Jonathan Nagy: Byron Winery


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No other winemaker is quite as jovial as Byron’s Jonathan Nagy.

Listen as he gives a straightforward lowdown on what it’s like to be married to another winemaker and how he makes the Santa Maria Valley’s principal varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, distinctly different.

Other topics in this unfiltered conversation include:

  • how making wine makes him a better dad
  • the influences of vine age and weather on grape ripening and flavor
  • personal challenges of a conscientious winemaker
  • Jonathan’s predictions for Vintage 2014

Host Gabe Saglie pulls from the Dirt Don’t Lie question grab bag, asking Jonathan Nagy about:

  • swimming in Pinot Noir
  • three words about Byron’s Estate vineyard
  • what he would do with a magic wand
GABE
This is the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast, unfiltered conversations with Santa Barbara, County wine farmers. I’m Gabe Saglie and on today’s show Jonathan Nagy, winemaker at Byron on swimming and Pinot Noir, the perks of being married to another winemaker, and how making wine makes him a better dad, that and much more coming your way right now on Dirt Don’t lie.Well, the last time I hung out with Jonathan Nagy was out in the vineyards of Byron and Cambria and we were doing a little camping out there which was a fantastic experience. Great to have you here today.

JONATHAN
Thank you.

GABE
Pinot Noir, you’re making six, seven different Pinot Noirs a year, right?

JONATHAN
Correct.

GABE
And that’s like having six or seven kids that you’re looking after year after year. I would imagine if I had all six or seven in front of me, would you really be able to go through all of the six or seven different Pinots and be able to pick out which one comes from which vineyard?

JONATHAN
Absolutely, absolutely and I think each Pinot has their particular characteristic, as a winemaker you see it in the vineyard, you envision it as a finished product, and then along the way you adjust your processing to accentuate those differences.

GABE
Pinot is sort of your calling card in a lot of ways, Santa Maria Valley known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, do you find that’s ever limiting? You’ve got just one or two grapes to play with? Or do you find that to be a fulfilling experience vintage after vintage?

JONATHAN
You can blend the different clones a lot like in Bordeaux they blend the different grape varieties, it’s so distinct in its expressions.

GABE
When you’ve got an average consumer out there walking through the vineyards, how do you talk to them about clones?

JONATHAN
I usually get a little specific and starting throwing out examples because off of our property Clone 667 is always big and rich and a little bit jammy in its expression versus, say, the Swan Clone off of our property is always very pretty and rose petal and perfumey. As a winemaker when you’re thinking about final blends and you’re blending things you can play with those aspects as you’re putting blends together so you can have something that’s a little bit fruit forward but then has that perfume and the aromatics.

GABE
Yeah. Now, regardless of clone, there is something about the ground you’re standing on, there’s something about the Santa Maria, the soil, the way that the mountains are positioned, the way that the winds come in, the way that the fog rolls in and out, there’s something very special about that valley, the Santa Maria Valley that really makes working with these grapes just an ideal experience for a winemaker like you, no?

JONATHAN
I would agree with you 100 percent. Pinot Noir is one of those grapes that if you’re growing it in the wrong area it’s going to lead to nothing but trouble. I think as a Pinot Noir winemaker taking great world class grapes and trying not to screw it up, it’s kind of our job and I agree, Santa Maria Valley really is a special area, it’s one of two east-west running valleys in all of California which means it’s got a straight shot to the ocean.

Just on Mother’s Day we went down to the Guadalupe Dunes to do a little hiking as a family and it’s funny because that’s right where that cold current from Alaska is coming down the coast and you can just see it in the water. The water’s all churned up and then the wind coming off of it was a very cold wind. My daughter’s five and I think she lasted for about 20 minutes and she was ready to–I kind of turned to her and my wife was laughing because I was saying, “Yeah, but this is why mommy and daddy can grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because this cold wind off the ocean goes right down the valley, it’s the one that draws in the fog that keeps everything cool.” It’s just those unique set of circumstances that really makes Santa Maria Valley a very special place.

