It is February, the month of love. I thought about couples in the wine business. Wine is not an easy business, with long hours and pressures to make an elegant product from sometimes finicky fruit caused by unpredictable weather and sometimes unavoidable pitfalls. Competition is fierce and the market is ever-changing. Each harvest is a new story of concern, challenge, hard work, wonder and, hopefully, elation. It is a wonder anyone wants to make wine.
But those who dare are truly a combination of artist and scientist, perfectionist and magician, and, on rare occasions, they find their way to each other in love. This is the case of Jonathan and Clarissa Nagy.
I first met Clarissa on a visit to the Santa Maria Valley where our first stop would be Riverbench Winery. Santa Maria is a sometimes overlooked but glorious winegrowing region. Some of the best vineyards in California are right here, including the prized Bien Nacido Vineyard, where demand for grapes has become competitive and prices astronomical.
Year after year, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from this Valley—perfectly located to attract the cool fog of night and then warm deliciously throughout the day—claim top kudos from wine critics around the world. Prices have soared and vineyards have been snapped up but Santa Maria does not attract the wine tourism attention of many other wine areas.
This is a mistake, of course. The Valley has much to offer in the way of restaurants, activities, small towns and incredible vistas. Stay in the comfortably elegant but quirky Radisson Hotel Santa Maria that sits right on the small airport and enjoy the small planes landing and taking off without the hustle, bustle and noise of a larger airport. This is a hotel where you want to face the runway.
Riverbench is a beautiful winery anchoring Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County and producing the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that make this region one to know better. And, not only does Riverbench produce a range of excellent sparkling wines, but their consulting winemaker Clarissa Nagy is nothing short of dazzling. She has an absolutely beautiful smile that she is not afraid to use. She smiles continuously. It seems Clarissa approaches life with ease and contentment and this shows in her wines. Both Riverbench wines and Clarissa’s own label, CNagy, are superb statements of varietal character.
In her own brand, CNagy, Clarissa works with the grapes she personally has grown to love as a winemaker and wine drinker. The sophistication in her Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah is memorable. She makes wines as elegant as she is and those are wines to pair with food, drink with a friend and cherish the love behind the winemaking.
Clarissa met Jonathan Nagy the day they both started working for Byron Wines. Jonathan is still there as head winemaker of this landmark property and its storied Nielsen estate vineyard. Byron is now part of the Jackson Family Farms family and, with their attention to excellence in sourcing fruit and winemaking, Jonathan has elevated the label to all single vineyard-designated Chardonnays from the Santa Maria Valley and Pinot Noirs from the Valley and the Santa Rita Hills appellation. Jonathan is fastidious in his grape selection and it shows in these superb wines that are highly allocated and have benchmarked Santa Maria Valley as world class producers of Burgundy varietals.
Jonathan and Clarissa both learned winemaking elsewhere and came together in the Santa Maria Valley. Jonathan grew up here so returned home after studying at UC Davis and working at Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley. Clarissa studied sensory science at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and planned to be a food scientist but her path swayed when working with wineries on sensory testing.
Their love story started at Byron, they married at the winery two years later and both continue winemaking in Santa Maria Valley. They are a talented couple—and so darned nice. You just have to admire them. How they manage their careers and success and the raising of their 6-year-old daughter is a marvel, but a marvel you just can’t help toast. The story behind Jonathan and Clarissa Nagy is just one more reason why love and wine pair so well together.