There is one vineyard that stands out—way out—when it comes to single vineyard designated wines: Bien Nacido.
A Single Vineyard Superstar
This spot is the source for 15,000 single vineyard designated wine releases over the course of its 43 year history. This includes estate wines made the proprietor, the Miller family, as well as those produced by partners who have bought fruit for their own bottlings. This list includes names such as Au Bon Climat, Qupé, MacRostie, Sanguis, Bedrock Wine Co. and so many more. In fact, Bien Nacido has the most single vineyard designations in the world.
“The cool, coastal vineyard has been highly sought after by winemakers since the early days because of its unique cool climate, rocky soil and mysterious wine qualities,” says Theresa Heredia, chief winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery. Heredia makes a Pinot Noir with the coveted block Q, planted in 1973 to Pommard. “The soil is very diverse, made up of sandy loam, chalk, gravelly loam and marine loam, creating intense, extremely terroir-driven wines that are simultaneously powerful, polished, exotic and sexy.”
Located in Santa Maria AVA, in California’s central coast, Bien Nacido is considered a cool climate region. To put this into perspective, this spot has a similar heat summation as Central Otago in New Zealand, Champagne in France and the Rheingau in Germany.
Bien Nacido is in a unique position, situated in a rare coastal transverse mountain range on a cold body of water—16 miles due west from the Pacific Ocean. “The mountains have turned sideways,” says Will Costello MS, the ambassador for Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Estates. “They allow for all of the cold air to flush through on the way to the desert.”
This cold air can push the vines into winter dormancy—frost is common this time of year—which is not always possible in the new world, notes Costello. An article published by the The Arnold Arboretum explains that these “chilling hours” spent at cool temperatures help the vine regulate bud break, a particularly important phase in the vine’s lifecycle. This a consideration for winegrowers, as parts of the world experience climate change and increased temperatures.
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There are three main environments within the vineyard: a front bench, steep hillsides and flatland. “We can match location to style,” says Nicholas Miller, second-generation proprietor of the vineyard and estate. “Its not one ticket to play.”
California Winegrowing Pioneers
Planted by Stephen Miller and his late brother Robert in the late 1960s, Bien Nacido ground has an agricultural history dating back to 1837 when Tomas Olivera obtained the plot through a land grant. The ranch supported livestock and grain crops, as well as wine grapes. The Ontiveros Adobe from this time, still standing today, holds meaning for the wine community of Santa Maria.
The Millers, a farming family since 1871, had a vision for what this plot of land could be. As pioneers in post-prohibition planting in Santa Maria, they decided to “plant their flag on quality first, at Bien Nacido,” according to Miller. They originated the name Bien Nacido, which means “well born.”
These were ungrafted vines from UC Davis, planted on their own rootstock. In fact, the vineyard operated as nursery for budwood. Costello notes that there are few ungrafted vineyards in the world, isolating these original plantings at Bien Nacido as “pure expression” of what the varieties can be. Rootstock, while at many times essential to protect a vineyard against soil borne pests, is like a “mask” according to Costello, potentially lessening that expression.
The vineyard had early success with Chardonnay, with many sparkling wine producers eager to acquire this fruit. The Millers began to leverage some of these purchasing packages to sell Pinot Noir, which eventually became the variety of choice for many of the top winemaking names associated with Bien Nacido Vineyards. That and the cool-climate Syrah which Miller says can “play at the world class level in both cool and warm climates.”
By the 2000s, the Millers began making their own wines from this vineyard under the Bien Nacido Estate label. “We also wanted to tell our own story as a window into our vineyard,” says Miller. Winemaker Anthony Avilla—who started as a harvest intern—is now a part of this story, as is vineyard manager Chris Hammell. “Chris grew up in the area very close to the vineyard and lives on the property, always keeping a close eye on everything,” says Heredia. “He works with each winemaker, ensuring that farming practices are to their specifications.”
With outstanding wines coming from the estate and scores of other wineries, Bien Nacido Vineyard stands to be one of the most influential of our time, with bottles to suit many consumer tastes and budgets. Each block is grown to the standard of the customer, with pristine, sustainable farming methods. “This is a unique model,” says Miller. “A time and place not replicated anywhere else in the world.”