interview with Nicholas Miller from Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Barbara County

by Stevie on August 3, 2011

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Nicholas Miller in Bien Nacido Vineyard

Nicholas Miller in Bien Nacido Vineyard

We had the distinct pleasure of meeting Nicholas Miller from Bien Nacido Vineyards while attending PinotDays in San Francisco a few weeks ago. BNV is a family owned and operated fine wine vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. The Miller family purchased the land in 1969 and began growing grapes by the early seventies. Famous for their pinot noir, cool climate syrah and chardonnay, the Millers work with numerous well established wine makers in California and Oregon. Clients include: Au Bon Climat, Longoria, Ojai Vineyards, Quipé, Sine Qua Non, Steele Wines, Twopmey Cellars and Landmark Vineyards, to list just some.

Nicholas Miller poured wine from several producers, all made from BNV grapes at PinotDays. He also offered a pinot that his family has begun bottling themselves under their own label. Afterward, we were able to catch up with Nicholas for a brief Q and A:

What do you think makes Bien Nacido distinct? What sets it apart?

From the beginning my family has been dedicated to quality. When the vineyard was first planted back in the early ‘70’s, most growers were planting for quantity, but every step my uncle and father took was one with an eye on the highest quality possible. We have always tried to stay on the forefront of innovation and experimentation.

At PinotDays, you poured several wines produced with Bien Nacido fruit, including your own bottling. Congratulations, by the way, on your own label. We thought that the wines represented a large variety of styles of pinot noir. Yet, these all come from Bien Nacido. What do you think accounts for these wide-ranging differences?

The original Pinot Noir plantings were all Pommard and Martini. Since then, we have added a variety of other clones including 22, Swan, Jackson 16, Mt. Eden, 2a, 113, 114, 115, 667, 777.

However, I always say site trumps clone and BNV is blessed with a wide variety of micro climates and soil types. After almost 40 years of growing Pinot Noir on the ranch we feel we have learned more about the different areas of the ranch. Instead of trying to over-manipulate the vineyard through farming practices, we try to place customers in areas that best match their wine programs. For example, customers looking for lower yielding vines, we try to place in areas of the ranch that naturally throw small yields as opposed to dropping fruit.

Also, we feel blessed to have the diversity of customers that we believe are some of the best winemakers in California and Oregon. Each one of them brings their own unique approach that makes it so fun to taste through the variety of wines made from our one vineyard.

Pinot noir has the reputation for being tricky to handle in the vineyard. Do you agree? What has been your experience at Bien Nacido?

A low yielding, thinned skinned grape that is hard to ripen is not a farmer’s ideal crop. However, I believe Bien Nacido’s vineyard manager, Chris Hammell, is the most talented vineyard manager in the state. No other vineyard manager in the state deals with as many high end wine producers and consistently delivers year after year. Many of our customer’s don’t bother sorting their fruit because Chris is able to deliver it so clean.

Now that you’ve been making your own wine for a while, do you think that it changes the way you operate in the vineyard? If so, how?

We are still growers first and foremost. Making (and more challengingly – selling) wine has given me a better understanding of our customer’s businesses. However, we are committed growers through and through. Making wine is a very small portion of what we do.

What is your philosophy of wine?

It’s a consumable product meant to be enjoyed. It brings a lot of joy to a lot of people around the world.

I want my family’s wines to be pure examples of our vineyards. They are 100% single vineyard and 100% varietal (except a small amount of Viognier co-ferment in the Syrah).

No funny business in the cellar, just make what the vineyards and that vintage give us.
Basically the opposite philosophy of NV Champagne.

These days, many California wines are criticized for too much alcohol and being so powerful that they overwhelm the palate and really can only be drunk alone, rather than with food. What do you think about this controversy?

See previous answer.

It’s a consumable product meant to be enjoyed. It brings a lot of joy to a lot of people around the world. For some people that debate / controversy is part of the enjoyment, so for them – let them have it.

I’ll drink the wine in my glass without reading #’s on the bottle. If it taste’s hot, there probably isn’t a second glass in my future. However, I feel the same way about wines that are too lean / astringent. I do not have a quest to make a 11.5% wine.

I’ve read about Bien Nacido cool climate syrah but haven’t had the good fortune to try it yet. How would you compare it to other California syrahs?

We were the first vineyard in California to plant cool climate Syrah.

Unlike other areas in the viticultural world that either get too hot (fruit dehydrates) or other weather events (hail, rain) end their harvests, we are very blessed at BNV to have the longest growing season in the state that provides a slow/steady march towards ripening. The reason we can grow Chard/Pinot/Syrah in the same spot, is that we harvest Pinot/Chard starting August/September and let the Syrah continue to ripen through October/November.

What I love about cool climate Syrah is the white pepper. A few years ago around the Syrah harvest I realized I starting putting a lot more pepper on my food at dinner after spending days in the vineyard trying the BNV Syrah. There is a place for Shiraz (as it’s called Australia), but I think cool climate Syrah is what really excels in CA

It seems like a natural that you’d end up working in your family business at Bien Nacido, but did you ever consider another line of work? What was that?

It was certainly never presented as a job that was waiting for us. My family said we had to go work elsewhere and develop experience before working for the family business. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine, then worked for a marketing consulting company in Boston before returning to work with my Dad.

How do you envision the future of Bien Nacido?

Every year we learn more and more about how our vineyard works.

We are in the process of redeveloping some of the older acreage that is no longer productive.
Some of our hillside fruit is starting to come online, which should be some of the more exciting fruit on the ranch.

One of the largest changes we are going through is taking a more holistic approach to farming at Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills. For decades we just farmed grapes, but over the past decade we have planted blueberries, lemons, and avocados and well as integrating goats and sheep into our biodynamic and organic growing practices.

Do you have any advice for wanna-be wine makers?

Stay focused. Through my family’s custom crush facilities I have seen many ambitious winemakers make so many different wines that they lose the story of who they are or with a little success, expand beyond what their cash flow can support. The wine business is a tortoise business. If you want to be a hare, make Vodka where you can just turn on the spout or splash in a fruit “infusion.”

Where can people find your wine?

All of my wine goes through the three tiered system: American Wines in CA and Lauber Imports in NYC. With the exception of a few key retailers it goes to restaurants throughout New York and California. As the production expands, I’d like to open other states as well.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tall Clover Farm August 3, 2011 at 7:15 am

Wine making is part art, part alchemy and a whole lot of work and all about the grapes. I once romanticized the idea of making wine until I did a stint helping in a grape harvest. Picking grapes is back breaking work, just as is making wine. So when I enjoy a really good wine, I quietly toast the men and women behind the magic and hands-on tasks that make the rest of us sip and swoon. Nice post!
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Faith August 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Great interview, it really was a pleasure to read. It sounds like Nicholas really has a passion for what he does!
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rita tower August 3, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Nice Q & A! It is cool that they are keeping a family business going. I wish more families were collective like that. The avocados and biodynamic farming in addition to the wine sounds like fun. I want to try their Syrah the way you describe it makes it seem extra special; the only cool climate Syrah!

Magic of Spice August 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Great interview…I will be on the Central Coast over the weekend maybe I will have time to stop off 🙂
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Shawn Burgert August 6, 2011 at 8:57 am

Great interview! Great questions! I had the honor of meeting Nicholas recently and everything I watched and experienced was a very honest, genuine, and hard working man. I’ve consumed wine from these hills for many years and would always be excited whenever wine flowed into my glass from these vineyards! If you haven’t tried them, I suggest reviewing their client list from their web site and checking out who is getting these legendary grapes.

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