Women Making Wine


Depending on the study, it seems approximately 10% of California's winemakers are women. So, for good or ill, winemaking is generally a man's game. Oh, who am I trying to kid -- that can't be for good, just look at things men run and how they usually make you want to run away (why yes, I am writing this post on election night).

That's why it's crucial to appreciate women who make it in this field, especially when they are as talented as Clarissa Nagy. In addition to being the winemaker at Riverbench, she's about to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her own label, Nagy Wines. "Vintage 2005 was my first commercial release," she says. "I am looking forward to celebrating next year with two vertical tasting events, one with Garey Ranch pinot noir and one with my syrah."

Nagy just opened her own tasting room in Orcutt, the small town in northern Santa Barbara County a bit past the more beaten wine trail track. When asked why she chose that site, she says, "Orcutt is my home. My husband [Jonathan Nagy, head winemaker at Byron] and I have lived here since 2001. I am so grateful to be part of such a wonderful community. It's a hidden gem on the Central Coast." In fact, it's Santa Maria Valley wines that come from west of Orcutt that have always intrigued Clarissa, ones a bit more reserved than their beloved and more boisterous grapes a bit to the south from Sta. Rita Hills.

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She was also willing to discuss what it's like making wines for her own label and Riverbench. "My winemaking style emphasizes each specific vineyard that I work with," she says. "Riverbench was willing to offer me a consulting position, and at the time I came on board, I had been making my own label for seven years. When I am pouring Nagy, I end up talking about Riverbench and vice versa. When I pour the wines I've made, I tend to discuss them based on their uniqueness and their context in this growing region. Every single wine is a part of me and I give it my full attention and dedication."

Nagy had a bit if an unusual entrance into the wine world, originally studying Food Science at Cal Poly. When asked if that different background helped, she said, "The learn-by-doing philosophy of Cal Poly has stayed with me through my career. We had a strong curriculum in Food Engineering. For our labs, we had to take apart pumps and put them back together. That has been helpful both during harvest and bottling. We also had a strong emphasis on material balance. I used to think, 'When will I ever use this stuff?' Every single day I use it in the cellar during harvest."

It's not just the mechanical that matters, of course, as anyone knows who has tasted her lovely, elegant wines. "I also have a passion for sensory," she continues, "I am intrigued by flavors and aromas, their synergy, and how they are linked to our memories. I think that affects and influences who I am as a winemaker."

Being married to a winemaker is also a boon for Nagy. "It's wonderful having two winemakers in the family," she says. "As you can imagine, we talk shop regularly. I have someone to bounce ideas off of and someone to test out blends. We taste blind and then discuss the strengths of each wine and possible barrel regimens."

Not that the grueling time demands of their profession don't sometimes make things difficult. "The only time it gets tricky is during harvest," she points out. "With both of us working seven days a week, it makes doing laundry and grocery shopping a bit tricky. Thankfully, once we had my daughter, my mom comes up to help care for her during that season. She ends up taking care of all three of us, which is a huge blessing. We are very thankful for her years of help. We couldn't do it without her." Perhaps it takes a village to raise a wine?

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