The Bien Nacido Vineyard is located midway in the Santa Maria Valley.
“The vineyard traces its roots back to the year 1837 when a Spanish land grant of some two square leagues was made to Tomas Olivera by Juan Bautista Alvarado, then Gobernador of Alta California. This grant covered nearly 9,000 acres ranging upward to the San Rafael Mountains from the Santa Maria Mesa, which bordered the Sisquoc and Cuyama Rivers. The ranch was generously watered by Tepusquet Creek, so called by the Chumash Indians to whom it meant “fishing for trout.” Thomas Olivera sold Rancho Tepusquet in 1855 to his son-in-law Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros and daughter Martina. Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros started construction on an adobe in 1857 and moved to the ranch the following year. He and his wife raised horses, cattle, sheep, several grain crops, and grapes for the production of wine“.
The current owners, Miller family, purchased this tract in 1969 & soon thereafter renamed the vineyard “Bien Nacido”.
Today, Bien Nacido covers roughly 800 acres of vines & is still quite breathtaking in scope. There is a myriad of designated blocks & soils, each “farmed to order” to the leaser. A good portion is sandy loam with tiny bits of seashells & sees morning fog & is cooled by afternoon sea breezes.
What is most tantalizing to winemakers is that several of the blocks still have the vines, which were planted in 1973 AND on their own roots. Of course, there is a pecking order to who gets what grapes. First in line for the prime parcels, includes those who worked with the grapes since nearly the beginning such as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Adam Tolmach of Ojai & Bob Lindquist of Qupe. We are also seeing a transition, as some of the Old Guard who helped bring this vineyard to the forefront, such as Chris Whitcraft & Bryan Babcock, no longer work with the fruit. In their place, we today see a whole slew of young bucks such as Justin Willett of Tyler & Gavin Chanin of Chanin wines just to name 2.
Just the other night, two of our really good wine friends, Gail & Vern Isono, put together a BYOB tasting themed “Bien Nacido Vineyard wines” at our VINO restaurant. It really turned out to be a VERY memorable tasting, to say the least, as the participants brought an interesting selection of true standouts from this iconic vineyard to share with the gang.
There is no doubt that Jim Clendenen has over the years crafted some of the most compelling Bien Nacido Vineyard wines. I also would say, he was one of the biggest believers/advocates who helped bring the Santa Barbara appellation onto the world stage of quality wines. This specific bottling, which was previous named simply “Bien nacido Vineyard” was his signature wine. The grapes came from “K” Block (Chardonnay planted in 1973 on its own roots in sandy loam soils). I have always been amazed at how Au Bon Climat’s Bien Nacido” Chardonnay always showcased real physiological ripeness, innate compelxities & class with remarkably lightness, 13 plus alcohol, well integrated oak (despite being barrel fermented & with roughly 75% to 100% new oak) AND ageworthiness. Here is the living proof!!!!!!! The wine was all about mineral out of the gates…high toned, highly refined with fresh peach skin & layers of marzipan, which acvhnged to more of a creamsicle note with more air. This 1995 was so pure, seamless & complete with fabulous texture & balance (2 of Clendenen’s signature winemaking traits) with a long, citrusy finish. AND, it was so surprisingly youthful still! Crazy good!
1998 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Nuits-Blanches–Why Not“
Though Au Bon Climat’s more ethereal, highly refined, higher acid, lower alcohol Chardonnays had quite a following with the wine professionals, the wines were only lukewarmly received by the major media. BIG, oaky, lavish Chardonnays were in style & the emerging new age of wine drinkers readily jumped on the band wagon. Where there was once a waiting list of customers, times were changing. With the 1997 vintage, Clendenen decided to add another Chardonnay to his portfolio, one which tasters later would playfully say was more of a homage to the newer, IN style of wine. The “White Knight” was also produced from Bien Nacido’s “K” Block, but was picked a week or 2 later AND aged in a considerable amount of new oak. The bottle was more fancy & heavy in weight with a newly designed “look”, with the designation “Nuits-Blanches”…& his statement–“Why?”…front & center. This wine, of course, was ABC’s highest scoring wine in quite some time. Depressing????? Maybe for an artist, but Clendenen followed that wave of success in 1998 with his third “Nuits-Blanches”, this time with his simple statement–“Why Not“. Even though this Chardonnay comes from the same “K” Block, the resulting wine is so VERY different! The wine is more stony than minerally, with marzipan, orange blossom, fennel, creamsicle, apricot pit nuances. Dry, still quite oaky up front & quite youthful & resoundingly structured in its core with a long, grandiose finish. (FYI–starting with the 2000 vintage, Clendenen again adjusted this bottling by blending in some earlier harvest K Block & later some Chardonnay from his own Le Bon Climat vineyard across the river….& renamed this wine Nuits Blanches au Bouge).
