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Matt Kettmann

Wine Legends

Bien Nacido Grows an Empire in the Santa Maria Valley


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Got a rack full of Santa Barbara County wines? Walk over to it, yank out a bottle, and inspect the label. Odds are that in your hands is a wine whose grapes came from Bien Nacido Vineyards, the 800-plus acre spread along the northeastern flank of the Santa Maria Valley. Nope? Well, then double-or-nothing that your bottle passed through the Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) somewhere along the line from the vineyard to your cellar. Don’t believe me? Well, if it’s an Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Westerly, Summerland, Taz, Whitcraft, Kunin, Cargasacchi, Firestone, Buttonwood, Fetzer, Stolpman, Costa de Oro, Red Car, Arcadian, Rex Goliath, Kendall-Jackson, Hitching Post, Core, Jaffurs, Consilience, or any other of the hundreds of brands that pass through CCWS’s industrial facilities near the Santa Maria Airport, then you lose.

But don’t settle your debts with me. If you owe anybody anything for all this grapey goodness, it’s Robert and Stephen Miller and their family. They’re the pioneering legends of Santa Maria Valley winemaking who planted Bien Nacido in 1973 and then, 14 years later, founded CCWS, a dynamic business that handles every aspect of winemaking for wineries big and small, from crushing, fermenting, and bottling to chemical analysis, storage, and distribution. But the Millers aren’t resting on those considerable laurels-in 1999, they planted the Solomon Hills Vineyards on the knolls that frame Santa Maria’s southeastern border, and have been amassing critical praise for those grapes ever since.

The combination of these three entities makes the Millers a critically crucial cog in the constantly moving, $360 million wheel that is Santa Barbara County’s wine industry. This is their story.

The Forefather: Bien Nacido Vineyards

Driving east out of Santa Maria, the ever-growing city sprawl abruptly halts, giving way to vast vistas of slow rolling hillsides and swaths of farmland. Veering north along the productive valley’s eastern flank, one notices a ledge rising above the flatlands, and, beyond that, a gorgeous canyon that juts into a rural paradise. This ledge is known as the “Santa Maria bench,” and it’s the exact place where Bien Nacido Vineyards’ first grapes were planted in 1973, changing the winemaking ways of Santa Barbara County.

This land has always been bountiful: The Chumash named the nearby creek Tepusquet, which means “fishing for trout”; in 1837, the Spanish government granted the property to Tom¡s Olivera, who certainly appreciated the confluence of the Sisquoc and Cuyama rivers on his property. In 1855, the 9,000-acre property-known officially as Rancho Tepusquet-was transferred to Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros, who planted some of the valley’s first wine grapes and built an adobe in 1856 that still stands today.

As was the trend at the time, the rancho was sectioned into smaller parcels and sold off until only about 1,400 acres surrounded the Ontiveros Adobe. In 1969, the Miller family-a fifth-generation Californian farming family, at the time growing citrus and avocados in Camarillo-bought the adobe acreage and an adjoining property. The reunited Rancho Tepusquet now features more than 2,000 acres.

Fast forward 25 years from the 1972 planting and family legacy is still very much in full swing at the Bien Nacido Vineyards of Rancho Tepusquet, the property’s official name. While Stephen Miller’s son, Nicholas, oversees much of the operation and acts as the vineyard’s public face, his cohort is Director of Sales and Marketing James Ontiveros, a ninth-generation Californian who hails from the same Ontiveros family that built the adobe and first planted grapes on the property.

Today, Bien Nacido’s 720 acres of vineyards are planted primarily in pinot noir and chardonnay, but there are also acres dedicated to pinot gris, syrah, merlot, viognier, nebbiolo, barbera, roussanne, pinot blanc, tocai friulano, petit verdot, and refosco. Additionally, the vineyard prides itself on being a major nursery for vines, meaning that many California vineyards-especially those planted in chardonnay-are essentially growing grapes birthed at Bien Nacido.

