The Millers sell fruit to dozens of wineries, and the Bien
Nacido Vineyard designation on a bottle is virtually a guarantee of quality.
The proprietors, particularly Nicholas Miller, who runs the large operation,
taste every wine produced off the property, and if the quality isn't there,
they do not permit the coveted vineyard name to appear on the label.
There's something else that makes Bien Nacido Vineyard unique. Located in a remote corner of the sprawling estate is a small production facility that houses two wineries that have nothing to do with the vineyard or the Millers, except that both brands buy Bien Nacido fruit. These wineries are Au Bon Climate and Qupe [pronounced "KOO-pay"]. They are among the most famous wineries in California, and also are important in the history of winegrowing in Santa Barbara County.
Au Bon Climat was founded in 1982 by Jim Clendenen, who still oversees production. It quickly became a cult favorite, having been championed early by Robert M. Parker. Qupe also was founded in 1982, by Clendenen's former assistant winemaker, Bob Lindquist. Together, they share the little facility in Bien Nacido, which is not open to the public.
The wines of Au Bon Climat (known among collectors as ABC) and Qupe are rare and desirable, although they are not particularly expensive, compared to the Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley. Why this is so is difficult to determine. I recently tasted through a range of wines from both. The philosophy of Clendenen and Lindquist is, not surprisingly, nearly identical. Both are committed Francophiles, and keep their wines refreshingly low in alcohol (by California standards). Both craft Chardonnay, but in red wines, Lindquist looks to the Rhône, while Clendenen casts his eye to Burgundy.
Among my favorite current Qupe wines (if you can find them) are the 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block Eleven Chardonnay ($30), 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard Hillside Estate Roussanne ($40) and 2006 25th Anniversary X-Block "The Good Nacido" Syrah ($100), a wine so stunningly rich, it staggers the imagination. The ABC wines that stood out were the basic 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay ($30), the 2008 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay ($40), and the spectacular 2007 Clendenen Family "Le Bon Climat" Chardonnay (which is a separate brand also owned by Jim Clendenen). ABC's 2008 "20 Years in the Shed with Bob at Bien Nacido" Pinot Noir ($75) defines the rich, deeply flavored character of Bien Nacido, and Santa Maria Valley, Pinot Noir at its best.
One wine inparticular I want to mention is Clendenen Family's 2003 "Brico Buon Natale" Nebbiolo ($35). Nebbiolo is, of course, the great grape of Barolo and Barbaresco. Very little is planted in California. I suspect that, even with the state's penchant for experimentalism, vintners have been afraid to tackle the variety--not to mention the fact that, even if they succeeded in making good wine, it would be very difficult to sell to Americans who have never heard of the grape or wine. Challenge has never been a stranger to Clendenen, who has a well-deserved reputation for a certain contrarian outspokenness (although he seems to be mellowing lately). His Brico Buon Natale is hands down the greatest California Nebbiolo I have ever encountered. That is not a back-handed compliment. It is one of the finest red wines of any type I have reviewed this year.
It's a shame that wines like those from ABC, Qupe and other small California wineries are difficult to obtain even in the States, much less in Europe. If you can find a purveyor that stocks them, do so. You can also visit both wineries' websites and see if you can join their clubs.