2006 Foxen Pinot Noir “Block 8-Bien Nacido Vineyard”
2006 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “this is the “n” my only friend the “n””
The Foxen gang are really good people who helped bring Santa Barbara along wine wise. Bill Wathen studied under the legendary Pinot maestro, Dick Graff, at Chalone & along with his partner Dick Dore founded Foxen in the 1980’s. Their wine, unfortunately, did not show so well on this night. We’re not sure if it was shipping, storage or what. The 2006 Whitcraft was also in a dumb stage….but showed MUCH better than the Foxen & was so much more vinous, balanced & complete. As the night wore on, one could readily tell this wine has the stuffing & all the right fixings….just needs time. Chris Whitcraft, for me, was one of the “larger than life”, REAL characters of the wine industry. His wines were like him, in that one never knew what to expect, not only with each vintage, but when opening any of his wines at any given time. In short, they were all idiosyncractic & I have found over the years, either people really liked them or they really hated them. Chris was a protege/friend to the iconic Burt Williams, the namesake, founding winemaker of the old Williams & Selyem. He defined his winemaking as artisan & done without electricity. From early on, his 3 prized parcels were “Q” & “N” Blocks from the Bien Nacido Vineyard….as well as the Hirsch Vineyard of the true Sonoma Coast. When he hit it, he hit a home run. In 2006, Chris produced a terrific “N” Block Pinot Noir. He felt, however, after tasting through the barrels with Burt, there was one barrel, which had to be singled out & bottled on its own. This is that wine!!! ONE barrel. Sadly, either the 2006 or perhaps 2007 vintage , Whitcraft decided to say aloha to Bien Nacido. It really was the end of an era. On this night, the wine had a surinam cherry kind of pungency, with much earth, spice–rustic, totaly vinous, great core, mineral, showy….much more showy than his normal “N” Block bottlings (Martini selection–planted in 1973 & own rooted). I remembered how proud Chris was of this wine, when I first tasted it with him. I too agreed this was one of his finest, which is saying alot, considering all of the giants he made during his career. I was sad to hear of Chris’ passing earlier this year. He & his wines were like no other. Aloha, my friend. RIP.
Adam Tolmach is another one of Santa Barbara’s (if not all of California) REAL superstar winemakers! His wines are THAT GOOD! He was once co-founding winemaker at Au Bon Climat, but eventually packed up his bags to found his own winery, which he named Ojai. His wines thankfully also have Old World sensibility. Where his Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, & especially his Syrahs used to get HUGE scores from the major publications, especially Robert Parker, one could see over the years his decision to trim the oak usage appealed to the scorers less. How crazy is that? For me these same wines are better than ever. In fact, let me just say, when touring Californian wine country, our last visit is typically Ojai. It really is hard to follow his wines with any others. His top Bien Nacido Pinot parcel is “N” Block (planted in 1973, on its own roots). Unfortunately, on this night, the 2001’s nose was completely & utterly shutdown….despite us trying to agressively decant it back & forth for 25 minutes. On the palate, the wine, however, showed hard mineral, immense structure, HUGE vinosity, intensity with great texture & flow…..just so damned tight. I think this will be quite a wine, though, once it comes out of hibernation.
