We had a trip planned to Santa Barbara to visit wineries and I had tweeted looking for great spots for sunrise shots etc. I had a response from a winery that was not on my radar. Hilliard Bruce tweeted “ If you can, you’ve got to see the canopy management at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards at least once before you die.” And well, when you put it like that, how could we not! So we scheduled a visit with the tweeter, who turned out to be John Hilliard himself.
John Hilliard and Christine Bruce are peaceful, gentle and thoughtful people. They are both certified master gardeners, and perhaps their demeanor comes from this connection with the soil and growth.
Christine is an avid horsewoman and raises Arabian horses on the property. She also has an extensive background in music studying classical piano and then falling in love with contemporary jazz and working as a professional keyboardist after graduating from the Berklee College of Music.
John came from a background in finance and maritime insurance until he decided to take up painting full time. In Houston he was the Director and President of Diverse Works and a panelist for the Cultural Arts Council of Houston. Later he took over his family’s shipyard business. (Talk about diversity!)
They divide their time now between the vineyard in California and their home in Miami where they are still part of the art scene.
It’s a joy to meet them, their dogs Wiglette and Jackson are always with them. And they love to be out on the property. The pride in this place is evident as they show you around.
As they drove us around the vineyard we passed a section where several birds were trapped under the netting. They net over 2 rows, so you can go underneath and still work on the vines. John noticed the birds and we stopped to set them free. Yes I’m sure that this keeps the birds out so that they don’t eat the berries, but John was mostly concerned that the birds were not trapped. The kindness that exudes from John and Christine I am sure makes their wines better.
They found this property as they searched for a place to breed Arabian horses and plant a vineyard where they could grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This location idyllic for this. It is located on 101 acres on the Western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, with 21 acres planted with vineyards in 2004. From the top of the vineyard the view is amazing. You can see the ocean to the West, to the North you can see Gypsy Canyon and to the West, Kessler Haak, Clos Pepe, Melville, Babcock Vineyards. They are directly across Rt. 246 from Dos Hermanas Vineyard (previously known as Ashley’s Vineyard).
The soil here is a sandy silk that is very low in organic matter making it extremely fast draining.
They have 17.5 acres of Pinot Noir with Calera, Pommard, 115, 667, 777 and 828 clones. The Chardonnay covers 3.5 acres in 76 and 96 clones, but they are about to plant more Chardonnay.
The property is also a showcase for their love of gardening with 300 date palms, apple trees, an avocado orchard, hundreds of roses and a stunning cut flower garden.
Christine’s vegetable garden is beautiful, a photographers dream. With her love of beauty and art, she admits to sometimes having trouble harvesting in her garden and upsetting the beautiful visual.
The vineyard is SIP Certified as Sustainable. For several years they farmed “organically” but John wanted to move past this and address the efficient use of water and electricity. SIP Certification addresses a broader goal of sustainability including water conservation, pest management, energy efficiency, habitat conservation, economic stability as well as human resources.
The property is solar powered by 35 Kilowatts of solar panels that provide at least 80% of the power needed.
They hired a bioreclaimation company for industrial sites to create a 6 acre reservoir. The reservoir holds 1.5 million gallons of water and originally had a v-8 car engine to power the pumps. In 2011 this was put to good use preventing frost damage that year in April. Spraying all 21 acres with the water raises the temperature above freezing keeping the vines from being damaged. In addition the reservoir is also used for irrigation. The reservoir sits on a hill top so much of the irrigation is gravity flow. There are 1500 square feet of floating islands in the middle of the pond, made of recycled water bottles. This island with it’s plants filters out heavy metals and excess nutrients from the water. The water is then conditioned so that when it goes into the irrigation lines there is not alkaline bicarbonate build-up which can cause clogs and keep the lines from irrigating evenly. They also have cutting edge computer telemetry to monitor the vines for when they need water. They use drip, double drip and overhead sprinklers for watering. And the trickle down effect is measured in, so….the vines at the bottom of the hill don’t have as much coming out of the drip as the top of the hill, because the excess water from above will be already trickling down to them. Brilliant!
The Static Aeration compost building is pretty amazing. The compost is aerated from below to get the micro-organisms going faster. This compost is made from Horse Manure from their stables with Arabian horses that they raise. The building has a blower system underneath to inject air into the compost from below. They use the manure for the 20 Arabian horses to create compost in 30 days without turning the pile! The entire compost needs of the vineyard are taken care of internally from this compost building.
The planting style at Hilliard Bruce is compact with 2,420 vines per acre at a spacing of 6 feet by 3 feet. The canopy management that John is so rightly proud of begins with the trellis system that is vertical shoot positioned. The vines here are hand pruned twice each year. Each spring the new shoots are carefully positioned to run parallel and then are individually tied so that they do not cross each other. They monitor the number of leaves per vine to offer the perfect exposure to sun and so that the air can move through. This keeps down the mold and disease. This also allows the bunches to hang free which is helpful for easy harvesting. All this is lots of work during the growing season, but makes for much less work in the winery. As we looked down the rows from the top of the vineyard John pointed out how you could see from the shadows that all the vines were healthy. It’s easy during the day to come out and look at the shadows and see where you have lost a vine. But of course with the kind of attention that these vines get, that is rare.
They are growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here exclusively. Christine claims the Chardonnay as her own and John’s focus is on the Pinot Noir. The yield per acre here is less than 2 tons and less than 1.65 lbs per vine. Next year the new winery will be ready, but this year they will make their wines at the Central Coast Wine Service facility that is located in Santa Maria.
While there we tasted the 2010 Moon Pinot Noir, the 2011 Earth Pinot Noir and the 2011 Chardonnay.
The Moon Pinot Noir is very much a Sta. Rita Hills style Pinot. After 12 months in barrel they go through a careful selection process and choose only the barrels that show the concentration and focus that this cool growing region is known for. They look for riper fruit and full spice as they choose the barrels.
The 2011 Earth Pinot Noir is definitely earthier. This wine has rich clove spice, darker fruit and minerals as well as great tannins.
The 2011 Chardonnay comes from the coldest corner of the vineyard and these vines produce very little fruit. With great acid, oak for tempering and a little salinity this is a truly stunning Chardonnay.
The winery is well under way and photos of the progress can be seen on their facebook page. This will be a LEED Certified, gravity flow winery with an underground cellar that will be humidity controlled. It will be designed as a work of art, but also to blend and compliment the beautiful natural setting.
There is a quote from Paul Ingersol on the Hilliard Bruce labels that really sums it up
This is what they embody at Hilliard Bruce.