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!