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The Secret Vineyard

Outside Santa Barbara, Bien Nacido is inconspicuously producing grapes for some of California's most celebrated bottles. Wine editor Lettie Teague visits.

I've been to wineries in California that look like movie sets and others whose proprietors could be characters in a Danielle Steel novel, but until I visited Bien Nacido, I'd never been to a vineyard that put me in mind of the Broadway musical Brigadoon. Indeed, even though Bien Nacido is closer to Santa Barbara than to Scotland and its winemakers don't dance or sing (at least when journalists are around), it's every bit as magical—and unlikely—as the show by Lerner and Loewe.

I hadn't come to the Santa Maria Valley in search of enchantment. My mission was more prosaic than that: I wanted to see the American wine industry's biggest and possibly best-kept secret for myself. Ever since tasting my first Bien Nacido wine—Qupé Syrah—about 10 years ago, I'd been intrigued that the name Bien Nacido appeared on the labels of so many great wines made by so many talented winemakers. Indeed, the list of 40-odd producers turning out Bien Nacido—designated Syrahs, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs (either at winemaking facilities on the Bien Nacido property or at their own wineries) reads like an all-star lineup: Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach, Gary Farrell, Lane Tanner, Craig Jaffurs, Chris Whitcraft and Jed Steele, to name just a few.

How was it that one vineyard could be the source for so many top wines, made from so many different varietals? Most famous vineyards are home to only one type of grape; even Burgundy's Le Montrachet produces only Chardonnay. And what of the winemakers themselves? Was it frustrating to share the same vineyard with so many others? I decided to find out.

My first impression of Bien Nacido wasn't auspicious—I nearly drove past the small sign, mistaking the vineyard's unremarkable buildings for the offices of the gravel plant on the opposite side of the road. And the surrounding landscape gave no indication there was a famous vineyard nearby: Broccoli and cauliflower easily outnumbered grapevines. According to Bien Nacido's director of sales and marketing, James Ontiveros, Chardonnay and cauliflower thrive under similar conditions. I wondered what might have happened to Montrachet had Burgundians been as fond of cruciferous vegetables as they were of Chardonnay.

Behind Bien Nacido's unexceptional front lies great natural beauty—over 900 acres of perfectly tended vines, cradled in a canyon between grass-covered hills where horses and cattle graze. A nineteenth-century adobe house, mid-renovation, sits sentinel-like in the center of it all. (In an odd twist of fate, Ontiveros's great-grandfather was born in the house; his family had been given the original land grant in 1847. The property was nearly 9,000 acres back then, and no one in Ontiveros's family had been on the land since they sold it in the 1930s—until James joined Bien Nacido last year.) The Pacific, some 20 miles away, can be felt in the cool, maritime breezes. Ontiveros and vineyard manager Chris Hammell drove me up into the hills for a view of the ocean; Hammell pointed it out as "the bit of blue just beyond the big patch of broccoli."

The Bien Nacido vineyards, though extensive, represent only a small percentage of the ranch, which is nearly 3,000 acres; the remaining land is mostly given over to cattle. It's half manicured vines, half Wild West—and definitely the only vineyard where I've ever met up with a coyote in broad daylight (or any other kind of light, for that matter).

Bien Nacido's unpretentious appearance, I discovered, has as much to do with its owners, the Miller family, as it does with the agrarian nature of the Santa Maria Valley itself. Although the Millers own Bien Nacido in its entirety (and several other vineyards besides), they have always remained in the background, content for the winemakers to win the acclaim. It's telling that no Bien Nacido wine has ever been made under the Miller name. Instead, the Millers allow winemakers who are part of the Bien Nacido "family" to buy grapes from certain "blocks," or parcels. Indeed, the history of Bien Nacido is as much about building a family as it is about creating a business. I've never heard the word family invoked by more winemakers than at Bien Nacido—trumping even that perennial winemaker favorite, barrel fermentation.

