Much of the California vineyard land that is so prized today was established on tracts granted by the Mexican government to its military leaders, who
became the state’s earliest settlers. Among them was Tomas Olivera, who was granted the 9,000-acre Rancho Tepusquet in what is now Santa Maria Valley in 1837.
Olivera later sold the property—which took its name from the Chumash word for “fishing for trout”—to his son-in-law, Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. The first record of grapes being planted there dates to 1857, the year Ontiveros completed the adobe that still stands on the land.
Rancho Tepusquet had been reduced to about 2,800 acres by the time the Miller family purchased it in 1969. But from that seminal moment forward, the ranch and its owners began to play an instrumental role in the evolution of the California wine industry, serving as protagonists in a story that continues to unfold today.
While wine lovers the world over know the iconic Bien Nacido Vineyard, the Millers’ legacy in California agriculture began long before the family planted it on the Tepusquet site. They trace their heritage to Yorkshire native William Richard Broome, who settled in Santa Barbara.
In 1871, Broome purchased the vast Rancho Guadalasca, eventually bequeathing a large portion in what is now southern Ventura County to one of his three children, Thornhill Frances Broome. Thornhill was a talented businessman with diversified holdings, and his heirs have followed suit in forming Thornhill Companies, of which his daughter Elizabeth’s son, Stephen Thornhill Broome Miller, is CEO and President.
Miller’s sons Marshall and Nicholas represent the fifth generation to farm
the property now known as Thornhill Ranches, cultivating blueberries as well as the lemons and avocados their forebears grew. (The name Rancho Guadalasca survives as a popular trail at Point Mugu State Park, where Thornhill Broome Beach commemorates the family’s ancestor.)
The Birth of Bien Nacido
Despite their long history of farming, the Millers are relatively new to grapes.
When Stephen Miller and his brother Robert sought to diversify their crops to include wine grapes, they settled on the site at Rancho Tepusquet, which was thought by many at the time to be unsuited to viticulture.
Inspired by its striking maritime climate—attributable to the juxtaposition
of the San Rafael Mountain and Transverse Ranges to the Pacific coast as well as to its chalky, sandy loam soils—they named it Bien Nacido, which means “well born” in Spanish, and planted it in 1973.
For 30 years, Bien Nacido held the distinction of being a major nursery for
varietal budwood as part of the California Grapevine Registration & Certification Program. Most of its original plantings were cool-climate varieties from stock grown by the University of California, Davis, including Santa Barbara County’s first Gewürztraminer and three Pinot Noir clones: Dijon, Martini, and Wädenswil.
Though the Millers no longer grow budwood, according to Nicholas, “there’s now a Syrah clone that is referred to as Bien Nacido.” Beyond that, the vineyard’s initial fame was won by Central Coast winemakers, including Qupé’s Bob Lindquist and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen.
They produced single-vineyard designates of such high caliber that, for some
time, the Miller family was content to work behind the scenes as growers,
supporting the nascent industry that was emerging in the region.
In 1988, they opened Wine Services in Santa Maria, offering a consolidated
warehousing, bottling, and barrel aging facility; California Certified
Organic Farmer (CCOF) certified, it now has an impressive 10,000-ton crush
capacity. Seeing the rapid emergence of the industry in Paso Robles, they
next opened Paso Robles Wine Services in 2005, and their presence there has
contributed to the region’s status as the fastest growing in the state.
“We’ve been gratified by the success of the wineries we’ve worked with over the years,” Stephen says. “They’ve entrusted us by putting Bien Nacido and our other single-vineyard names on their labels.” He attributes the company’s success to its ability to build strategic relationships with the winemakers, characterizing it as an “interactive process” that led him to a watershed moment: “We received a letter from a consumer about how much they enjoyed wines made from Bien Nacido grapes; it was then we realized that consumers were trusting in our vineyard.”
From Growers to Vintners
When Stephen’s sons Marshall (who handles operations for Thornhill
Companies) and Nicholas (who spearheads marketing and sales) joined
their father in the business in 2006, they knew that it was the right time to
put their name on a label. “I applaud the next generation’s effort to lead the company forward,” says Stephen. “Becoming vintners has opened the aperture of what we do as a business.”
In 2007, the Miller family began bottling their own vineyard-designate
wines from Bien Nacido as well as Solomon Hills Vineyard, the westernmost
site in Santa Maria Valley, which they acquired in 1999. Notable Bien Nacido bottlings include The Captain Pinot Noir, Old Vine Pinot Noir, and XO Syrah, all of which are among the Central Coast’s highest-scoring wines.
Marshall, meanwhile, is keenly aware of the myriad factors that are forcing changes in the wine industry. “Labor costs and the availability of labor, combined with rising minimum wage, is an ongoing concern,” he says,
adding that he’s made huge strides with respect to vineyard mechanization
at the company’s French Camp Vineyard in the Paso Robles Highlands, about one-third of which is CCOFcertified.
“We’re highly automated at French Camp, and we have a good understanding of what works well and what doesn’t,” he explains. “But mechanized farming is a bit like using a PC from the 1980s; 20 years from now, we’ll be seeing the hybridization of mechanization and optical recognition applied across the board. The goal is to find the places where automation can be used most effectively to assist hand labor.”
Future in the Making
Like son, like father: Stephen is similarly focused on the what’s next for the
family enterprise. “Now more than ever,” he says, “we are looking at all
aspects of the business and applying creativity with the goal of reaching
beyond solving immediate problems to advancing the industry.”
Sustainability measures are a key example: Bien Nacido is certified by both the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and SIP to ensure the preservation of the terroir so beautifully reflected in the wines of the Miller family—whose long-held dream of a winemaking legacy looks to
be in good hands, thanks