My Return to Santa Barbara: Part Two of Our Wine Country Trip: Hilliard Bruce, Tyler, Bryon, Beckmen and Pence Wineries

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Santa Barbara

At the last Wine Blogger’s Conference in 2014, Solvang was a just a stop on a bus tour through Santa Barbara Wine Country.

Solvang, founded in 1911 and meaning “sunny fields”, began as the vision of Danish immigrants: Reverend Benedict Mordent, Reverend J. M. Gergesene, and Professor P. P. Hornsby.  They planned to raise money to buy a large tract of land on the West Coast and subdivide it into plots for farms, homes, and create a town for Danish immigrants.

Fast forward more than 100 years and Solvang is still a picturesque small town with a great atmosphere. Charming boutiques, hotels and restaurants line the streets still filled with Danish themed architecture, thatched roofs, old-world craftsmanship and traditional windmills.

We stayed at The Landsby, which is a 50-room boutique hotel, which becomes the most stylish happy hour in town.  It’s a contemporary and sophisticated oasis in a place that can get a little over the top with the Danish themes and we loved the great bar, fire pit and restaurant.

We went to a lot of great wineries during our trip and I don’t have space to mention them all.  Some of my favorites included:

Hilliard Bruce:

Photo Credit: Jennifer Schuder

The winery was formed by fellow Texans, John Hilliard and Christine Bruce, who came from Houston. Christine is a musician (a professional keyboardist) and horsewoman and John ran his family’s shipyard business, but had a love of painting.  When they met, the couple took wine classes at Rice University and became certified as Master Gardeners from Texas A&M and the University of Arizona.  Christine also started to breed Arabian horses in Houston.

Santa Barbara

They purchased the 101-acre Hilliard Bruce estate in the Sta. Rita Hills and planted pinot noir and chardonnay.  Christine wanted a ranch where she could expand her business of breeding Arabian horses and John survived two life-threatening illnesses.  They finally decided to pursue their passion project of wine.  They planted 21-acres of pinot noir and chardonnay and enrolled in courses at the UC Davis Extension Program, Allan Hancock Viticulture and Enology Program, and the Grayson County College Viticulture and Enology Program.

Santa Barbara

The Sta. Rita Hills winery is a certified sustainable vineyard through Sustainable in Practice (SIP) but sustainability extends to the gravity-flow winery, which is LEED-certified, and features a subterranean naturally humidified cellar with ambient temperature-controlled aging rooms, solar power, no-maintenance core-ten steel siding, creative LED lighting, as well as 40 foot solar tubes that bring natural sunlight into the cellar.  The winery was designed by the same guys that design the Apple buildings.  The family sells about half of its grapes to local producers and estate bottles the rest.  I loved the pinot designations of Earth, Sky, Sun and Moon – depending on where they are grown in the vineyard.  The style is Burgundian and I had a hard time choosing my favorite.

Tyler Winery

Santa Barbara

We didn’t know that Tyler worked with vineyards planted right down from Hilliard Bruce (also in the Santa Maria Valley), but they definitely had exceptional wines, a common shared focus on chardonnay and pinot noir and a dedication to quality in common.

Santa Barbara

Justin Willett, the owner and winemaker, started Tyler winery in 2005.  Previously he had worked in vineyard management as well as being assistant to winemaker Joe Davis at Arcadian.  He knew he wanted to make Burgundian wine farmed with meticulous viniculture and a focus on balanced, harmonious and nuanced wine as the end goal.

Within these two appellations, you get the effect of ocean influences, transverse mountain ranges and valleys, and diverse soils.  There is a focus on seeking out wines with age as well as a close collaboration with growers.  Tyler produces 12 wines from 22 parcels within 7 different vineyard sites with a total production is approximately 5,000 cases per year.

Santa Barbara

Gabe Fabela, the Tyler General Manager in the middle of our group

Gabe Fabela, the general manager, tasted us through a number of different Tyler wines including Lieu Dit Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc wines that Justin makes.  We even got to try the newly bottled rose as well as the full line-up of chardonnay and pinot noirs that showed the diversity of the vineyards, but showcased the tenants of Justin’s winemaking.

Bryon Wines

Santa Barbara


Santa Barbara

Since 1984, Bryon Wines has been solely focused on crafting Pinot Noir from single, estate-vineyards in AVAs in the Santa Maria Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills.  Winemaker Jonathan Nagy believes that most winemaking takes place in the vineyard as he takes things down to the row and block level as he looks for the clonal expression by variety and site.

As we tried the different wines from the Santa Rita Hills side by side with the Santa Maria Valley, it was fascinating to see the differences by vineyard and varietal.  As Jonathan quotes on the website, “It’s fascinating how Pinot’s can showcase such different personalities from vineyard to vineyard, or even block to block.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Beckmen Winery

Santa Barbara

The premise of Beckmen Winery is that good wine comes from good grapes grown from great plants grown on the right soil nurtured by great people.  The Beckmen family has always had an appreciation for agriculture and the land. They first acquired 40 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1994, after a successful career in the music business as co-founders of Roland Corp US, a maker of keyboards and synthesizers. This vineyard is planted mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah.  They later purchased 365 additional acres in Ballard Canyon, which is known as the biodynamic Purisima Mountain Vineyard, and planted 150 acres of grapes.  This vineyard is known for white production as well as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise.

We enjoyed a number of Rhone varietals and my favorite was the 2016 PMV Whole Cluster Grenache, which is normally sold to wine club members only, but they were awesome enough to sell me a few bottles.

Pence Winery:

We were on our way out of town and we kept hearing about Pence Winery.  We falsely read (in a Santa Barbara tasting room brochure) that the tasting room was open to the public without appointment and we came busting in like the Kool-Aid man into what was a highly efficient and customer-oriented operation.

Kace Sarvis, Pence Vineyards

The folks were awesome and Kace Sarvis made an exception to see us with an expedited tasting since we made a special trip.  As we sat on the porch and viewed the individualized customer service and people being greeted by name, it was evident the care that was taken with each appointment.  We felt special that they fit us in.

Pence Winery is a premium, small production vineyard and a farm operation founded by Blair Pence. He was obsessed with pinot noir and chardonnay (finding a theme here, readers?) and traveled to Burgundy seeking connections with how to make great wines.  He learned from great winemakers that terroir and focusing on farming and vinification are important keys to success.  However, he wanted to stay true to wines made in Santa Barbara and in the vineyards.  The wines are about elegance, grapes and the vineyards.  The farm makes chardonnay, pinot noir, gamay and syrah as well as grains, heirloom orchards, vegetables, Marcona almonds and olives.  They use about a third of their total production and bring 19 different blocks and 12 individual clones into their own program, sometimes using as little as a single ton of grapes from any given block.  The rest goes to other Santa Barbara wineries that you may know like Arcadian Winery, Brewer-Clifton, Pali Wine Co and Rozak Vintners with the goal of collaboration.

The wines are impressive and expressive the deliberate nature of winemaking, the terroir and what is special in your glass.

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