longer productive enough to continue to support farming them.

It's rather sad to see these beautiful, gnarled trunks pulled out of the ground. We'll grind them up and use them as compost, so they'll do what they were supposed to do and recycle themselves. These sections are eerily empty, though still peaceful and beautiful in their own way. The empty parts of the vineyard will remain fallow for at least a year while we decide what replanting measures to take.

All that upturned earth creates such a beautiful Riverbench-y smell. Hard working vines, we salute you!

I wish I had a picture of Seymour, but I can't seem to find one (sometimes the OCD gets the best of me and I end up deleting things I shouldn't). He was a special vine right outside the tasting room who happens to be a different clone of Chardonnay than those around him. Every year in the summer when the vines are green and leafy, Seymour was the greenest and leafiest and biggest of them all. Seriously, he stood out in a crowd. Alas, he was part of the removal, but he'll not be forgotten.

Lest it seem morbid that we're taking out so many vines, I'd like to point out that there are still many more original vines left on the property which still produce enough grapes to make sense. Maybe they'll be around another 40 years. These phases of vineyard renewal are just part of the process that will keep the quality of Riverbench grapes excellent for many years to come.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cheese Disasters: An Update

I took a bit of a break from cheesemaking for a while, but I realize that I haven't even mentioned my favorite food at all in the past few months, so it's due a blog post. (Bees coming sometime soon, promise.)

I had a little free time before class started last week, so I planned to make a batch of feta. It's half cow half goat milk, which always gives it a really nice tang. But apparently I've been too distracted to make cheese, because immediately I heated the milk too much, then realized I was out of lipase, which is an enzyme I use to give cheese flavor, then heated it too much again. Eventually I ended up with something resulting that was a little less like feta and more like a grainier chevre. Though it did taste ok.

The point is that making cheese under duress or while you have other things on your mind just doesn't work out well. Don't get me wrong; it's nothing a bottle of Cork Jumper bubbly couldn't fix, but I found myself frustrated at my own hobby. In fact, doing anything when you just don't have the mindset just doesn't really work. I tend to be pretty good at psyching myself up even in my most dire moments, but sometimes a girl just needs a break.

I'll have to give it another good shot in a few weeks. Until then, at least I can buy and eat some good stuff. Here are a few of my favorite pairings of wine and cheese:

Crottin de Champcol and bubbly, preferably Brut Rosé.

Trader Joe's Truffle Cheese and Pinot Noir - earthy and creamy. Yum!

Fontina and oakier Chardonnay - the cheese has a nice soft bite to it that matches well.

And the old favorites which go with everything are Pecorino and Manchego.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Lordy, Lordy, Riverbench is Forty

Riverbench the wine label is new (first vintage: 2006).

Riverbench the vineyard, however, is one of the oldest planted vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley. The first vines were put into the ground in 1973. It's kind of amazing to think on what those vines would say if they could talk: "Man, that was a helluva frost we just had," or "That winemaker Clarissa sure is picky!" (in a good way) or "Who is that goofy chick who gets a kick out of riding the night harvester at midnight?" (That last reference is to me, in case you couldn't guess.)

But seriously, those vines have seen generations of winemakers and vineyard crews, overseen the opening of our tasting room in 2008, and posed for many an amazing photograph. They've produced some gorgeously delicious grapes and weathered a few storms and heat spikes here and there.

So we'll start celebrating now. Heck, you only turn 40 once! We'll be doing some fun events across the country, spreading the word about this special place and its place in Santa Maria's history.

It's auspicious that we'll be opening our second tasting room in Santa Barbara during our anniversary year; that has to bode well for Riverbench's future for sure! It's a good thing we make celebratory sparkling wine now, because I know that this year above all others we'll be needing a lot of it.

Happy New Year, everyone!