In 2014, Byron changed directions to focus on vineyard-designates, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from the top sites of Santa Barbara County. As of 2016, their assortment included 20 different vineyards. I met with winemaker Jonathan Nagy at the winery, tasted through ten Byron Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wines were beautiful and I went away energized. The wines were pre-release at the time of my tasting in December, but are on the market now.
Santa Barbara County winemaking icon Ken Brown founded the Byron brand in 1984. Five years later, he purchased the Nielson Vineyard—432 acres in the Santa Maria Valley AVA. That vineyard, planted in 1964 by Uriel Nielson, was the first Santa Barbara County vineyard planted in the 20th century.
In 1990, the Robert Mondavi family bought Byron. Ken Brown continued with the winery though, working with Tim Mondavi on the vineyard and wines. They built a winery on the property in 1996. Brown left in 2003 and Jonathan Nagy who had been working with Ken Brown at Byron since 2001, took over as winemaker. Shortly thereafter came a rapid-fire ownership changes.
In November 2004, Constellation Brands acquired Robert Mondavi Corporation. In early 2005, Legacy Estates bought Byron (and Arrowood) from Constellation but, just eight months after that, Legacy declared bankruptcy. That culminated in August of 2006 with Jess Jackson outbidding both Huneeus and a consortium led by Bill Price to acquire Legacy, which also held Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley.
Things settled down under Jackson Family. Jonathan Nagy stayed on through the tumult, providing continuity and building fourteen years experience with the estate vineyard. The vineyard, largely replanted in 1991 and then enhanced with considerable investments by Jackson, has come into its prime. Nagy also oversaw construction of a new winery as well, the old one having been sold to Kenneth Volk during the Mondavi-Treasury transition. [Volk put that facility up for sale just this week.]
The new facility has a mult-level, gravity-feed, production area. The assortment of stainless steel fermentation tanks with 4, 6 and 8-ton capacities are movable. For cold soak, the tanks are kept inside and cooled with glycol. When it’s time for fermentation, the tanks are moved outside. The maturation rooms, kept at about 50 degrees, hold roughly 4,000 barrels. Under the new single-vineyard scheme, production of each variety at a given site runs 10-12 barrels.
The winery is not open to the public.
About Winemaker Jonathan Nagy
Jonathan Nagy spent his early years in the Santa Maria Valley. His family moved to Northern California as he began high school. After getting a degree in chemistry from U.C. Davis in 1996, he hired on at Robert Mondavi Winery where he worked in the lab. After a couple of harvests at Mondavi, he headed back to Santa Maria. A job in the Cambria Winery tasting room turned into cellar work. Then, in 2001, Brown hired him to be assistant winemaker at Byron.
The tall, genial Nagy is not the only winemaker in his family. His wife, Clarissa, is winemaker at Riverbench in Santa Maria Valley and also has her own label, C Nagy Wines.
Tasting Byron Single-Vineyard Wines
2014 Byron Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA 94 13.9% 750ml $40
Though lightly colored in the glass, this Chardonnay is explosively aromatic with ripe pear, green and yellow apple, a generous sprinkling of baking spice and a whisper of smoky flint. It’s nearly full-bodied in the mouth yet graceful and extremely juicy with very fine, silky texture. The very long-lasting flavors match the nose in both character and intensity.
The fruit for this wine are clones 4 and 95 taken from the I- and O-blocks of the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard. The wine was fermented in 40% new Latour barrels. Nagy tells me that those barrels are “distinctive, but in parallel with the vineyard and add a lot of texture without essence of barrel.” Barrel aging lasted 15 months.
2014 Byron Chardonnay Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA 92+ 14.3% 750ml $40
Pretty aromas of grilled pear and apple, caramel and just a little butter lead into a nearly full-bodied palate with fine-grained texture and moderate acidity. The attractive flavors initially reveal themselves in layers, led by graham cracker, then yellow apple, tart pear and mineral.
The wine is made from Wente, shot-berry clone vines planted in 1999. Fermentation took place in barrel with and full malolactic fermentation followed. The wine aged in the same barrels—35% new French oak from World Cooperage—for 15 months.
