Harvest Profile: Winemaker Denise Shurtleff

Harvest Profile: Winemaker Denise Shurtleff

Now in her 15th year as winemaker at Cambria Estate Winery, the 54-year old Denise says the best part of her job is “coming to work everyday and liking what I do and the people I work with.” We had a chat one fine Spring day at the winery in Santa Maria Valley, as she reminisced about the unlikely path her career has taken.

“I’d gone to school at California Polytechnic Institute, in San Luis Obispo, thinking I wanted to work in nutrition and dietetics. I liked science, and had always been an athlete in things like cross-country and track, so nutrition went along with all that.

After graduation, I tried doing nutritional counseling and teaching aerobics, but found I didn’t like it. I was young and unmarried and having a great time in San Luis Obispo, but had to make some money! So I got a job in a local tasting room.”

Slowly but surely, Denise moved up the ladder at what became the old Corbett Canyon Winery. “The lab technician at the winery decided to go to fashion school, so I applied and got the job, even though the manager didn’t want to hire me: he wanted a male with a U.C. Davis degree! I ended up doing anything I could: cleaned tanks and floors, learned how to rack wine, worked on the bottling line. Then our operations manager took me under his wing, and I worked with suppliers, buying corks and capsules and glass and all that stuff. I even learned how to make sparkling wine! We experienced every single scenario in winemaking you could imagine. It was great training.”

Denise was ultimately appointed head winemaker and winery manager at Corbett Canyon when, in 1999, she was invited to work at Cambria. “I started right before harvest,” she recalls, a tough time to begin work at a winery. “I’d go home just beat, and my husband, Mark, would say, ‘You’re so tired, but there’s a sparkle in your eye.’” Denise knew she’d found the job she loved.

Harvest Profile: Winemaker Denise Shurtleff

Winemaker Denise performing her Punch-Down technique.

At Corbett Canyon, Denise had been buying grapes to blend into the winery’s wines. “We’d sourced grapes from Tepusquet [Vineyard, in Santa Maria Valley], from the Millers at Bien Nacido [Vineyard, right next door to Cambria’s estate vineyard], and Sisquoc [in nearby Foxen Canyon], as well as vineyards in the Los Alamos area. So I had good relationships with vineyard managers and owners in this part of the Central Coast.” Another advantage of those long-standing relationships was Denise’s familiarity with the terroir and fruit of the Santa Maria Valley—an expertise that is evident as you taste her wines from this cool-climate growing region.

Harvest Profile: Winemaker Denise Shurtleff

Winemaker Denise (far left) with the Cambria team.

These days, estate-grown and vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are Cambria’s specialties, but Denise also works with Syrah, Pinot Gris and Viognier, other varieties that perform best in cool climates. When she’s not at work in the winery or inspecting the vines with vineyard manager Matt Mahoney, Denise can be found at home, in the village of Nipomo, just northwest of the Santa Maria Valley, where she and Mark tend to their five-acre garden and its many fruit trees. Her other activities include swimming, kayaking and jogging, not to mention cooking: “I love to cook,” Denise avers. “Part of my decompression after work is to go home and cook dinner. I make a mean jambalaya!” (She drinks it with Cambria Pinot Noir or Syrah.) She and Mark now are empty nesters. Their oldest son (“he’s into snowboarding and craft beer!” Denise smiles) just graduated with a degree in business, while their younger son is going to airplane pilot school in Arizona.

- By Steve Heimoff