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California Wine: Hilliard Bruce Tells A Story

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Hilliard Bruce Winery

"Sommeliers are like singers who buy their songs from someone, so they have to find new stories to sell," says John Hilliard, proprietor, along with his wife Christine Bruce, of Hilliard Bruce, a 21-acre picture perfect winery on an 101 acre property in the Santa Rita Hills. Currently making pinot noir, chardonnay, and occasionally rosé ("when we have extra barrels," Bruce lets on), they released a mere 1800 cases in 2011. "We want to keep our project small," Hilliard admits, "for if it gets too big it will be too commercial a business. There'd be too much selling and marketing and conning people you have some sort of story."

The wine story Hilliard is most perturbed by is biodynamic farming, claiming, "It's detached from reality; I don't think [Rudolf] Steiner got anything right." Instead, Hilliard and Bruce, both Houston transplants, have gone through the Master Gardeners program offered by the American Horticultural Society. "It's a great program," Hilliard says. "The first place people need to turn to are the land grant universities like Cal Poly, Davis, Texas A&M, where people care about evidence."

The evidence of their care is clear touring the vineyard -- it's one of the more meticulous you'll ever see. Talking about their extensive canopy management and efforts to keep all the vines growing consistently -- so the same happens with the grapes -- Hilliard asserts, "Tom Prentice of Crop Care out of Yountville says this is in the top 1.5% of vineyards in California as respects to viticulture." The rest of the property is also well-planted, with pasture for over 20 Arabian horses, vegetable and flower gardens, and unique imported specimens, particularly from Australia.

Hilliard Bruce's wines are anything but exotic; they aim for classic expressions of Burgundian grapes. "To try to get a really beautiful, exquisite bottle we have to test the lower limits, I think there's gold there," Hilliard claims. "We have to have the guts to pick early." To which Bruce dryly added, "Or the guts to throw it all away." They probably don't have to worry about that; Antonio Galloni of Vinous gave the 2011 Sky Pinot Noir a 95, writing, "A burst of juicy dark fruit melds into expressive, floral and spiced notes supported by veins of salinity as this exuberant Pinot shows off its racy personality. Rich, full-bodied and intense, the 2011 Sky boasts exceptional balance to match." Bruce's chardonnays have been equally well-received, and about her 2009 she says, "This is a lovely, beautiful chardonnay and I can say that as I have some others I'm not as happy with it."

Esteemed winemaker Paul Lato took the two under his wing when they started, and they still sell Lato some of their grapes. A 12,000 sq. ft. winery is being built on site -- it will be LEED-certified, even -- but for one last vintage they're still making wines at the Central Coast Wine Service facility in Santa Maria with assistant winemaker Tyson Koster. "I'm going to miss being able to ask everyone else at Central Coast that I run into questions," Hilliard laments.

But bringing all operations onto the estate can only keep Hilliard more focused. "This year we will harvest 29 tons of pinot. That's a lot of clusters," he says. "I want to have come close to seeing every cluster that goes into the pinot noir, unless I've been called to the phone or I've collapsed because I'm too tired."

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