Winemaker Interview: Jill DelaRiva Russell

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 09-15-2017

Jill DelaRiva Russell

Jill DelaRiva Russell

As our regular readers know, we frequently pose a series of questions to a winemaker to probe their winemaking philosophy and to gain insight into how they became who they are. This week, we are featuring Jill Russell, who was recently promoted to be the winemaker at Cambria Winery of the Santa Maria Valley in California’s Central Coast.

(We recently interviewed Jonathan Nagy, the winemaker at Byron Winery, who had previously worked at Cambria.)

Cambria is a part of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio. Following the footsteps of the late Jess Jackson, Barbara Banke and Katie and Julia Jackson manage the estate.

Jill studied winemaking at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. After graduating, she stayed in the area and began her career as assistant winemaker at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars. She then worked harvest in France and joined Paul Lato Wines, before being named Cambria’s new winemaker.

Check out the interview below the fold!

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Castro Valley, California.

When and how did you get into wine?

When I was in high school, I worked as a server at a winery in Livermore and fell in love with food and wine. Once I graduated, I moved to San Luis Obispo to study Wine and Viticulture at Cal Poly. My education there was centered around “learn by doing,” so I while I was there, I made wine with my peers and traveled California, learning about all the various wine-growing regions of the state. I spent one quarter in Adelaide, Australia, and took another quarter off to work a harvest at a local winery. There I tried to learn every possible aspect of the process, and I couldn’t stop asking questions — I just knew it was meant for me.

What has been your career path to where you are?

I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Wine and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I developed my winemaking and regional expertise as Assistant Winemaker with Stephen Ross Wine Cellars in San Luis Obispo, making wines from Edna Valley, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. After five years, I spent a harvest at Domaine Henry Pelle in Menetou Salon, France, near Sancerre. After harvest, I spent months traveling to different wine regions in France. I returned to California in 2015 as Assistant Winemaker with Paul Lato Wines, where I focused on Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley and St. Rita Hills. As a passionate advocate of Santa Maria wines, I look forward to continuing Cambria’s tradition of world class, cool-climate winemaking.

In your view, what makes your vineyards special?

Hands down, the topography of the region. The fact that there’s an east-west orientation of ranges which allows fog and coastal breezes to move through the valley and create a long, even growing season makes it special on its own. And with low annual rainfall and warm sun, Santa Maria, and the Cambria Estate, is a perfect place to grow my favorites, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I like to create harmonious, textural wines that reflect the varietal characteristics of the grapes and the place where they were grown.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

The weather during the growing season and harvest. You can’t predict or change the weather!

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

Jim Clendenen was instrumental in cultivating an international reputation for Santa Barbara County and has some incredible – and funny – stories. I’ve enjoyed a few lunches with him, and I could sit and listen to him for hours.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I’m excited about many of my friends. It’s been fun seeing the career progressions, and I’m lucky to know an incredible group of young, passionate winemakers, each with a very distinct approach and perspective.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

I would have to say the Loire Valley in France.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

It’s hard to say the best wine I’ve tasted but have had many wines that moved me. When I worked in France, I discovered orange wine and tasted a 30-year-old bottle that was super interesting that I still think about.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

I have few birth wines that are special to me. I believe the most expensive bottle is a 3L of Goldeneye Pinot Noir that we should drink to make more room!

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

A South African Rosé, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and a Cambria Pinot Noir.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

You can’t go wrong with Pinot Noir and a dry Rosé.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Maybe when you’re boating and floating on a lake.

How do you spend your days off?

My husband and I really enjoy exploring the Central Coast and all that it has to offer. I also spend my time hiking, cooking, and trying new wines.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I’ve never been horse-back riding!

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

I would be a teacher.

How do you define success?


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