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Moving to the Forefront

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery goes from legendary grape grower to budding winemaker.
June 8, 2009
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/202162

Moving to the Forefront

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery
Santa Maria, CA

After more than 30 years of growing legendary grapes, Riverbench Vineyard has become Riverbench Vineyard & Winery. The fertile vineyard, located on the southeastern edge of the Santa Maria Valley, has long been a resource for many vintners who have revered the distinctive flavors of its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. One of the most notable is the renowned Chuck Ortman, who first discovered Riverbench in its early days.

"From the beginning, Riverbench was a top producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Vineyard," Chuck recalls. "Whenever and wherever someone would do a blindfold test, it was always a favorite." Chuck owes this in large part to the soil, which has a great deal of sand and gravel for excellent drainage. "The Chardonnay fruit always had peach and nectarine characteristics and honey to it. It was really rich, not citrusy. And the Pinot Noir was a little different because it had more spice to it."

Chuck, whose illustrious winemaking career includes starting the Meridian label, working in Napa's early days at Heitz, and consulting for some of the Napa Valley's premium wineries including Far Niente, Shafer, and Cain, has often sourced Riverbench fruit for his wines.

When a group of local families purchased the Riverbench property in 2004, they quickly became enamored with the wine industry and decided to start producing their own label, using small quantities of their exceptional fruit. Wisely, they contacted Chuck Ortman. For Chuck, it was like hearing from an old friend. He happily decided to join Riverbench as consulting winemaker in 2006.

Chuck's first efforts for Riverbench were realized when the 2006 varietals were released. Accolades include 89 points from Wine Enthusiast for the 2006 Estate Pinot Noir, which also earned the Chairman's Best in Show Award at the Long Beach Grand Cru Tasting in July, 2008, and a Silver Medal at the 2008 Santa Barbara County Fair.

Chuck's willingness to experiment is likely one of the reasons he is one of California's most respected winemakers. Years ago, he was one of the first to explore the benefits of barrel fermentation for Chardonnay, earning him the nickname "Mr. Chardonnay." Never one to stay on the beaten path, Chuck made a 100% stainless steel-aged Chardonnay for Riverbench just last year-a first for the winery and Mr. Chardonnay himself.

Soon, Chuck plans to select a part of the vineyard that will specifically grow the next Riverbench Reserve Pinot and Chardonnay. He gives high praise to Vineyard Manager Jim Stollberg, who coordinates all winemaking and vineyard operations. Although Riverbench is committed to remaining dedicated to the two grapes that have thrived so well in the vineyard for decades, the portfolio is destined to increase to include new interpretations of these noble varietals.

"This is a terrific vineyard and I want to make it shine," Chuck beams.

The Riverbench tasting room is a newly restored 1920s Craftsman-style house on the historic Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. The outdoor patio is ideal for a picnic, and vineyard and winery tours are offered by appointment. Since Riverbench wines are made in limited quantities, they are available exclusively through their tasting room, wine club, and a few carefully selected restaurants.

What to buy:

'07 Bedrock Chardonnay Crisp, bright, pineapple, melon, hint of kiwi $24
'06 Estate Chardonnay Rich fruit balanced, buttery. Luscious, tropical fruit, hints of honey, apple $26
'06 Reserve Chardonnay Vanilla, nutmeg. Hint of honey, lemon meringue finish $32
'06 Estate Pinot Noir Vivid burgundy. Strawberries, mulberries $34
'06 Reserve Pinot Noir 11 months French oak barrel aged. Velvety. Soft tannins $42

Contact:
6020 Foxen Canyon Rd.
Santa Maria, CA 93454
www.riverbench.com
805.937.8340; Fax: 805.934.3226
Tasting Room Open Daily 10-4

Getting There:

From Hwy 101, exit E Clark Ave. Take E Clark to Dominion Rd. (two miles). Turn left and then right onto Orcutt Garey Rd. Turn right on Foxen Canyon. Go two and a half miles to winery.