For all of the sources that syrah stud Joey Tensley tapped — and critically established — over his three decades as a Santa Barbara County winemaker, he’d never waded into the historic rows of Bien Nacido Vineyard until two years ago.
First planted by brothers Steve and Bob Miller nearly 50 years ago, the Santa Maria Valley property put cool-climate California syrah on the global map by grafting some for Qupé founder Bob Lindquist in 1987. That rippled into coastally influenced plantings of syrah across the state, delivering the umami-laden, pepper-powered character of what I think is the most interesting style of wine in the galaxy, reflecting in uncanny ways the gamy hallmarks of the variety’s ancestral home in the northern Rhône Valley of France.
Tensley, meanwhile, was building his own legacy, turning both cool and warmer syrah sites into unctuously expressive wines, bagging big magazine scores, and becoming the darling of wine lovers from Chelsea to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. So when the Millers gave him a call in August of 2019 about possibly collaborating on a wine brand — one that also included chardonnay and pinot noir, Bien Nacido’s best-known grapes — the Bakersfield-raised, Los Olivos–residing winemaker was intrigued.
“A lot of places talk the talk, but these guys are walking the walk,” said Tensley of what he realized during his first tour of the vineyard, a leader in innovative and sustainably minded farming that’s overseen by Chris Hammell, for whom Tensley has massive respect. “I was instantly hooked.”
That was exactly what the Millers wanted. After decades of operating primarily as vineyard owners who sold fruit rather than make wine, the family decided to focus on vertical integration over the past decade, launching a number of brands, from their high-end Bien Nacido Estate portfolio to more widely available and affordable labels such as Smashberry, J. Wilkes, Ballard Lane, and Barrel Burner. To do so, they’ve also mostly taken over the former Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, turning the once-critical incubator for Santa Barbara winemaking upstarts into their own large winery.
So a deal was hatched, with the Miller Family Wine Company owning the brand but Tensley having full reign over the wines, which he makes at his facility on Martian Ranch near Los Alamos. In early May, the first vintage of Optik Wines was released, and I was the first person from outside of the partnership to taste the wines, which I did with Tensley and Nicholas Miller at the Bien Nacido tasting room in Los Olivos. There are two chards, two pinots, and two syrahs, all emblematic of both the zesty qualities of the vineyard and the opulence of Tensley’s style. Priced between $35 and $45, the lineup is a powerhouse package, appealing to a wide range of palates and presented in mysterious, eye-grabbing packaging. (Literally — an eyeball is in the middle of a hand on the label.)
“Our estate program is a window into the vintage, and it’s always been about the vineyard over winemaking,” explained Nicholas Miller of the family’s flagship Bien Nacido Estate brand, which produces lower-alcohol, expertly transparent wines. “What about looking at it from someone else’s perspective?” he said of the family’s motivation. “This is exactly what we want, a totally fresh start.”
As any right-minded winemaker would, Tensley was immediately drawn to Bien Nacido’s most interesting blocks. “The old stuff was the first thing I gravitated to — that and the steep stuff,” he explained. “As a winemaker, this is the best case scenario possible.”
The wines were bottled before even a year in barrel, which is a shift from the Miller’s longer-aging estate program, as Tensley intends to preserve the freshness. The project will continue to evolve, perhaps scaling down from two of each variety to one, but it may also begin to include the Millers’ other vineyards: Solomon Hills, alongside 101 near Orcutt; and French Camp, which is in the middle of nowhere southeast of Paso Robles. (I recently visited. It’s deep.)
While the chardonnay exhibits the vineyard’s distinct minerality and the pinot captures the region’s spice rack well, it really is the syrah that shines, delivering Tensley’s trademark heft while retaining those stunning rotundone-related cracked-black-pepper qualities.
“Going forward, the biggest program will probably be syrah,” said Tensley, who fermented about 6 percent of the white grape roussanne into one of the batches, whereas most American syrah-makers might employ viognier in that role. “Everyone is talking about Côte-Rôtie,” said Tensely of that region’s classic syrah-viognier pairing. “But in Hermitage, viognier is illegal.” So when they co-ferment in Hermitage, he explained, it’s either marsanne or roussanne.
Tensley is convinced that Bien Nacido may be one of the best syrah sites in the country and believes his wines will compete globally. “You can put this up against any wine in the world,” he said, “and for $45, it will stand up for sure.”
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