Although Bien Nacido does not itself have a winemaking operation, there are two wineries on site: Au Bon Climat and Tantara. Nonetheless, Nicholas Miller can proudly proclaim, “Bien Nacido is the most vineyard-designated wine in the world.” To the layman, that means Bien Nacido is named on a wider diversity of wine brands than any other vineyard in the world. (To be clear, vineyard designation, although a growing practice, is typically reserved for wines with smaller productions and bigger price tags. A vast majority of wines do not list vineyards, often because the grapes come from so many different places.)

So why is Bien Nacido Vineyards so popular? Its uncompromising commitment to quality. James Ontiveros, who’s been working for the company for five years, explained, “One percent of the acreage in California has attempted to do the quality we do.” Bien Nacido uses galvanized steel posts, drip irrigation, and sustainable insect practices. Plus, the original plantings (which are now slowly being replaced as their 30-year lives come to an end) were all from state-certified UC Davis root stock.

Perhaps the main reason, however, is the vineyard’s practice of selling fruit only by the vineyard row or acreage, rather than by the tonnage of grapes, as is the trend for most large vineyards. That shows they’re interested more in winemakers who care about the growing process and don’t just want a bunch of juice from wherever. Indeed, it was at Bien Nacido that Santa Barbara winemaker Chris Whitcraft began an increasingly common practice of designating an actual block of the vineyard for his wine; when you drink his N Block Pinot, you know the exact geographic location at Bien Nacido where those grapes were grown. As American tastes become more refined and curious about the winemaking process, block designation is catching on like wildfire.

But the sale of only acres and rows is also a testament to the Millers’ feelings about that buzzword “terroir,” or the sense of place apparent when tasting certain wines. If they sold by the ton, they’d be forced to combine certain blocks every so often to meet the contracted demand. Yet when sold by the specific acre or row, the terroir is uncompromised, and the characteristic spice flavor associated with Bien Nacido is allowed to shine. Because of that arrangement, Bien Nacido is not the typical vineyard. “It’s not really fair to look at Bien Nacido as one whole vineyard,” said Ontiveros as we drove around the property one afternoon last May. “We’re doing custom farming for a number of clients.”

It’s no accident Bien Nacido is so successful-geography and geology are on its side. Overlooking the vineyard as the sun was setting, Nicholas Miller explained the San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountain ranges are the only transverse ranges on the entire West Coast of both Americas, and the Santa Maria Valley sits right in the middle of it. It’s also the place where the warm water from the south collides with the cold ocean water of the north, and the soil is better than in other growing areas in Santa Barbara County. Miller said Bien Nacido has the “advantage of farming on a coastal desert” and the longest growing season in all of California. “If you were to engineer a vineyard,” said Miller, “this would be the one.” Of course, growing the grapes is just the first step of the process.

The Workhorse: Central Coast Wine Services

The bucolic beauty of Bien Nacido is perfectly juxtaposed by the gray, monolithic setting of CCWS. A blend of office space, a hangar-like warehouse, and a mechanical-sound-filled factory, CCWS sits near the Santa Maria Airport in the city’s industrial zone, where endless parking lots and dull rectangular buildings dwarf the few cars and people milling about.

But as drab as the structure is, the people inside are as colorful as they come. When I arrived one morning last spring, I immediately ran into The Indy’s wine columnist Sao Anash and helped her load her car with four cases of pinot that were heading directly to renowned wine critic Robert Parker’s mouth. Near the entrance, the derby-wearing cult wine god Manfred Frankl of Ventura’s Sine Qua Non Winery was colorfully critiquing in his Austrian accent a technical wine class he’d just finished, around the same time that Gypsy Canyon’s Deborah Hall-who’s been getting international accolades for her ancient Angelica recipe-was shyly exiting the building. The Central Coast’s viticultural heart beats within these walls, and from here, the blood of our county’s most profitable industry flows.