IN REPLY (from Fabien Castel of Ojai Vineyard)–“Incidentally I read the note about your recent tasting of the 2001 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido.The wine does need a lot more time and I can give some background as to why it tasted the way it did. It was my first year working with Adam. The 2001-2002 vintages ended being the densest and most angular for Pinot Noir. Part was extraction levels (punch downs), inclusion of a new cooper, occasional saignee and other finer details in the cellar. Ultimately it prompted Adam to rethink the way he was dealing with those wines and not repeat that level of texture that was drawing praises but not satisfying his sense of what the varietal had to offer. The wines had been softer in prior years (1996 to 2000) and would return to gentler textures in 2005, 2006. By 2007 Bien Nacido was less extracted with grapes picked earlier, now showing on an ideal course, 7 years later. Today he is adding again some extraction since he moved in a different realm of physiological maturation of the grapes. He has found delicacy and is ready to reintroduce power“.
1993 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Bien Nacido Vineyard”
Chris Whitcraft excelled at producing real provocative, HUGELY vinous, masculine, savory, rustic Pinot Noir from both the “Q” & “N” blocks of the Bien Nacido Vineyard. He was lucky to be there in the early days & was therefore able to garner getting the Old Vine fruit from each, which came from the vines planted in 1973 on its own roots. Sometime in the 90’s, since the rows between the vines were so wide, they went through & planted another row in between (referred to as interplantings). In the case of “Q” Block, I believe it was clone 667. & for “N” Block I believe they planted clone 115. So, every now & then, when Chris felt some of the juice did not reflect a “Q” or “N” Block designation, he would produce a “Bien Nacido Vineyard” designated bottling. AND, in some of the cases, he would also add some interplanting grapes in as well, just to add dimension. In any case, the Bien Nacido designated wines were VERY different from either Q or N Block & spoke of the vineyard rather than either parcel. On this night, the 1991 showed more of that pungent, rustic surinam cherry fruit, a peach tang in the middle with sandalwood, sap, funk/shoe polish/leather. It definitely had more vinosity than the 1993 poured along side. The 1993, on the other hand, seemed much more Californian. It was lighter in color, much more perfumed–light funk, peach/apricot middle, roasted coffee grinds, a more ethereal middle with a more fruity finish. We were all so surprised how youthful these 2 wines were.
What an intriguing contrast to the any of the other wines, that’s for sure! Much more elegant, feminine, refined….so seamless, impeccably balanced & so wonderfully textured. The fruit is sweet, ripe & surprisingly forward, but I believe that is part of the intention of this bottling. I also loved the vinosity & surprising vigor of this 19 year old wine!!!
1997 Whitcraft Pinot Noir “N Block”
I have been an avid fan of Chris Whitcraft’s Pinot Noirs for many years. I would be hard pressed to think of too many Pinots in the 90’s which had as much character & vinosity (old vine-ness) than his Q & N Block bottlings. ( Certainly nothing tooty fruity there!) Where his Hirsch single vineyard designated Pinots (1994 being the first) were much more masculine, sultry, darker, intriguing & harder edged, his Q & N were so much more vinous, rounder & more open. Chris worked with a Pommard selection in Q Block (planted in 1973 & own rooted). The resulting wine was typically the most open upon release. His N Block was Martini selection & was typically more earthy, reticent & shy upon release. The 1996 had a strong roasted coffee grinds/cocoa quality, with a very earthy tone. It was totally vinous on the palate, seamless, complete & long. The 1997, on the other hand, had a stemmy, spiced edge with a more ethereal middle & a long finish. It was much more refined & elegant than the 1996. Interestingly, I found this to be opposite when they were released. Both are still surprisingly youthful.
In 2000, my best friend, Nunzio Alioto, & I bought some Q Block grapes at a charity auction. ( He & I in those days typically bought small amounts of grapes from some storybook vineyards like Pisoni, Savoy, Mt Carmel & Eaglepoint Ranch & asked some friends to make it for us.) So, for the 2000, we asked Chris Whitcraft to make this wine. I believe it was 1 barrel’s worth. On this night, this seemed to be grandest of the night! Or, maybe because it was biggest, a beast with lots of hutzpah, chocolate, coffee & oak nuances. It also had, by far, the most vigor in the core. I found it way more interesting than a 2000 Whitcraft Q Block & a 2000 Hirsch I recently had tasted. Sorry, my last bottle. Thank you Chris!!!!!