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Bien Nacido, elite California vineyard

The San Rafael Mountains channel ideal wine-growing weather past the Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, Calif.
The San Rafael Mountains channel ideal wine-growing weather past the Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, Calif. (Chris Leschinsky for The Washington Post)

Clendenen credits the site's varied topography for extending the harvest. "This place is unique because we have very specific growing conditions that allow us to harvest grapes over three months' time," he said. Pinot noir ripens in early September, while syrah typically is ready to pick in October. In some years, the harvest can extend into November, which is possible because Santa Barbara County does not get the autumn rains that hit wine regions farther north in California and Oregon.

Bien Nacido's location at the northern end of the Santa Maria Valley is important, said Jeff Wilkes, who worked there in the 1980s and now makes wine under his J. Wilkes label. "Just a little farther inland down the valley, the temperature gets a little warmer, and you don't get the same balance in the wines," he said. And "closer to the ocean, the grapes won't ripen."

Do those factors translate into the wines? "There's no question that Bien Nacido pinot noir has a certain personality," Tolmach said. "There's a certain herbal tinge to the fruit, and I mean that in a positive way."

Lindquist agreed. "There is definitely a Bien Nacido terroir," he said. "There's a level of spice in the pinot noir and syrah grown here. It's hard to put my finger on it, but it's a hard spice, like cardamom or cinnamon - an Asian spice."

The Miller team now consists of Steve, Nicholas and Steve's second son, Marshall, along with vineyard manager Chris Hammel, who joined the company in 2001. (Robert Miller died in 2006.) For nearly 40 years the family has farmed Bien Nacido and let others express the vineyard's voice through their winemaking. This year, however, the Millers will release their first wines under their own Bien Nacido Vineyards label: a 2007 pinot noir that manages to be silky and voluptuous yet tightly structured, and a 2007 syrah that offers sweet cherry, olive and prosciutto flavors with that Bien Nacido spice on the finish. There will also be a 2008 chardonnay from Solomon Hills Vineyard, another Miller-owned property a few miles to the southwest, that combines lush California fruit with refreshing acidity.

Was it difficult to make wine after so many years concentrating on growing the grapes? I asked Nicholas Miller.

He smiled and said, "Well, we had some good consultants to help."

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