These days, CCWS’s heart surgeon is head winemaker Chris Brown. A refugee from the Napa Valley scene-where he “felt like the doors needed a big hole cut out so everyone’s head could fit through them”-Brown came to CCWS in July 2005, and was immediately impressed with the vibe. “Here, the wine business isn’t everything,” said Brown. “People are a lot more humble.”

But CCWS’s statistics are anything but humble: more than 250,000 square feet of space; 1.8 million gallons of stainless steel storage; a warehouse that can hold nearly 500,000 cases of wine; two bottling lines that can fill 36,000 bottles of wine per day; more than 10,000 oak barrels scraping the ceilings; and the ability to press 600 tons of grapes daily during harvest time. And that’s not mentioning the chemical analyses CCWS provides via Vinquiry, a third-party lab housed on the property-including tests for ethanol alcohol, titratable acidity, pH, paper chromatography, volatile activity, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, among other more obscure needs. With about 100 individual customers currently using CCWS, it’s not a stretch to say that the bulk of Santa Barbara County’s wine gets touched in one way or another by the Miller family business. And that’s quite a feat for a company that began as a warehouse, then started bottling, and then moved on to everything else.

I don’t think anyone envisioned what this spot is today,” said Miller, as we meandered through the bustling facility, Mexican music blaring near workers in one area while a Hassidic rabbi wandered amid the 26,000-gallon tanks ensuring one company’s wines were indeed kosher. “It’s pretty unique to have it all under one house.”

Miller said the explosive growth has roots in the family’s “get it done” philosophy, which has equated to perhaps the most stable enterprise in the entire wine industry. “It’s a good business model,” confirmed the modest but confident Miller. “There are so many different legs to our stool-if one gets knocked out, we’re still sitting on three.” So where is there another facility like this? “The closest one would be in Paso Robles,” said Miller with a smirk, “and we own that one, too.”

If four-story stacked oak barrels and sky-high, temperature-controlled steel fermenters don’t get you jazzed, then a trip to the backyard of CCWS will make your jaw drop. This is where the freshly plucked fruit meets its destiny. Though empty during the spring, fall’s harvest season turns this area into a bustle of activity. On one side is the crushing zone for small wineries, whose grapes come in half-ton boxes and can be delivered by vehicles as small as pickup trucks. On the other side, it’s big-rig city where the big boys of the Central Coast wine industry do their thing, and fruit loads around 25 tons get processed. Whereas the small winemaker side looks like an open garage suitable for a truck or two, the big-boy side features forklifts, separate lanes for red and white grapes, and machines you’d expect NASA to use. “It’s like night and day,” said Brown. “One is like a backyard party and the other is like a rave.”

But a testament to CCWS’s care for the little guy is that while 92 percent of the volume goes through the big guys, the CCWS staff spends 60 percent of its work on the small side. And since varietals often ripen at the exact same time-and just an additional 24 hours on the vine in hot conditions can turn epic juice into sour grapes-the scheduling during crush time for the smaller wineries can get rather hectic. “We try to make each customer feel like they’re the most important,” said winemaker Brown. “But with 100 customers, that’s a challenge.”

But CCWS isn’t just about machines and necessity. There’s a lot of learning-otherwise known as friendly competition-going on, too. “It’s like living in the dorms during finals,” said Brown. “There’s always someone to bounce ideas off of, and people always have different opinions. It keeps you open-minded. I feel like I’m gonna be a helluva better winemaker for working at a place like this.” That spirit is fostered by the other integral part of what CCWS offers: the alternative proprietorship, which allows winemakers to work under the banner of CCWS rather than get their own federal bond and licensing.

As we watched Au Bon Climat’s latest chardonnay proceed speedily through the bottling line and drooled in mutual anticipation over Whitcraft’s Aubain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004, whose labels were drying on a nearby table, Brown said, “All we try to do is make the best wine we can. We do better for ourselves, we do better for the region, and we do better for the industry.”

