Making a barrel of fine wine is much like raising good kids. In the beginning, before birth and budbreak, you provide the water and nutrition that the next generation needs. Then you take what nature gives you, be that infants or grapes, and do your best to raise them up right. Plenty can go wrong along the way, but if enough care and time is invested, the end result is usually worth showing off to family and friends.
No surprise, then, that five of the best winemakers on the Central Coast also happen to be mothers. That’s what I learned one day in February, when I joined Clarissa Nagy, Helen Falcone, Tessa Parker, Brooke Carhartt, and Denise Shurtleff for lunch at Riverbench Vineyard & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. What ensued was a little talk about their kids and a lot of technical talk about whose cooperage they used last year, what types of yeast they’re trying out, and which clones are working best in which vintages. Enjoy these mini-profiles of each woman and some of the wines we tried, just in time for Mother’s Day.
Kid: Gabriella, 4 years old
Career: Interested in healthy eating since her childhood in Corona, California — “My mom made fruit leather,” she recalled — Nagy graduated from Cal Poly in 1995 with a food science degree and hopes of working in the natural foods industry. Then came a seasonal job at Edna Valley Vineyard, where she “had an epiphany while filling a barrel,” followed by “real employment” as assistant enologist for the Firestone family of wines and beers. Next was Byron, where she fell in love with both pinot noir and her husband, Jonathan Nagy. Stints followed at Rancho Arroyo Grande vineyard, Longoria, and Bonaccorsi. “Everything in my career has just been ordered,” she explained. “The timing is just uncanny.”
Married to Wine: With Jonathan the head winemaker at Byron, the Nagy household is “a little more exciting” during harvest. But those early autumn mornings mean Clarissa is usually done by 3 p.m., giving her ample afternoon time to spend with Gabriella. Plus, said Nagy, “I have an amazing mother,” who comes up every year during harvest to watch Gabriella.
Early Sexism: The only discrimination Nagy experienced as a woman was in the 1990s, when, she explained, “The guys didn’t want us to drive the forklift.” Luckily, pioneer and progressive Richard Longoria was happy to let her learn in his winery.
Winemaker to Be? “We’re really blessed, because she really likes it,” said Nagy of her daughter, who’s so in tune with the winemaking process that she once told another winemaker experiencing a problem, “Well, my mommy’s syrah is not shutting down.” Nagy made a Gabriella Cuvée to celebrate her birth year in 2008.
Riverbench Chapel View Chardonnay 2010: Crisp and creamy, this comes from vines that are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. Nagy plans to break this coming vintage up by block and try different barrels on each.
Riverbench Mesa Pinot Noir 2010: Slightly higher than the rest of the vineyard, Nagy wondered, “How different can this be?” and was happily surprised by these 1973 Martini clone vines.
Kid: Mia, 14 years old
Career: Another food science grad, Clayton, California–native Falcone has 22 years of commercial winemaking experience under her belt, officially making it her career in 1990 while learning on the job at the “College of Beringer” in the famed Napa Valley chateau. Enology work at Codorníu (now Artesa), Chimney Rock, and Cakebread followed, with such renowned mentors as Paul Hobbs, Doug Fletcher, and Rosemary Cakebread, also a vintner mom. “She taught me everything I needed to know,” said Falcone.
Married to Wine: At Codorníu, Falcone met her husband, John Falcone. They married in 1996 and had Mia in 1998, when she took three years off to be a stay-at-home mom. Since then, said Helen, “We just dragged her everywhere with us.” In July 2001, they moved to Santa Barbara County to work as a winemaking team for Rusack Vineyards, where they were until last year. John is now general manager at Gainey Vineyards.
Staking Their Claim: A few years ago, the Falcones bought a small patch of land in east Paso Robles and planted four acres of syrah and four acres of cabernet sauvignon into what they call Mia’s Vineyard. Making about 1,200 or so cases of wine annually for their Falcone Family Vineyard label is now Helen’s full-time gig.
Falcone Family Mia’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009: A more restrained take on an often fruit-forward grape, this juice comes from tiny berries and little clusters, and is aged in oak for 27 months, a year longer than their other cab.
