On my recent trip to explore Santa Barbara wines I was faced with a huge dilemma – it was ‘excursion day,’ and there were 10 mystery busses all going to different winery locations, with no indication of which was which. As others gathered and contemplated which bus to seal their fate with, the first one arrived. I considered for a split second waiting for bus #2, 3 or 4, but decided in the end that there was no point in delaying, and went with #1, surrendering myself to chance, and hopping onto what was, in this case, a big white school bus.
To my delight, there was a completely out of place stripper pole located in the back of this school bus – no wait – that’s not what I was truly excited about (although it was likely the 2nd most excitable thing happening at that very moment). The true delight came when our escort arrived on the bus and announced that we would be visiting the Bien Nacido Vineyards!
People were literally jumping UP and DOWN.
I had hit the motherload – this.. was.. the.. Mecca..
For those who aren’t familiar with the significance of this, that’s ok, because I wasn’t either (after all, this was my crash course in everything Santa Barbara). All I knew was people were rejoicing and jumping up and down on the bus – that’s all I needed to know.
So What Is Bien Nacido?
Bien Nacido is not a winery on its own. It is a vineyard spanning 600 acres where blocks of vines are leased out to carefully selected winemakers. This is why you may find a number of premium bottles from varying wineries displaying the Bien Nacido name.
Visually, this very special property boasts views of the Sisquoc and Cayuma Rivers joining together in their final flow to the Pacific Ocean. It is said that the best Santa Barbara wines are from Bien Nacido vines. Another key reason people were jumping up and down was because as beautiful as this location is, it is actually not open to the public. In fact, the serenity of Bien Nacido may lie in the unbelievable fact that a portion of the vines are original rootstock – and have not been hit by the devastating phylloxera, which consumed the majority of the world’s vines over a century ago.
I wanted to know more about the original rootstock, since so few vineyards globally can say they have this. I was aware of the basic items required to achieve quality wine: terroir, climate, good clones, and a knowledgeable winemaker…but what about rootstock? Could original rootstock be a key factor in why these grapes are so special? More importantly, how has Bien Nacido been able to avoid what the majority of others could not?
In addition to the tasting that I personally conducted, along with the praises of countless others who claim Bien Nacido wines to be of the best, I can confirm, that yes, these wines are exceptional and extravagant. Every glass is ultra-smooth and luscious – but is that due to the original rootstock? I continued to research after my visit and the best article I could find confirming potential flavor benefits from original rootstock was an article detailing the results of a controlled test that focused on rootstock and flavor1. The results of the study suggest that original rootstock vines actually do enhance flavor. If anyone has found similar studies, please share in the comments section below.
There is no denying that the vines at Bien Nacido stand out. Some believe that the sandy riverbed soil may play a part in deterring phylloxera, but to be safe, the crew continues to use only their own rootstocks, and limit exposure from external elements as much as possible.
Our Journey to the Top
We transferred from our fun little stripper pole bus to one of Bien Nacido’s own and began making our way up the steep, steep hill. A guy named ‘Jesus’ was driving and I heard someone mention how much safer they felt knowing their fate was in ‘Jesus’ hands’ – did I mention the hill was steep?
We finally arrived at the top – we were at Z block – where what some consider to be the best Syrah vines in the world. The crews had just finished thinning out the fruit in order to further concentrate the intense juices. I snapped a quick selfie of me with the treasured vines as well as the thinning aftermath, to get a sense of the sacrifices made for the cause.
Opposite the vines and clusters was one of the most breathtaking valley views I have had the fortune of viewing. From our location, we could clearly make out the two rivers, their merge and path all the way to the ocean, which was no more than a distant twinkle. Here I met Nicholas Miller, whose family owns this gorgeous terrain. He openly responded to all of our questions and shared stories of the challenges and successes that come with managing this level of agriculture. I was particularly fascinated with the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers controls the damns that reside before Bien Nacido, and they have the ability to release water during years of surplus without warning. The idea of this downright terrified me. I looked down at the crops below and noticed some precious vines in harm’s way, but Nicholas seemed at peace with it. I decided, in the end, that this only added to the mystery and beauty of Bien Nacido.
A Traditional Santa Barbara Dinner
From here we migrated back down to dinner with our hosts Nicholas Miller and Chris Hammel, and the Qupé and Hitching Post winemakers. We had a wonderful traditional Santa Barbara barbecue-style meal, smoked with red cedar, and paired with Hitching Post Pinot Noir and Qupé Syrah. It is always amazing to visit the very vines that you are tasting in order to get a true sense of the environment and terroir affecting your very glass.