It was an evening for some of the region’s acclaimed winemakers to uncork their best library wines.
The Miller family was celebrating the 40th anniversary of its iconic Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria and its French Camp Vineyards east of Santa Margarita. Most of the Millers’ longtime vineyard customers attended a dinner at Bien Nacido’s Ontiveros Adobe Aug. 10 to toast the family’s historic role in nurturing up-and-coming winemakers and winning recognition for Central Coast viticulture.
Jim Adelman, who works with Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat, opened a 20-year-old pinot blanc made under his Makor label. Qupé owner/winemaker Bob Lindquist brought some older vintages. Among others pouring were Rick Longoria of Longoria Wines, and Foxen’s Dick Doré and Bill Wathen, who brought pinot noir from their famed Block Eight at Bien Nacido.
There are other vineyards of or approaching iconic status in the region, but what is remarkable about Bien Nacido is that it has remained under Miller family ownership for 40 years. Fifth-generation California farmers Bob and Steve Miller bought the Santa Maria property in 1969 and planted the first grapes in 1973, when there were hardly any vineyards or wineries in the area. Four decades later, Steve Miller is president and CEO, son Marshall is vice president of finance and operations, and son Nicholas is vice president of sales and marketing.
Clendenen, whose winery is on the Bien Nacido property, told me he is impressed by the family’s acumen and endurance in a business that is not easy. “So to imagine that you had the vision, the foresight and the agricultural background to actually do something 40 years ago and then to be able to operate it, maintain it, enhance it and develop the reputation of the area is the most miraculous thing,” he said.
I visited the iconic vineyard, known primarily for its pinot noir and chardonnay, in late August. When I got there around 11 a.m., the remnants of a marine layer lingered over the property, nestled among slopes and bench land toward the interior of the coast-facing Santa Maria Valley. A cool Pacific breeze glided through the vines.
I asked Marshall Miller to assess the importance of Bien Nacido to the region. “This region has a lot of authors to it. To claim too much would probably be inappropriate,” he said. With that, he said the family is proud of Bien Nacido’s role as a pioneering vineyard in Santa Barbara County and the way it collaborated with up-and coming winemakers to build a reputation for the area. Bien Nacido appears on more wine labels than any other vineyard designate in the world, he said.
Translated from Spanish, Bien Nacido means “well born.” Miller said the name reflects the family’s determination to do it right from the beginning. The vineyard was planted with certified cuttings from UC Davis, and Bien Nacido became California’s largest certified increase block, for many years providing plant material to other vineyards.
In its early years, Bien Nacido was mainly a supplier to Northern California wineries. The family decided to do something to nurture winemaking on the Central Coast. It built a winery on the property and leased facilities to up-and-comers Clendenen and Lindquist, whose Au Bon Climat and Qupé labels rose to prominence. The family opened Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria to give more winemakers a chance to start their labels as alternating proprietors. Craig Jaffurs got his start there before building in Santa Barbara, and Seth Kunin is among the longtime vintners at Central Coast.
“What we’re so fortunate about in this region is the number of owner-operators where the winemaker owns the label,” Miller said. “I think that gives this region its vitality.”
The name Bien Nacido Vineyards is intentionally plural, Miller said, because it is multiple vineyards in close proximity to each other and farmed to the specifications of its 65 clients.
“We have 36 different flavors of farming protocol” in the 600 acres currently in production, he said. The vineyards are all farmed to SIP, or Sustainability in Practice, standards, but under that regimen many variables can be specified. Some customers want organic farming. Some contract for biodynamic farming, where goats and sheep do part of the work of weeding and fertilizing. Among other variables are row spacing, shoot thinning vs. cluster thinning, the number of passes for leaf removal, and harvesting at night or early morning.
Customers enter into long-term contracts of about five years at a fixed cost per acre for the farming that they select. All the fruit from their blocks or rows is theirs after harvest. The contracts minimize the built-in tension between the vineyard and the customer and foster a collaborative relationship, Miller said.
The Miller family insists on tasting its customers’ wines before allowing Bien Nacido to appear on labels. The family’s French Camp Vineyards, in San Luis Obispo County near Black Mountain, serves wineries as well as alternating proprietors at Paso Robles Wine Services, which the Millers opened in 2002. The staff at French Camp has been testing methods for mechanical harvesting and canopy management in collaboration with the University of Arkansas, Miller said.
The 40th anniversary celebration is not over. The Millers plan an event for employees at the end of this year’s harvest.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]