Annaté IV: This excitingly luscious multi-vintage wine features 53 percent syrah, 35 percent petit sirah, 5 percent cab, and the remainder being the Annaté III, with grapes coming from the 2008-2011 vintages.
Tessa Marie Parker
Kid: Foxen, 5 months old
Career: While still nearly a kid herself, Parker — granddaughter of actor-turned-vintner Fess, daughter of second-generation vintner Eli — started working in the family tasting room in 2004 at age 18, with classes at Allan Hancock College and winemaking following soon after. “I really don’t know if I had a choice or not,” said Parker.
Congrats in Order: Tessa’s son, whose name, Foxen Parker Cody, reflects both the family and Foxen Canyon, where she lives, came into the world just four months before our lunch. “I’m new to this whole thing,” said Parker. “He came, luckily, right at the end of harvest.”
Utterly Italy: Parker focuses on Italian varietals, including the white grape vermentino, which she makes into both a still and a sparking wine. The latter, said Parker, “is very rare, and very special to me.” For reds, she opts for sangiovese, which she tends to do in an exuberant style, including her Cal-Ital blend with syrah known as Coquette. “I grew up on Epiphany wines,” she explained, “so I had to go to big bold reds.”
Tessa Marie Vermentino 2011: From Camp Four, which her family planted before selling to the Chumash, this has a little sweetness and pineapple notes.
Tessa Marie Sangiovese 2010: Though a lighter style, this is a very flavorful, even chocolatey sangio, with just 25 cases of it made from the historic Hampton Vineyard.
Kid: Chase, 24 years old
Career: Mike and Brooke Carhartt planted their 10-acre Santa Ynez vineyard in 1996 with the intention of selling all the fruit, but they quickly realized that they’d have to make wine to even consider breaking even. In 1999, they drew straws to see who’d be winemaker. “I got the short straw,” said Brooke. “I went back to school.” Carhartt supplemented her Allan Hancock classes with continuing education at UC Davis, and they’ve grown the winery into a 4,000-case-per-year operation, all of which sells through the wine club and tiny Los Olivos tasting room. Now there’s no turning back; as Carhartt explained, “Everything we do goes back into the winery.”
Second Generation? Chase was seven at the time they planted the vineyard, and Carhartt is happy there weren’t any more kids around. “It makes it somewhat doable if you only have one,” she said. He just graduated from Cal Poly, has worked harvests in South Africa and France, and his parents are hoping that he’ll take up the family torch one of these days.
Carhartt Sauvignon Blanc 2011: The guava flavors prevalent here are nicely cut with an acidic tartness. “We’ve just always had a lot of tropical influence there,” said Carhartt.
Carhartt Merlot 2010: Originally the vineyard was planted with seven acres of merlot, but this smoky bottling comes from the three remaining acres. “It’s great food wine,” said Carhartt, who’s proud to still be drinking the 1998 bottling.
Kids: Sean, 20 years old, and Luke, 17 years old
Career: Another Cal Poly grad who intended to get into the food industry, Shurtleff started working for Corbett Canyon Winery in the 1980s as a lab tech, eventually rising to winemaker and spending 16 years there. “I learned on the job,” said Shurtleff. “You just need to fall in love with it.” In 1999, she joined Cambria Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, and by 2003 she was the lead winemaker, making more wine annually than any other winery in the county.
Birth Timing: Shurtleff’s first son, Sean, was born in August at the beginning of harvest, the only one she’s missed since 1983. “I tried to time our second one better,” said Shurtleff. “But that didn’t work.” Luke was born in the middle of harvest on October 3, though she was able to oversee about three-quarters of the work. “It definitely kept me in shape,” she said.
Parenting Duties: Her husband, Mark Shurtleff, was able to stay at home and work while watching the kids when they were young, which was ideal. “That was huge,” said Shurtleff. “We wouldn’t have done it any other way.” Today, her sons are “almost nonchalant” about the wine world.
Cambria Viognier Tepusquet Vineyard 2011: Coming from what must be one of the older viognier plantings in the area, dating back to 1990, this is a full but racy viognier perfect for salads or spicy Asian foods. Said Shurtleff, “It’s one variety that, when you taste the grapes, you know when they need to be picked.”