Bob and Steve Miller, who grew up in the East, never set out to grow grapes. When their mother, who owned the property, presented them with it back in the mid-1970s, it had been planted with the common crops of the time: peppers, potatoes and lima beans. Very few vineyards existed in Santa Maria back then. The brothers' decision to grow grapes was an almost arbitrary one; initially they planned on planting just 40 acres or so, to see what would happen. But their father didn't believe in experiments on a small scale, and so almost overnight, the acreage zoomed to 670. (The remaining 300 or so were planted over the following years.) Some early varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, weren't particularly well suited to the Valley's cool, maritime climate, while others, like Riesling, simply fell out of favor with the wine-drinking public.

But by the early 1980s, the Millers realized that popular grapes such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir did well in Santa Maria's cool temperatures (some of the winemaking world's coolest) and long growing season. When the Millers also saw that the soils, a combination of gravel and calciferous clay, produced wines of remarkable character—well, that's when the real story of Bien Nacido truly began.

While the brothers sold fruit to bulk producers in those early years—what else to do with hundreds of acres of grapes?—they were interested in wine as more than a commodity. They believed handcrafted wines made in small amounts by talented producers were the future of not only their vineyard but the region.

Of course, small-scale winemakers starting out rarely have ready cash, so those early relationships were based more on feelings than financials. As Lane Tanner, one of the early disciples (and the first woman to make a Bien Nacido wine), says, "The Millers are like my godparents. They treat me like a daughter." The Millers gave Tanner a corner of their warehouse to make her wines—now among California's most sought-after Pinot Noirs.

The Millers did much the same for Jim Clendenen, Adam Tolmach and Bob Lindquist, of Au Bon Climat (or ABC), Ojai and Qupé, respectively. Clendenen, who won early attention for his Burgundian-style Bien Nacido Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs, is one of California's most articulate winemakers—with arguably one of the most commented-upon hairstyles. There's a seeming competition among wine writers to find new adjectives to describe Clendenen's leonine locks.

More recently, the Millers built Clendenen his own winery on their property—something they've done for only one other winery, Tantara, whose equally unpretentious quarters look more like an oversize bicycle shed than a winemaking facility. The warehouselike ABC building is also home to Qupé, Cold Heaven and Los Olivos, another Clendenen label, under which he produces varietals like Barbera and Nebbiolo. (Clendenen persuaded the Millers to plant a few acres of these Italian grapes, prompting Bob Miller to speculate as to whether or not Bien Nacido could claim to be "the new Piedmont.")

After lunch with Clendenen and his crew, I wondered if the Millers built his facility as much for his culinary abilities as for his winemaking skill. Whenever he's in town, Clendenen makes lunch for all comers—anyone at the vineyard, including the occasional tourists who manage to find their way back to the unmarked winery.

Lunch and dinner, rather than random meetings along vineyard rows, seem to be the most common way Bien Nacido winemakers get together. After all, according to Bob Miller, one of the criteria for being a Bien Nacido winemaker is being a good conversationalist. As if to prove this point, Miller invited a group of producers to dinner at the Hitching Post restaurant while I was visiting. Located in Buellton, the Hitching Post is a Bien Nacido favorite, not only for its grilled steaks but also because it's owned by one of their own, Frank Ostini, who, with partner Gray Hartley, makes a rich, ripe BN Pinot Noir under the label Hartley Ostini.

The Hitching Post dinner was more like a gathering of golf-club members than winemakers. The greetings were accordingly hearty—lots of backslapping and hand shaking. (Was there a secret Bien Nacido handshake?) Among the assembled were Ostini and Hartley, as well as Clendenen and Craig Jaffurs, who makes a powerful Syrah under the Bien Nacido label, and Joe Davis, winemaker and owner of Arcadian. Dennis Martin, dean of winemaking for Fetzer, had driven down from Mendocino, while John Kerr and Bill and Gwen Cates of Tantara came from much closer by. The Cateses, an elegant couple in their early sixties, had only recently moved from Virginia to fulfill their dream of owning a winery. Gwen, an artist, gave me a postcard of a painting she'd done of Bien Nacido. Although it's a beautiful rendering, it's not on Tantara's label; in fact, no winemaker at the vineyard has ever used such a picture—tacit acknowledgement, perhaps, that Bien Nacido belongs to them all.