GABE
I love the fact that you’re job actually even helps define how you parent.

JONATHAN
Yeah.

GABE
And the lessons that you teach your daughter, now obviously, your wife Clarissa is a fellow winemaker and she makes a fantastic wines under the Riverbench label which I sort of just say it’s sort of across the street from where you are, but you met her at Byron, right? The two of you sort of started working on the same day. It was started of a lucky coincidence or serendipity played a role in the two of you coming together, right?

JONATHAN
Yes, Ken Brown, the winemaker, founder-winemaker, he always says that not only is he a winemaker, but he’s very proud that he’s a matchmaker.

GABE
Matchmaker, yeah. Exactly, right. Riverbench is not too far away from Byron and Cambria, which is right next door, are there enough nuances and differences between these two properties, even under the umbrella of Santa Maria Valley, that the two of you are producing distinct wines vintage after vintage?

JONATHAN
Absolutely. The first distinction is difference sides of the valley, we’re south facing versus north facing, but then there are differences in vine ages. I know Riverbench has vines from the ’70s, so they’ve got vine age and fog will burn off on the Nielson property which is our own vineyard right around 9:00, 9:30. So, immediately the grapes are starting to get some heat and some sunlight whereas sometimes around 10:00, 10:30 it’s just burning off at Julia’s or Bien Nacido and so those grapes are getting less exposure time as well as when the fog burns in, so Nielson’s a little warmer so we’re picking a couple weeks earlier, our fruit flavors tend to be a little more dark fruited, a little chalkier tannins, we can see that in the wine.

It’s just amazing to me that the way the fog burns or things like elevation or outcroppings off of the hills, for the most part we have very sandy soils in Santa Maria Valley, but there are outcroppings of different types of rock that really can change an expression of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and again, it’s one of those things where you plant it and then you start making the wines and then you kind of theorize about, “Wow, why is that wine so different? It’s got to be maybe this or that.”

GABE
I think that’s important for people listening to understand and for consumers to understand that we’re talking about 60 minute approximate, a 60-90 minute difference between fog burning where you are versus where Julia’s Vineyard might be which is a stone’s throw away, those 60 minutes over time do create different flavors, and that’s why I love looking at a label and having that kind of definition because it gives you a little hint, a little clue as to what you are about to taste when you pop the cork on that bottle.

Be honest, though, is it competitive with you and Clarissa? I mean, are you tasting her wines or enjoying a 2012 Nielson Vineyard Pinot right now? You pick up a 2012 Riverbench Pinot that your wife made, are you tasting it and comparing notes? How competitive does it get between two winemakers who live under the same roof and are raising a family together?

JONATHAN
That question does get asked quite a bit. I think the competition is actually in ourselves as winemakers to make the best possible wine year in and year out, so we’re not competing against each other in terms of the final product and I think we really see eye-to-eye in that the competition is with yourself to try to make the best possible product. I think in that sense we’re both fans and encourages of each other because I want for her to make the best possible product of what she’s doing and I know it’s going to be different than mine just because we’re working with different grapes.

GABE
Sure. So, if you are competing against yourself how tough are you with yourself? Do you ever taste a wine and do you ever beat yourself up over anything? I mean, Byron has consistently vintage after vintage always producing beautiful wines every year, and if you break it down to details and nuances that only maybe you as a winemaker might know, how tough are you on yourself?

JONATHAN
I’m pretty tough. I know every year we can do things better, every year we can make a better product and I’m always asking what can we do to make ourselves better, and sometimes it’s not even what we can do, but what should we not be doing to make ourselves better, so there’s so many nuances in that, and then there’s sometimes when you bottle a wine and then it goes through a little bit of a funky stage and you get pretty disappointed, and sometimes it bounces back out of that and it ends up being a beautiful wine.

GABE
If you see that little bit of a funky stage it’s got to be hard to just sit back and just wait for the wine to develop and do its own thing.

