There’s an 80-mile stretch between Cambria Estate Winery and the coastal village it’s often mistakenly associated with.
Located on Chardonnay Lane in the Santa Maria Valley, the renowned winery was co-founded in 1986 by vintners Barbara Banke and Jess Jackson, who chose the name Cambria as a reference to their Welsh heritage, the estate’s winemaker Jill Russell explained.
“It’s not connected at all to the town, Cambria. I mean, I wish. I love the town,” Russell said with a laugh, before adding that Cambria is coincidentally where her husband proposed to her.
Russell and other staffers at the estate are currently gearing up for the grand reopening of the property’s newly renovated tasting room. The May 13 celebration will be open to the public, while a soft reopening event—exclusive to Wine Club Members—was held at the end of 2022. The winery is currently open for tastings.
The estate’s tasting room setting—including its indoor lounge area and outdoor patio area—was given “a little facelift,” Russell said, with new flooring, furniture, and decor installed, among other renovations.
One aspect of the indoor tasting area that remains the same as it was prior to the renovations is a distinct row of windows that allows patrons to view the massive facility that houses the winery’s stainless-steel tanks. The facility is outdoors, but a newly constructed roof now rests above the tanks, which results in more energy efficient cooling due to less sun exposure.
“The recent construction that we did was mostly focused on covering this cellar. Then we decided, why not update our tasting room too?” said Russell, who added that the new roof was completed just before the fall of 2022. “Before this harvest, this was all exposed.”
Many wines in Cambria Estate Winery’s lineup result from stainless steel fermentation and aging, including the 2020 Fog Tide chardonnay. Comparatively, some of the winery’s chardonnays, like the 2018 West Point, are the product of traditional oak barrel fermentation and aging.
Taste-wise, Russell’s personal preference between the two styles can vary from day to day, she explained, depending on what she’s planning to eat for dinner. Stainless steel chardonnay—often crisp and zippy—pairs well with creamy pasta dishes, she said, while barrel chardonnay—often warm and round—goes great with fish tacos and seafood in general.
“I change back and forth depending on what I’m eating or what I’m doing that evening, but I do gravitate toward barrel fermented chardonnay,” Russell said. “I like the complexity that oak brings to chardonnay.”
Russell enjoys engaging with the estate’s patrons interested in the intricacies that distinguish the two winemaking methods, and has led larger discussions on those distinctions and other wine-related topics during the various seminars she’s hosted over the years.
If she hadn’t become a winemaker, Russell probably would have leaned toward a career in teaching, she said. Her journey toward working in the wine industry began while she was in high school.
“I always loved science but I didn’t grow up around wine or anything,” Russell said. “I grew up in a boating family. My parents had margaritas and beer. Wine wasn’t on my table.”
Russell was born and raised in the East Bay Area. One of her first jobs as a teenager was working for a winery-based catering company owned by a family that lived in her neighborhood.
“They kind of recruited a bunch of us to work there,” said Russell, who worked alongside some of her friends at the ongoing catering gig based at a winery in the Livermore Valley. “On the weekends, I’d be working these beautiful weddings,at a winery, and I fell in love with the scene, the beauty of the vineyard, the food culture.”
Originally, Russell considered working toward a career in vineyard management, but switched her focus to winemaking early on during her college studies. She moved to San Luis Obispo and majored in viticulture and enology at Cal Poly, where she graduated in 2009.
After college, Russell—who now resides in Los Alamos—worked in assistant winemaker roles for vintners in the Edna Valley and Sta. Rita Hills among other areas before joining Cambria Estate Winery as head winemaker in 2017. She still considers herself a newbie, compared to some of her colleagues at the estate with 20-year tenures.
Russell’s penchant for teaching comes in handy when she comes across newbies even newer than herself.
“I have interns,” the winemaker said. “When I get to show them the process, I love seeing their little eyes light up.”
Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood is eyeing his inbox. Send comments to [email protected].