The Bien Nacido—centric dinner featured Tantara's barrel-fermented Chardonnay and its exotic "Evelyn" Pinot Noir; Jaffurs's showy, muscular Syrah; a couple of Clendenen's new Italian-style offerings; and two vintages of Hartley Ostini's Pinot Noirs. According to Ostini, who makes Pinot Noirs with grapes from other vineyards, the Bien Nacido wine is always the first one to sell out.

It wasn't until the following day, when I sat down to a tasting of more than 50 Bien Nacido wines, that I fully realized how vast a vineyard it is. Over one million bottles are produced annually at Bien Nacido—the equivalent of a good-sized commercial winery—and the variety of the labels, not to mention the number of varietals, was enough to stock a small wine shop. There were wines from Au Bon Climat, Arcadian, Foxen, Fetzer, Ojai, Qupé, Whitcraft, Steele, Tantara, Testarossa, Stephen Ross and Villa Mt. Eden—some from multiple years.

When I asked Bob Miller if he'd ever considered creating a tasting room for Bien Nacido wines, he seemed surprised. Clearly, commercial enterprise doesn't come easily to this shy, retiring man. "But do you think we would have to get a new sign?" he asked, referencing an impressive but pretentious piece of granite we'd both seen at another winery entrance. "That doesn't seem like the Bien Nacido character," I ventured. "That's what I thought," Miller replied, sounding relieved.

But what is the Bien Nacido character? Tasting the wines, I found it was hard to believe they came from the same region, let alone the same vineyard or parcel of vines. The styles, the personalities were so different—there was the restrained, pure-fruit personality of Jed Steele's Chardonnay, the big-shouldered, oaky style of Testarossa's, the brooding weight of Stephen Ross's wines and the profound intensity of Ojai's Syrahs. And yet, a common thread could be found in them all: The Syrahs had the trademark flamboyance—lots of smoke, pepper and spice—while the Chards were all bright, rich, tropical fruit. The subtlety and elegance of the Pinot Noirs were pure Bien Nacido, with aromas of cherry and spice that Lane Tanner says she can spot "a mile off" in blind tastings; she has even excused herself from judging competitions when she finds them. And of course, what they all have in common is beautiful Bien Nacido fruit.

It's fruit winemakers are willing to be put on a waiting list for. Even for Chardonnay. As Ontiveros marveled, "Even though right now you can't give Chardonnay away, there's such a glut, we have a waiting list for ours." As far as Syrah and Pinot Noir go, even Bien Nacido's 900 acres of vines don't produce enough of either varietal to meet the considerable demand.

And of course, the Millers don't sell their fruit to just anyone. Producers who want to make a Bien Nacido wine must undergo an audition of sorts. Their wines must be tasted and their own characters, presumably, assessed (can they, for instance, hold a dinner-party conversation?) before a contract is granted.

Once a winemaker has been accepted, the question of which grapes he or she can buy often arises. Although Bien Nacido is vast, certain blocks—all of which go by letters, not numbers or names—are more coveted than others. For Pinot Noir, the Q block is the most sought after. Winemaker Chris Whitcraft even labels his wines with this letter, knowing Bien Nacido fans recognize its significance. T and N are other letters Pinot fans know, while J and U, although unpublicized, are particularly sought after for Chardonnay.

But like any parent, not to mention astute businessman, Bob Miller eschews such distinctions. All blocks are good ones, all equally capable of producing great fruit. "It's just that the Q block winemakers are the loudest," he says, adding, "In fact, we're debating calling the entire vineyard Q block."

At the time of my visit, the Bien Nacido team was in the midst of determining an appropriate Syrah block for a new Bien Nacido winemaker, Andrew Murray. A brash young man who made a name for himself in a short time with his superripe, concentrated Syrahs and Rhône-style blends, Murray has his own winery not far from Bien Nacido and his own meticulously tended vineyards. Why, I asked, did he want to make a Bien Nacido wine? Murray thought for a while before replying: "I don't know if it's the winemakers or the grapes, but at Bien Nacido there'sÉ" He paused to find the right word. I knew just what he was looking for and was about to help him out when he continued—"synergy."

I was thinking, of course, of the word magic.

Published November 2002
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