JONATHAN
I think that’s where experience comes in working with people who have years, decades of experience, as well as being at the same place and seeing it time and time again where, yeah, after 11, 12 years, sometimes I’m not as worried as somebody who sees the wine at a particular point because I know it’s going to go through this evolution, and that’s why the great thing about Santa Barbara County in Santa Maria Valley is the collaboration.

I look at Ken Brown, and Denise Shurtleff, and Billy, and Dick as being mentors. There will be times where I’ll go down the way to Foxen and say, “Hey, Billy, what do you see? What are you thinking?” Usually he says, “Oh, this is like this and this is what I’m seeing,” and there’s that gleaning off of people with varying levels of expertise.

GABE
Right, exactly. Now, Byron is part of the Jackson Family of wines which is one of these wonderful wine stories out of California, what is the advantage of being part of a family of different labels and wines? How much are you allowed to just do your own thing?

JONATHAN
It’s a good question, as far as the winery and the winemaking and winemaking decisions I have freedom to do just about anything. Ultimately our ownership says at the end of the day, “We want to taste your wines before you bottle them,” and kind of give it a thumbs up, thumbs down.

GABE
Yeah, that’s fair.

JONATHAN
So, for me as a winemaker that’s a great opportunity to show ownership, “Hey, look what we’re doing,” to get feedback at that point I think that’s what makes Jackson Family as a collaboration of wineries such a unique situation because they let the winemakers kind of put their personalities into the wines and therefore under their portfolio the wines are very different, drastically different in good positive ways.

GABE
Yeah, there is a unique aspect, even when you are tasting Cambria right next door, which is also part of the Jackson Family and Byron, distinction is really driven by the folks making the wines. If you could fast forward, what are we going to be talking about with regards to this particular vintage in years to come?

JONATHAN
I think we’ll be talking about how it was an early vintage and with the issues that kind of come up with that, when I’m looking at the cluster morphology there’s a lot of clusters out there, but they’re very small due to the lack of water the berries aren’t really sizing up, so for a Pinot Noir that usually means better juice to skin ratio, and it just really does depend on how the weather is the next couple months.

When I get it in a barrel and tasting it somewhere in January, February you get a sense of what kind of harvest there really was. We’re talking about the 2012s, when they were in barrel they were very closed, very shy. I didn’t really know what I was tasting in the fermenters. Earlier in the season I thought, “Ah, there is going to be a really good vintage.” And then as the wines aged they weren’t showing themselves and it’s funny, as we bottle and you pop a bottle three or four months later, usually I try to wait a year for the bottle to kind of come out of the shock of being put in a bottle, where with the 2012s three or four months later I was like, “Wow, this is really good wine, it’s nothing like what I was tasting in barrel.”

GABE
When the average consumer thinks about Santa Barbara Pinot, Santa Maria Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills, two distinct regions. I’ve asked James Ontiveros and Wes Hagen a similar question, do you ever feel that the Santa Maria Valley is in competition with Sta. Rita Hills in that you’re producing very much a same varieties of grapes?

JONATHAN
I don’t think we’re in competition. My experience of tasting Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, there’s enough differences between the two that working with Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley, I’m never going to get the type of expression that so a Clos Pepe has just because of where they’re at, the particular dynamics of soil, location, and when you think of competitions you’re trying to go head-to-head where, to me, they’re just different and I can enjoy a Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir just as much as a Santa Maria Valley.

GABE
Therein though, I think, lies a challenge when it comes to consumers who love simplicity of message, and I think that unless you get people physically walking onto the Clos Pepe Vineyard, for example, and then walking onto your place there in Byron, that’s when these messages become much more lucid and clear and obvious because otherwise if they’re just seeking a Pinot Noir to Santa Barbara County it’s a very tough thing. What do you put in front of them, really, right?

