“Many winemakers have never farmed a vineyard,” explains Michael Brughelli, who has touched most facets of the wine industry. “They may know how to coax out certain qualities, but to take that full responsibility of planting grapes, be exposed to those types of budgets, and know what kinds of stress it takes to grow the product from start to finish? That’s a lot.”
He endured that exact training while working seven years as the director of grape sales for the Miller family, owners of Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills vineyards. He left in 2019 to start his consulting firm, Vignerons, and in 2020 sold his half of the critically beloved brand Scar of the Sea to launch a new eponymous label for high-end pinot noir and chardonnay grown in the Santa Maria Valley.
Those Brughelli wines were just released, selling exclusively in four packs for $800 — yes, $200 a pop, much higher than the usual Central Coast bottle. Unlike wines of a similar price tag, such as Sine Qua Non or Saxum, Brughelli’s wines put the emphasis on elegance rather than power. The pinot noir is delicate, fresh, and pleasantly herbal, while the chardonnay is mineral-driven, with touches of white peach and soft butter, easily competing with the best wines in California.
“There’s concentration in different ways — to me, this has incredible concentration,” Brughelli told me in my backyard last week as we sipped on the wines. He likes to use the analogy of ice cream, which is concentrated and weighty, versus sorbet, which is concentrated but light and bright. “The justification for the price point is more complexity, the nuance, the intrigue,” he explained. “Smelling and wanting to smell again, tasting and wanting to taste again.”
Both wines come from vineyard blocks that Brughelli has tended for years. He’s officially mum on the specific vineyards, though any gambling man would certainly wager that Bien Nacido is at least partially involved. “By design, it’s rather mysterious in nature as to what the sources are,” said Brughelli, who made 200 cases of the wine in 2018, 250 in 2019, and 320 in 2020. “That lends a little intrigue.”
Brughelli grew up in the Central Valley farming town of Riverdale, where his great-grandfather settled after leaving Switzerland. He went to Cal Poly to study mechanical engineering — intending to build performance motorcycle engines — but then crashed an upper-level viticulture class that changed everything.
“The geeky tech ag talk was familiar and interesting, and there was the romantic element of what the grapes would become,” explains Brughelli. He was soon working for Claiborne & Churchill and Saucelito Canyon wineries, double-majoring in wine & vit and agribusiness, and pursuing three separate senior projects: one on tasting room development, another on tannin extraction, and the third on relaunching a brand. (He also somehow worked as an on-call firefighter/EMT through college, even garnering “Firefighter of the Year” honors twice.)
Upon graduating in 2005, he worked with Don Sebastiani & Sons, worked a harvest in New Zealand, and was hired in June 2006 as director of operations at Ken Volk Vineyards & Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. “I was involved in every nuance, every piece of that business,” says Brughelli, who stayed six years with Volk, the winemaking legend who founded Wild Horse. “It was an incredible opportunity to work with those grapes and vineyards and Ken. He’s such a visionary and thinker.”
In 2012, the Miller family offered Brughelli the critical grape salesman role. He didn’t want to leave winemaking, but quickly realized that the job would teach him deeply about the family’s vineyards, and put him in regular contact with the world’s top winemakers, who sourced from the family’s iconic properties.
“That opened my eyes from a winemaking perspective, getting incredible exposure to all those winemakers working at Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills,” explained Brughelli. “That was an incredible learning experience that I am forever grateful for.” The Millers also let Brughelli make his own wine, which became Scar of the Sea, a project he cofounded with Mikey Giugni in 2012.
Since leaving the Millers in May 2019 and launching Vignerons, he’s become the winemaker for Folded Hills Winery, lined up contracts with large vineyard farming outfits like Diamond West, started consulting for Bank of Marin, and even helped make wine for famous NFL coach John Madden’s family in Livermore.
It’s been an intense ride already for this vintner, and he’s got decades to grow. “I was young when I decided to make the wine business my life, and I was lucky to find that vision early on,” says Brughelli, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Nipomo. “I get extremely driven and motivated to be the best at what I’m doing.”
Includes excerpts from Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County.