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Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Get to know Jonathan Nagy
BY WENDY THIES SELL
For some people, it might be true that “you can’t go home again.”
But it’s working out well for the winemaker at Byron Winery, Jonathan Nagy.
He grew up in the Santa Maria Valley; his father was in the U.S. Air Force and transferred to Vandenberg Air Force Base when Nagy was a newborn. Nagy attended Orcutt schools until eighth grade.
The family moved to Northern California during his teen years and college. Nagy attended U.C. Davis, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
The young chemist went to work in Robert Mondavi’s winery lab in Oakville in 1996, and again the following harvest.
Nagy then moved to the Central Coast, thinking he would attend Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to earn his teaching credential.
“I thought I would never come back, to be quite honest,” Nagy confessed to me while we walked through the winemaking facility at Byron Winery, where he is head winemaker.
Instead of going back to college, he got a job in the tasting room at Cambria Winery in Santa Maria, and soon was helping in the cellar.
“One day I was stirring barrels and I was like, ‘They pay me do this? I love this,’” Nagy exclaimed.
It was then and there that Nagy decided to see where this career would take him.
In 2001, he moved down the road to Byron Winery to work under Ken Brown as assistant winemaker.
As fate would have it, also hired that same day was the woman who would become his wife, Clarissa. They married at the winery two years later.
The Nagys have a 5-year-old daughter who already speaks the language she overhears at home from her winemaker parents.
“I was asking Clarissa if she wanted a glass of pinot, and this little voice from the other room was like, ‘No Daddy! It’s pinot noo-wah-rrr,’” the proud father mimicked. “Yeah, she’s picking up the lingo.”
“She goes out to the vineyards with Mama, so she knows syrah, she knows pinot noir, she knows pinot blanc,” Nagy said. “She likes the red grapes better than the white grapes because they taste better.”
Nagy gave me a tour of Byron’s large wine production facility during the calm the before the storm, also known as the grape harvest.
“It’s looking to be another good vintage. We’ve had fairly normal weather and it looks like above-average yields this year,” Nagy said. “Still seeing a lot of small berries, small clusters, which in my mind usually translate into quality because you get a better juice to skin ratio.”
Byron Winery produces 25,000 cases of wine, mostly pinot noir and chardonnay. “It’s about 50-50.”
Byron started harvesting the pinot noir grapes on Aug. 30.
“It will probably take about two to three weeks to bring all the pinot in,” Nagy said.
He expects to harvest pinot blanc next and then the noble golden girl, chardonnay, starts rolling in.
Byron Winery also grows syrah, mourvedre, Grenache, and viognier, which all ripen toward the end of harvest. They usually wrap up picking by Halloween.
Nagy described a typical harvest day:
“The crews start picking around 6-6:30 a.m. I usually start my day off in the vineyard with the picking crews, making sure the picking’s going well. Then I’ll come into the winery,” he said. “I usually will have written all my work orders the night before, for processing fruit as it comes into the winery.
“I’ll organize the crew, talk about the pick, talk about the incoming grapes; then, I will check the brix [grape sugar content] and temperature of all the fermenting grapes from previous days. By the middle of harvest that takes awhile, a couple of hours,” he continued. “And then based on that, I’ll lay out the work load for the day for the crew beyond incoming grapes, because we’ll be doing pump overs, rack and returns, we’ll be draining and pressing, we’ll be racking to barrel. There’s a lot of tasting involved as well.”
He tastes every tank, every day (and always spits).
“Tasting half fermented stuff is … work,” he said.
Then Nagy goes back out into the vineyard to sample grapes, brings some in to the lab for analysis, returns to the vineyard for more tasting based on lab results, and then organizes for the next day’s pick.
“By that time, it’s about seven at night and I’m writing my work orders for the next day and just … repeat the cycle, keep on going,” he said.
He and the Byron harvest crew don’t pick on Sundays so workers can spend time with their families and rest.
The owners of Byron Winery, Sonoma County-based Jackson Family Wines, founded one of the largest wineries in the country, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, and also operates numerous wineries around the world, including Byron’s next-door neighbor, Cambria Winery.
“When Jackson Family Wines bought Byron in 2006, the first thing the family did was make huge investments in the vineyard,” Nagy said. “For me as a winemaker, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow! They get it!’”
Byron’s estate covers 450 acres up on the Santa Maria River Bench; 410 acres are under vine. The estate is also home to Santa Barbara County’s first commercial planting, the Nielson Vineyard, founded in 1964.
During my visit, Nagy opened four wines—all showing very well—such as Byron’s 2011 Nielson Vineyard Pinot Noir; aromatic, dark berry flavors, complex.
All of Byron’s new releases, such as its many special, small-lot wines, including Monument—a pinot noir blend of Byron’s best barrels—are available at the tasting room in downtown Los Olivos, through its wine club, or on byronwines.com.
Sun wine and food writer Wendy Thies Sell welcomes story ideas. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.