JONATHAN
Well, I think that you just summed up the problem that Burgundy has, in order to really understand Burgundy you have to go and stand at Morey-Saint-Denis or stand at DRC or Belmar and really get the sense of place and I think especially when you’re talking about high end Pinot Noirs from Santa Barbara County that sense of place, you almost have to be there to know it or work in the same area for 10 or 12 years and you really get that sense.

GABE
Yeah. Now, you started at Byron in ’01, you became a winemaker in 2004, here we are, 2014. Looking back at your 10 years as winemaker there is there a vintage that was really tough that stands in your mind as, “Boy, that was a vintage that really put me to the test”?

JONATHAN
For me, first year as winemaker in 2004 everything pretty much ripened up at a 6:30 PM on a Friday.

GABE
Of course it did, yeah.

JONATHAN
So, the whole ranch was ripe, we needed to pick. I kind of envisioned myself as being that winemaker of, “Today we’ll pick this block and then we’ll do that,” where I just got with the vineyard managers and I said, “Pick as much as you can as fast you can and we’ll process it.”

We had the whole ranch picked in seven days and I had one tank left because you always need an empty tank to drain and press, and for me I think that was difficult in a sense that I wanted to maybe have more time to put a little more thought into what we were doing versus trying to get it all in and processed for quality reasons.

GABE
Is there a vintage that stands out as probably the best in the last decade?

JONATHAN
I’m very fond of the ’08s, I think the ’08s, for me, have everything that I enjoy in a Pinot Noir, there is some of that richness, but also some acidity to balance it out, there’s a lot of complexities in the ’08s and the ’08s are aging rather gracefully, right now my preference would be ’08s.

GABE
There is a longevity to Pinot that I think sometimes people forget and would attribute to maybe some more Bardot wines, but done right some of these Pinots do have a beautiful ageability.

JONATHAN
We just opened up a ’94 reserve, Byron Reserve Pinot Noir and it was beautiful, it was beautiful.

GABE
You didn’t bring that along today by any chance? Yeah, but the 2012 is a beautiful wine. Any grapes that you haven’t had a chance to work with that you would love to perhaps dabble in?

JONATHAN
Probably Marsanne Roussanne, I find those pretty intriguing and I know Bob Lindquist makes a great Marsanne just down the road over there in Bien Nacido, so that would be a grape that I personally would find intriguing. Now, you always have to be careful because ultimately you want the consumer to be intrigued by it and connect with it as well.

GABE
When you look back at your career is there a moment that is particularly proud for you to look back on and reminisce on?

JONATHAN
I think the difficult vintages are the ones that you kind of remember that you are able to work through like 2011 was a difficult vintage, that’s where the winemaker usually earns their keep.

GABE
Yeah.

JONATHAN
And so, we were able to make decisions and choices that eventually ended up making very elegant, graceful wines and so I look at the 2011s that Byron made and I am proud of what we as a team did in terms of producing those wines.

GABE
Yeah. Now, I’m going to reach into the Dirt Don’t Lie grab bag and pick a couple of off the wall questions here, if all of a sudden you found yourself the size of a pin and I dropped you into this bottle of 2012 Nielson Vineyard Pinot how do you get out of it?

JONATHAN
If I’m a pin do I have legs and hands?

GABE
Yeah, you’re just the size of a pin, but you’ve got all your extremities.

JONATHAN
Oh, that be easy, you knock the bottle down and then you swim your way through it.

GABE
Fantastic. Would you sip along the way?

JONATHAN
Of course.

GABE
Yeah, sip along the way. Three words that describe your estate vineyard there at Byron.

JONATHAN
Historic, distinctive, and complex.

GABE
Wow. So, I mean, in that sense you’ve got to feel fortunate to be where you’re at. If you describe a vineyard that way it’s kind of neat thing to be able to be in the middle of it and working in a place like that, huh?

JONATHAN
It really is, it really is, and there was a period of time there where we went through four ownership changes in five years, and at the end of the day it was the vineyard and the people that were working at the winery that were the most compelling for me for every day to go through all the challenges that go along with that.

