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Santa Maria Valley's outstanding wines

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Ironic, isn’t it, that we locals tend to forget about the bounty of great wineries in our own backyard? Lately the media spotlight has remained focused on blossoming Central Coast wine regions like the Santa Rita Hills and Paso Robles, which makes everyone want to visit the new kids on the block. Yet the excellent wines produced annually in Santa Maria Valley are equally acclaimed by thousands of wine connoisseurs who travel here year round to taste its world-class Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. And new visitors to the Santa Maria Valley discover these wineries offer much more in an array of classic and non-mainstream varietals. Mix in the long and rich history behind our wineries and vineyards, and you’ve got a cuvée that’s irresistible to wine lovers, but locals don’t have to drive so far to enjoy them.

- VALLEY OF THE WINES :  When talking about local wine culture, it’s important to remember Santa Maria. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VALLEY OF THE WINES : When talking about local wine culture, it’s important to remember Santa Maria.

No writer could sum up Santa Maria Valley’s amazing history in a nutshell, but I certainly enjoyed an unforgettable experience during a whirlwind a tour designed for media from outside the area. I was excited to tag along and reconnect with wineries I’ve known more than two decades, and discover the newest winery and its charismatic winemaker. On a spectacularly sunny October morning, we visited Bien Nacido Vineyard on the historic Rancho Tepusquet Ranch. The 1,400-acre property was purchased in 1969 by Bob and Steve Miller, fifth-generation farmers in California. Inspired by optimistic commercial winegrape reports at the time, the Millers planted more than 600 acres in 1973. They hired Dale Hampton, renowned for his innovative vineyard management, to install the finest trellising and irrigation systems available. Locals joked that the Millers should name it the Cadillac vineyard, so they named it Bien Nacido, the Mexican term that means “born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”

Now in their 38th harvest, the Millers are no less dedicated to growing the finest winegrapes, and they spare no expense to ensure it. The vineyard has more than 700 acres: 300 acres of Chardonnay; 250 acres of Pinot Noir, plus Pinot Gris, Syrah, Roussanne, Viognier, and experimental plantings. They are SIP Certified, joining a network of farmers statewide in California, devoted to sustainable winegrowing, good stewardship of the land, and the well-being of farm workers. Pat Williams, agronomist for Bien Nacido, introduced us to the animal husbandry: Boer goats from South Africa that weed the vineyards and create good soil conditions; guard dogs that protect the goats from coyotes, cougars, and bears; and their use of predatory falcons to scare off the starlings and crows that damage the ripening grape clusters.

While you won’t find a tasting room at Bien Nacido, they sell grapes to more than 200 brands, and every wine lover is familiar with the Au Bon Climat/Qupe, Tantara, and Ambullneo wineries in the vineyard. Twice a year their tasting events attract hundreds of wine aficionados. Plus there are many excellent wineries whose labels proudly designate Bien Nacido Vineyard:  Bonaccorsi, Byron, Foxen, Kynsi, Longoria, Ojai, Sine Qua Non, Steele, Stephen Ross, Testarossa, Twomey, and many more. Besides selling winegrapes, the Millers have provided custom winemaking services since 1995, and provide winemaking facilities for more than 25 boutique wineries.

Like any business, its success is due to the family and staff behind it. Marshall and Nicholas Miller, Steve Miller’s sons, are partners and managers in the family business. Chris Hammell, vineyard manager, and James Ontiveros, director of sales and marketing for Bien Nacido Vineyard, have been with them two decades, as active liaisons between the Millers and their clients. With Hammell, we experienced the vineyard visit I’d always hoped for, high along the mountain tops. There, superlative Syrah and other varieties produced in miniscule quantities go to exceptional wineries wise enough to hold contracts for them annually.

Like the Millers, Ontiveros has a long lineage in farming; his ancestors were among the original settlers in Santa Maria, nine generations past. That’s why he named his brand, exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir, Native9. His ancestors and the Foxens’ are buried at the San Ramon Chapel on Foxen Canyon Road near Rancho Sisquoc. The land that is now home to Bien Nacido was an original Mexican land grant known as Rancho Tepusquet, sold to the Ontiveros family in 1855.

Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros began construction on the Ontiveros Adobe in 1857, moving there one year later with his daughter Martina. Through the generations the family property was divided until there were only 1,400 acres left and that was eventually sold to the Hancock family, and finally the Millers. One of only two such adobes in California, the two-story Ontiveros Adobe was restored by the Millers who brought in antiquity experts to recreate it as it was originally built.

Ontiveros and his parents worked hard to regain a modest piece of land (primarily a cattle ranch with oil wells) that butts up to their original land grant. Fifteen years ago, Ontiveros realized his dream when he planted eight acres of Pinot Noir. Ontiveros is dedicated to elevating the Santa Maria Valley’s burgeoning reputation as a world-class wine region. In addition to Native9, he’s in a partnership with his winemaker and longtime friend, Paul Wilkins, in another exceptional brand, Alta Maria.

Throughout the two-day media blitz, writers feasted on impressive wine-friendly meals prepared by Central City Market and Bello Forno of Santa Maria that always included wines from several Santa Maria Valley wineries. Among the fine wineries with Bien Nacido Vineyard designated wines, we tasted excellent samples from Alta Maria, Byron, Foxen, Paul Lato, C Nagy, Native9, Riverbench, and Kenneth Volk Vineyards. We were also introduced to three new brands: two owned by the Millers, labeled Bien Nacido Vineyard and Solomon Vineyard; and Presqu’ile, owned by the Murphy family, who are currently building a new winery in Santa Maria Valley.

Whether you’re a connoisseur or new to wine appreciation, you’ll want to return next week for the rest of the story on these Santa Maria Valley wineries, and where you can find these special wines.

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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