The Beauty of Bien Nacido
I have always held the opinion that there is nothing quite like visiting a place to gather a deeper understanding of the wines that come from there. The experience of walking the land; feeling how it moves; seeing the weather change throughout a day; and using the rest of the senses to take in the surroundings is one that cannot be completely recreated in any form. I will embarrassingly admit that in the past five years of being in Southern California, I can still count on one hand the number of times I have visited Santa Barbara, even though it is only a short hour and a half from Los Angeles. So the fact that, on a recent trip to Santa Barbara with the team, we had the chance to stay on site at a vineyard, offered an experience unlike any other, and left a lasting impact on my understanding of the wines that come from Bien Nacido vineyard.
Bien Nacido vineyard was planted by Bob and Steve Miller after the two purchased the land in 1969. The acclaimed site is located among the foothills of the San Raphel mountain range, which runs east to west and allows the cooling morning fog and afternoon breezes to funnel into the vineyard. This helps the vines benefit from the influence of the Pacific Ocean, which is about 16 miles away. The combination of these factors in this eastern mountain opening helps make this one of the coolest growing areas in all of California. Pair that with the wide range of geological diversity that speckles itself across the vineyard, and you have yourself a prime location for growing some high-quality grapes. It's no wonder that fruit from this vineyard is so sought after by so many producers who source from small little parcels, or blocks, that vary widely. Some liken the variety of its vineyards to those of Burgundy.
Our first stop on the trip, and my first encounter with a Bien Nacido bottling, was at Liquid Farm with Jeff Nelson and James Sparks. Jeff told us that Liquid Farm was more focused on producing a style that captured an area rather than focusing on single vineyard sites, but that came with an exception for their 2015 Bien Bien Chardonnay, which is sourced entirely from parcels of old vines in Bien Nacido vineyard. Folks, if you could only see the number of hearts and kissy faces I drew in my notebook when I was writing down tasting notes for this wine. There was something that set this bottle apart, the balance and tension, while the fruit, floral, spice, savory, and mineral elements were all being represented—all with the right sort of body and crispness to help transport the gambit of these characteristics. A colleague once told me about how he felt an exceptional wine stands apart from others: it isn’t just the complexity of aromas, the vintage, etc—but the wine should, in short, resonate with your soul as it travels down and move every part of your being. That my friends, is exactly how I felt about my experience with this wine. Suddenly I found myself growing more and more eager to get to Bien Nacido that day to see the place that captured my attention so much with a single glass.
Later that afternoon we found ourselves traversing through several remote back roads, miles from any town center, to the base of a mountain. This was Bien Nacido Estate. I watched the hillside morph into vines as we gradually grew closer, stopping at the winemaking facility, which had the appearance of a modern day farmhouse, where we were greeted by Anthony. I could not help but notice—and smell—the large, untamed, rosemary bushes that ran parallel to the winemaking facility as Anthony described the tour he was going to take us on of the vineyard. As I was taking in my surroundings of the area, the next thing I heard was, "Who wants to ride in the back of the truck?" Me! Of course! As we rode up the hills I took note of how quickly we climbed in elevation, to the point where my ears were starting to get to the point of popping. Even for a hot afternoon, the air was incredibly crisp and cool, with a dusty yet saline quality to it. We stopped at the top of a vista where we learned about all the different varieties planted throughout the vineyard; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Viognier, Roussanne, etc. Each small parcel of this vineyard is given the attention any large world-renowned vineyard would be granted, a nod to the terroir and diversity of this site.
After the tour of the vineyard we settled into the winery for a tasting of the estate's wines. We tasted their Chardonnay from block W: the oldest set of vines in the vineyard with over 40 years of age, and also one of the windiest areas of the vineyard. The Pinot Noir comprised 5 special blocks of the vineyard that help capture the full essence, diversity, and capability this vineyard has to offer. Then finally the Syrah sourced entirely from one block (Block Z), which was planted in 1995, that is co-fermented with a touch of Viognier as one would find in the great wines from the Northern Rhone in France. Each of these wines called out to me in their own way as we tasted them, and I honestly feel if I were to compare them to anything I have tasted in the past would be an injustice to the wine and the vineyard. There is something that makes these wine uniquely, distinctly, and unforgivably "Bien Nacido Vineyard." There were layers of complexity, depth, elegance, and balance unique to each wine I tasted that really set it with a sense of place like no other. I was completely captivated by each wine, like it was telling me its own individual story of who it was.
You might hear of people who devote their whole life to studying the terroirs of Burgundy, who can tell the difference from one vineyard site to the next by sensing and tasting a unique set of characteristics that at some point are only describable to the point of arguing "This is Pommard!" That, in short is how I feel about all the wines I have tasted from Bien Nacido vineyard. There are various producers who source their grapes from this great site, from Foxen, Calera, Jaffurs, Tyler, to Holus Bolus. There is a reason winemakers have turned their attention to this plot of land on the foothills of this sea-kissed mountain range to craft extraordinary wines marked by this sense of place. There is something that sets it apart from anywhere else in California, and, one could argue, anywhere else in the world. Each wine someone crafts from it tells its own unique story, but holds a marker that is deeply rooted to the vineyard that is nestled where the ocean breezes blow, where the morning fog mingles through the vines, and where the roots run deep into the earth that is Bien Nacido.
- Shelby Griffiths