GABE
Yeah. Frost was never an issue this particular growing season, I know there was a concern early on, but obviously–and frost can make or break a lot for those of you in the business. What’s the one thing that you are concerned about or as you move forward toward harvest season?

JONATHAN
Well, I do know that they are calling for an El Niño, there was a pretty powerful one was ’98 and I know we got rain right before we were picking Pinot and so there are just a lot of issues with detritus and mildew in the vineyards, and so when I hear “El Niño” I usually think of that. The vines are kind of adjusting themselves so there wasn’t very much water, but it seems like they are progressing much faster than a normal year, so we might find ourselves picking earlier than we normally do, but we might getting earlier rains as well.

GABE
Now, if I give you a magic wand and I say, “Head over to Byron,” and you change anything you want with a wave of the want what would you change?

JONATHAN
Patience might not be one of my biggest virtues, so probably all of the plantings we’ve been doing the last couple years I would want to wave my magic wand and make the vines maybe 10 or 15-years-old, that way I can get a sense of what their quality–because when you put vines in the ground you start off with clone and root stock, but then it’s almost like a kid at Christmas where five, six years down the road you get to see what kind of qualities coming off of those, and so, yeah, I think there are sections of our vineyard that I would love to see what their potential is.

GABE
Does being a winemaker, and does the fact that your wife is a winemaker, affect the way you are as parents? Because you mentioned you have a five-year-old daughter, how does being a winemaker effect the way that you are as a parent?

JONATHAN
Not getting caught up in the day but stepping back and seeing the big picture. You know, we can get so involved with the day-to-day decisions even at the winery, but really it’s all of the sum decisions that you have made over time that dictates the expression of the wine. So, I think for our daughter it’s we know the goal we’re headed to, she’s five so she’s not close, but we’re shooting for a certain type of person who’s going to contribute to society and it’s going to take a while to get there, but it’ll be fun on the way.

GABE
What kind of connection do you see her having with wine? She’s obviously aware that her mom and dad are in the business. Does she have a certain affinity that you already picked that up even at five?

JONATHAN
Even at an early age she would often go with Clarissa to go look at vineyards and she loves it, she collects rocks, she helps taste the grapes, she walks the block, she has a fond association for vineyards, at least at this point, and being a parent winemaker Clarissa would have to go in and do some wine work or finish something up, so she kind of sets her up sorting cork or doing something, so she loves to squeegee the floor. For us, both being winemakers, it’s like that is integrated into our lives and who we are, the same thing goes with our daughter, so those two areas do integrate.

GABE
They have to, yeah, they’re going to meet at the end of the day. So, let me finish off by asking you, Jonathan Nagy has picked his last harvest and he is knocking at the pearly gates and Saint Peter says you’re welcome to come in, but only after you pick one wine and pick one person living or dead to enjoy that wine with, what would you sip and who would be sharing those sips with you?

JONATHAN
Hm, I would pick Pinot Noir and I would see if C.S. Lewis would put down his pint of beer and have a discussion over a glass of Pinot Noir.

GABE
I grew up reading his stuff, it’s magical in so many ways, huh?

JONATHAN
Him and J.R.R. Tolkien are–I’m a big fan.

GABE
There it is, beautiful pairing. All right, well, Jonathan Nagy, listen, Dirt Don’t Lie, neither do you. I appreciate you coming in and sharing a little wine and sharing a little insight into what you do.

JONATHAN
It was very enjoyable.

GABE
This has been the Dirt Don’t Lie Podcast where we like to keep conversations with Santa Barbara wine farmers totally unfiltered. I’m Gabe Saglie, your host, Senior Editor for TravelZoo.com and wine columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. This podcast was recorded live at Erickson Sound Labs in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. Our executive producer is Wil Fernandez, and our original music is by Jacob Edward Cole. Want more? Check out DirtDontLie.com. Cheers.