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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

The following article was posted on January 29th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 47 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 13, Issue 47

Sweet Clarissa

The finale of the Sun's three-part 'Women of Wine' series focuses on Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench Winery and Nagy Wines


Clarissa Nagy might be the most approachable, genuinely nice winemaker I have ever met. She’s just a good person.

Clarissa Nagy performs a process called delestage, or the “rack and return” technique, on fermenting syrah wine for her small-lot, handcrafted Nagy Wines, at her winery in Santa Maria.

And it rubs off in the winery, where all the guys think twice before letting curse words fly when Nagy is near.

“I think I keep the shop talk a lot cleaner than it would be. I think that’s the influence that I have,” she said with a smile.

That’s not to say that the pretty, petite 40-year-old mother of a preschooler is not also strong, smart, and oh so talented.

Nagy produces wine in Santa Maria under her own label, Nagy Wines, and is Riverbench Winery’s new winemaker.

She allowed me to observe her at work last October during the most exhausting, difficult time of year: the heart of the grape harvest. Nagy was handcrafting dark-purple syrah wine in the winery, doing a technique called “rack and return.”

“It actually rounds out the mid-palate tannins and softens them so it fills out the wines so there’s that silkiness,” Nagy explained. “It’s a little bit labor intensive, but it’s worth it.”

Nagy’s winery is a 250-square-foot slab of concrete she rents at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria.

“This is where I make the wine; I process it, barrel it down, ferment it, rack it,” she said.

She makes wine under the same roof as several fellow artisan winemakers. And almost all of them happen to be fellows.

Riverbench Vineyard and Winery in the Santa Maria Valley focuses on estate-grown pinot noir, chardonnay, Riesling, and Cork Jumper sparkling wines.

“I think we all work side by side and work hard,” Nagy told me. “All in all, the guys are really supportive.”

The Corona native graduated from Cal Poly in SLO with a degree in food science. Her first job in the wine industry was in 1995 working in the cellar at Edna Valley Vineyards. At the time, she was one of just a few women working in Central Coast wine cellars.

“It has changed a lot,” Nagy said. “I’d say almost every winery has at least one woman working in the cellar or working as enologist, so I think it has definitely changed, which is exciting.”

Nagy brought her talents to Santa Barbara County, where she worked at Longoria, Byron, Firestone, Curtis, and Bonaccorsi.

While research assistant winemaker at Byron, she and the winery’s then-assistant winemaker and now winemaker, Jonathan Nagy, fell in love.

 “We figured we worked harvest together and saw each other at our worst and still liked to be with each other, so we’re like ‘definitely!’” she said.

The Nagys have been married for a decade and have a 4-year-old daughter, who has already learned “wine industry-speak” from her parents who talk shop at home.

 “We’ll talk about whether the vines are shutting down and it’s time to pick. Jonathan will say, ‘My syrah started to shut down.’ She’ll say, ‘Well, Mommy’s isn’t,’” Nagy says with her adorable chuckle. “It’s cool and fun.”

Garagiste festival
Three dozen of Northern Santa Barbara County’s cutting-edge, artisan winemakers will pour more than 100 wines on Feb. 16 at Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall, 1745 Mission Drive, in Solvang. Participating wine labels include Nagy, Storm, Deovlet, La Fenetre, Blair Fox, Native9, and others. The event includes a seminar from 11 a.m. to noon and a grand tasting from 2 to 5 p.m. Go to for more information and tickets.

Nagy produces 500 cases of pinot noir, syrah, viognier, and pinot blanc, all from Santa Barbara County vineyards—Garey Ranch, White Hawk, and Bien Nacido—under the Nagy label.

And in January 2012, Nagy was introduced as Riverbench Winery’s new winemaker, taking over for retiring winemaker Chuck Ortman.

 “It’s been kind of magic to see wine just ‘respond’ to her, for lack of a better descriptor,” Riverbench Winery’s general manager Laura Mohseni said. “Our 2012 wines have a finesse about them that wasn’t there before, and that’s all because of Clarissa.”

 “It’s just been fun and a great learning experience,” Nagy said of her first year at Riverbench.

The vineyard is celebrating its 4oth anniversary this year.

Mohseni describes Nagy as careful and methodical, yet funny and multilayered.

“She is patient, and the way she talks about things is so clear; she doesn’t show off,” Mohseni said. “She held a tasting for my staff last week, and I got so many calls the next morning from all of them about how amazingly well she describes things!

“We were working together one day on Nagy Wines at CCWS, and at the end of the day were kind of cleaning up and putting things away. Clarissa gets out this pulley system she’s invented to hang her hoses so that they dry thoroughly and are out of the way,” Mohseni shared. “I’m thinking, she’s gorgeous and smart and talented and tough and she can rig up this simply genius pulley system that is so practical!”

Nagy is clearly a multi-talented woman who has found a way to balance a blossoming career she loves and a family she adores. Now that’s someone after my own heart.

Sun food and wine writer Wendy Thies Sell thinks there’s something to be said for “girl power.” Contact her at

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