Anchored in the fertile farm ground in Southern California’s Santa Maria Valley is Bien Nacido Vineyards , a 3,000-acre ranch including 800-acres of premium wine grapes grown in this cool-weather paradise amid sprawling, picturesque hillsides.
Since 1969, the Miller family has owned and operated Bien Nacido Vineyards, located southeast of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County. Today, Stephen Miller and sons Marshall and Nicholas lead the operation.
“People say 800 acres of wine grapes is a huge amount,” says vineyard manager Chris Hammell. “While the number is high, we have many small blocks which are custom farmed down to the row.”
The cool climate and lighter soils are well suited for grape production. The elevation of the vineyards ranges from 200-900 feet.
In addition to wine grapes, Bien Nacido also grows avocados, blueberries under hoops, lemons, and about 100 head of livestock, mostly sheep and goats. About 800 acres are leased out.
Bien Nacido also owns and manages Solomon Hills Vineyards to the southwest near Orcutt which has about 100 acres of grapes. This brings the Miller’s total wine grape acreage in the county to about 900 acres.
One-third of the acreage is planted in Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc with an equal planting in Chardonnay. The remaining third is mostly Syrah, with a sprinkling of Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Nebbiolo, and other varieties.
Bien Nacido is the first California vineyard to grow Syrah in a cool climate.
Grape production changes
During his 13 years with Bien Nacido, Hammell has helped implement grape production changes which have increased the number of interested buyers.
About 75 percent of the grape production is sold for blending to wineries. Of that amount, about half of the grapes are sold to Santa Barbara County wineries. The other half is sold to wineries in Ventura, Napa, Monterey, San Luis, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties.
Several Oregon wineries also purchase grapes.
Ultra premium grapes, which represent about 25 percent of Bien Nacido’s production, are crafted into wine with the Bien Nacido label.
“Bien Nacido is best known for the production of premium wine grapes to create high end designate wines in the market,” Hammell said.
These wines capture higher price points: Chardonnay in the mid $20 to mid $60-per-bottle range and Pinot from $35-$100. Syrah fetches $38-$145.
For these vineyard designate wines, the yield target is 2-3 tons per acre for Pinot; 3-4 tons for Chardonnay, and 1.5-2 tons per acre for Syrah.
Over the years, Bien Nacido has incorporated many innovations. In 2007, the company launched private label programs with Trader Joe’s and other companies to blend its Santa Maria-grown grapes with grapes from the Miller family’s French Camp Vineyards in Paso Robles to the north.
“We take the grapes, essentially skip the middle man, sell directly to different companies, and save costs. It’s a huge business for us as a company overall,” Hammell said, “totaling more than a hundred thousand cases annually.”
Great wine starts with the grape
Bien Nacido grapes are grown using various production techniques for different markets.
“We can have the best grapes in the world but the grapes don’t make themselves into wine,” Hammell said.
“Wine quality starts in the vineyard but does not end there. It requires a good competent winemaker, and someone who tells your story and markets the wine through the right channels and places it in front of the right wine critics.”
A factor which benefits Bien Nacido vineyards is the area’s good terrior. Another is the staff’s good understanding of wine grapes and wine culture.
“Wine is our passion,” Hammell said. “We know wine and we know how to make wine and appreciate wine.”
He added, “We consider ourselves wine growers. We are not farmers who also just happen to grow grapes. We drink wine every day. It is a passion with us.”
The Miller family invests financially into good canopy management. The industry-standard vertical-shoot positioning trellis (VSP) system is widely used but with a twist. A cross arm is sometimes added to open up the VSP for enhanced photosynthesis and better airflow through the canopy. Hammell saw this technique used in some Napa vineyards.
In addition, shoot positioning sometimes includes physically tying the shoots back to the cross arm to decrease shoot and cluster crowding and overlap. This is in the experimental phase due to increase labor costs.
A third priority is to pick a clean crop. Frost protection, insect and disease control, and canopy management are all crucial.
That said, the Santa Maria Valley has perfect summer weather conditions for powdery mildew disease development, including a dew (fog) which burns off in the late morning followed by daytime temperatures in the 70’s, ideal for mildew development.
The valley is also a target for the mealybug which is difficult to control. The insect is well established in certain Bien Nacido blocks and is hard to eradicate. Well-timed sustainable control methods have proven effective to mitigate problems associated with its presence.
At harvest, workers carefully remove fruit from the canopy with eaves and other material vine material left behind. This is done, Hammell says, to sends a positive message to the winemaker.
“We try to set ourselves a part from other growers at the winery level by making a clean pick a high priority,” Hammell said.
In addition, cluster-filled bins are washed out at the ranch before transport to the winery.
“We send out clean fruit and hope the winemaker notices the extra effort.”
Hammell is proud of the company’s close relationships with clients – consultants, buyers, and others.
“We have an open dialogue with our clients. I listen to their suggestions very closely,” Hammell said. “I am constantly learning new information which helps me produce higher quality wine grapes year after year.”
Turning to mechanization, Bien Nacido purchased French-made Pellenc selectiv multi-function equipment three years ago, including the harvester, pre-pruner, and sprayer attachments. The harvester can pick about 150 acres of grapes per season; fruit typically not intended for the Bien Nacido label. This could change over time if effectiveness can be proven at the highest end.
“It is an amazing machine which is amazingly expensive too,” Hammell noted. “We don’t regret buying it. It is a really good unit.”
Many hand-picked grapes are harvested at night with lights to maintain grape quality.
Soils on the ranch vary widely but are mostly light, well-drained soils. Located below the main operation is a riverbed and canyon with sandy soil with cobblestones. The mountain area behind the ranch includes Monterey shale-based sandy loam ground. The “bench land” area is a mixture if eroded shale from mountains mixed with alluvial deposits from the nearby Sisquoc River.
In addition to rainfall, vines receive up to 10-inches of irrigation, depending on the location and variety.
The Miller family and Hammell are proud that Bien Nacido Vineyards is dually certified as sustainable under the Sustainability in Practice and Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing programs.
A few acres of grapes are grown non-certified organically for several clients and for use in Bien Nacido’s small winery which produces about 1,000 cases annually.
“We don’t like to make a big deal out of the organic production since we consider our entire operation as sustainable,” Hammell said.
As the noon hour approached, Hammell summarized his comments, focusing on overall improved wine grape quality across the Santa Maria Valley AVA. He said the area is gaining respect for its grapes; respect which has been earned, not just deserved.
“We have been in the shadow of Napa and Sonoma for a long time. There is a reason for that – we were not as good,” Hammell said.
“Now we are as good. People are now taking notice and we’re gaining a worldwide audience,” Hammell concluded.
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