2013 Byron Pinot Noir Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA 93 14.5% 750ml $45
This savory, estate Pinot Noir overflows with aromas of grilled black cherry, brown spice, smoke, sandalwood and dried thyme. It’s medium-plus body is framed by moderate, fine-grained tannins which give it a slippery mouthfeel. The flavors match the nose and have good length, but are tightly wound. Enjoy it from 2018 through 2025.
Three Pinot clones (607, 114 and Swan) were used for this wine. They came from the east end of the property, which is very sandy with outcroppings of shale and limestone. The fruit was 100% destemmed prior to fermentation, then aged in 35% new French oak.
2014 Byron Pinot Noir Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA 92 14.2% 750ml $45
Jonathan Nagy says “this wine always has a brambly, floral expression” and that’s evident in the aromas and flavors of grilled, dark red cherry, spice, tea, dark mineral and dark flowers. The palate is smooth and pretty with just enough fine-grained and chalky texture for balance. The juicy flavors have good length.
The Pinot Noir is clone 667 from Sierra Madre, which is one of the vineyards furthest west in the AVA and, according to Nagy, “virtually a sand dune. The fruit was entirely destemmed. 30% of the French oak barrels used were new.
2014 Byron Pinot Noir Julia’s Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA 93+ 13.7% 750ml $45
This wine is boldly aromatic and very savory with earthy spice, leather, grilled cherry, dried thyme and dark mineral. It’s nearly full-bodied in the mouth and full of ripe but savory cherry which is framed more by acidity than the fine, softish tannins.
The fruit here comes from selected rows among the Pommard vines planted back in the 1970s. Nagy chose the stunted vines, which clearly focus on fruit development rather than height. The destemmed was primarily barrel-fermented (40% new oak).
2014 Byron Pinot Noir Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley AVA 92+ 13.7% 750ml $45
Another wine which shows the savoriness that is one of the chief differences between Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir, the aromas and flavors here include dark mineral, graphite, wet stone, smoke, red cherry, tea and Japanese cedar. And those notes are all grape, the fruit was 100% destemmed. In the mouth, body is medium to medium-plus with very fine, smooth and well-integrated tannins.
2014 Byron Pinot Noir “Monument” Santa Maria Valley AVA 93+ 13.3% 750ml $65
Byron’s flagship Pinot Noir is powerfully aromatic with graham cracker crust, smoky dark cherry, sage and dark mineral. Flavory density is excellent on the medium-bodied palate. Structure comes from juicy acidity and light, very fine-grained tannins.
An exception to the single-vineyard strategy, Monument is a cellar blend, comprised mostly of Nielson Vineyard fruit. Nagy blended several different clones from that site: “Swan for floral, 2a for bright acidity, Pommard for structure, 667 for fruit density and a Sanford+Benedict selection for plummniness.” The grapes come from prized older vines with lower crop level and which he picks relatively early.
2014 Byron Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills AVA 92+ 14.4% 750ml $55
Appetizing aromas of red cherry, strawberry and a hint of savoriness lead into a medium-bodied palate that is all about chewy, red cherry. The light tannins are soft with extremely fine texture. The flavors, buoyed by freshness, last and last.
This Pinot is all clone 777 from the the La Encantada vineyard, which is on the southernmost side of the AVA. The fruit was all destemmed and the wine aged in 35% new Francois Freres barrels.
2014 Byron Pinot Noir John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills AVA 93+ 14.4% 750ml $55
This wine bursts with earthy red cherry and exotic, masculine spice on the nose and palate. Body is medium-plus and the light tannins are extremely fine and supple. Very long.
The clone 115 Pinot Noir came from the John Sebastiano Vineyard which is in the northeastern portion of the AVA. It’s high altitude and windswept, owing to its seaward exposure.
2014 Byron Pinot Noir Rita’s Crown, Sta. Rita Hills AVA 94 13.8% 750ml $65
Intense on nose and palate, but promising even more with time, this wine is fruit-driven with savory accents dancing around deep, dark red cherry. It has medium-plus body on the palate with light tannins that are extremely fine, smooth and well-integrated.
Rita’s Crown sits above the Sea Smoke Vineyard on the southern side of the AVA’s central spine of hills. The clone here is 828 and, unusually for Byron, one-third was fermented whole-cluster. The oak barrels were Taransaud, 35% new.
You may enjoy my related articles:
The Wines of Santa Barbara County (at GuildSomm)
Copyright Fred Swan 2017. All rights reserved.