The Next Generation: Solomon Hills Vineyards

With Bien Nacido’s legendary fame and CCWS’s necessary nuts and bolts under its belt, the Millers decided in 1999 to embark on a new adventure. Located on the east side of Highway 101 where the undulating hills north of Los Alamos give way to Santa Maria’s suburbs, Solomon Hills Vineyards represents the next Miller wave. Planted in 1999 as two 50-acre plots-88 of which were pinot noir, 12 chardonnay-Solomon Hills is already nabbing high scores from critics and enticing the region’s best winemakers to claim vineyard blocks faster than they can be created. (They’ve since added a half-acre of syrah, too.)

Tended to by the easy-going vineyard manager Greg Phelan since 2001, Solomon Hills’ setting is integral to its success, much like Bien Nacido. The ocean is 12 miles away as the crow flies, and on a clear day, you can see it sparkle between Point Sal and Point San Luis, said Phelan. That means the soft sea breezes can easily glide over the cityscape and cool down these vines. As the westernmost vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley appellation, it’s the coldest, and that’s crucial for pinot noir, which is the wine of choice for discriminating Americans thanks to the still resonating Sideways effect.

Add to that sandy loam and morning and afternoon sun, and Phelan said it’s producing much different flavor profiles than anything at Bien Nacido. That makes Solomon Hills exciting, which is why when I visited last May, the wineries invested in the vineyard’s 21 different lots amounted to a short who’s who list of Central Coast winemaking: Tantara, Revel, Flying Goat, Bonaccorsi, Fetzer, Ojai Vineyard, Wild Horse, Waltzing Bear, Ambullneo, J. Wilkes, and Arcadian.

Although 2003 was the first harvest, the response, according to Ontiveros, has been “tremendous. We need more acres, really. The supply isn’t coming anywhere close to the demand on pinot.” For instance, an Ambullneo pinot noir from Solomon Hills recently received a whopping 95 rating from esteemed wine critic Robert Parker. And since the Millers own much of the adjoining land where strawberries currently are grown, there’s ample room for expansion.

As the afternoon breezes began to pick up and cool the hills, Ontiveros, Phelan, Miller, and I sat atop a bluff and enjoyed some tastes of a J. Wilkes pinot while we overlooked the ranch. They told me these hills were named after a bandit from the old days who hid out in this region. In between sips of an excellent wine, it occurred to me that the thief was striking again, this time stealing the California wine world by storm.

The Future: Central Coast Superstars

Since the few days I spent exploring the Santa Maria Valley with Nicholas Miller and his colleagues last May, their businesses have continued forging ahead. This winter’s frost didn’t affect the vineyards (because they were dormant anyway), but Miller’s a bit concerned about the lack of rain. But things are mostly happy: Miller reported that his Web site’s new discussion board is a flurry of wine industry activity and that, just last month, CCWS opened a new wing of its warehouse, expanding its storage capacity for cases of wine by 43,000 square feet.

Last week, I asked Miller if he thought the expansion was indicative of how his business is going. He replied, “It’s not only a comment on our business. It’s a comment on the Central Coast in general as the place to be. We’re going to be the superstar in the next couple of years. With the pinot boom, the media is interested in Santa Barbara County like it never was before. We’re enjoying a surge in the actual number of wineries coming online, and there’s more wine being produced here than there ever was before.”

And that’s in large part thanks to the Miller family. So go back to that bottle you pulled out of your rack, pop the cork, and pour it in your favorite crystal. Then raise your glass and toast the Millers, because without them, the past, present, and future of Santa Barbara County’s wine industry wouldn’t be nearly as tasty.

4•1•1

For more, see biennacidovineyards.com, centralcoastwineservices.com, and solomonhillsvineyards.com. To get your own taste of Bien Nacido Vineyards, try its first-ever collector’s case, which is only available to California residents, costs $395, and can be purchased from the vineyard’s Web site.

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