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Famed Bien Nacido Vineyards Lucky to Escape Alamo Fire Without a Scorch

Vineyard employees take firefight into their own hands and keep the flames from damaging the 800-acre property

Flames from the Alamo Fire creep toward Bien Nacido Vineyards along Tepusquet Road east of Santa Maria on July 9. Click to view larger
Flames from the Alamo Fire creep toward Bien Nacido Vineyards along Tepusquet Road east of Santa Maria on July 9.  (Chris Hammell photo)

As the Alamo Fire burned into Santa Barbara County in early July, employees of one of the nation’s top vineyards uneasily monitored its progression.

Chris Hammell, longtime manager of Bien Nacido Vineyards, knew the blaze could easily reach the property, which is planted on more than 800 acres. Grapevines cover the floor of a narrow valley and on the steep hillsides that surround it.

Brothers Nicholas and Marshall Miller are vice presidents of sales/marketing and operations/finance, respectively, for their family-run business, The Thornhill Companies, based in Santa Barbara.

Thornhill is the parent company of Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills and French Camp vineyards, Central Coast Wine Services, Paso Robles Wine Services and multiple wine brands. The Miller family has owned Bien Nacido since 1969 and the first grapevines were planted in 1973.

Worried about the smoke and flames, Hammell called the Millers to warn them about the encroaching fire, said Nicholas Miller.

The Alamo Fire, which burned 28,687 acres before it was fully contained on July 19, forced residents of Tepusquet Canyon to evacuate for several days, and closed Highway 166 between Highway 101 and the Cuyama Valley.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson has estimated firefighting costs for the Alamo Fire to be $20 million.

The Alamo Fire burned down hillsides above the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards east of Santa Maria. Vineyard and winemaking employees teamed with fire crews to save the 800-plus-acre vineyard property, and the fire stopped just yards from the grapevines. Click to view larger
The Alamo Fire burned down hillsides above the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards east of Santa Maria. Vineyard and winemaking employees teamed with fire crews to save the 800-plus-acre vineyard property, and the fire stopped just yards from the grapevines. (Contributed photo)

But as firefighters from around California and the Western United States descended upon the Alamo Fire, another fast-moving blaze started near Lake Cachuma on Highway 154.

Some of the crews battling the Alamo Fire were redirected to the Whittier Fire, which burned near campgrounds, ranches and residences. 

Hammell rounded up nearly 30 employees, the Millers said, and got to work protecting the vineyard from the fire, which was approaching from the west, north and east.

Working alongside Hammell and his crew were Michael Brughelli, director of winery and grape sales for the local vineyards and CCWS, and Trey Fletcher, winemaker for Bien Nacido Wines, said Nicholas Miller.

Years ago the Millers faced a fire on property the company owns in Ventura County, Marshall Miller said. After that incident, “we bought equipment to use in an emergency: Water
tankers, bulldozers and hoses, and we had it on site, just to be ready,” he said. 

When the firefighting ranks thinned, the Thornhill employees rallied, and for nearly two days straight, they cut fire lines around the edges of the vineyard, watered down ground cover and set
backfires, Marshall Miller said.

Bien Nacido winemaker Trey Fletcher holds a fire line with water from a tanker truck the Miller family purchased in case of such an emergency. Click to view larger
Bien Nacido winemaker Trey Fletcher holds a fire line with water from a tanker truck the Miller family purchased in case of such an emergency. (Chris Hammell / The Thornhill Companies photo)

Also vital to the team effort were Doug Cox, a heavy equipment operator out of Santa Maria, and rancher Jim Gracia, who runs cattle on ranch land adjacent to Bien Nacido Vineyards and has
contributed to long-term land maintenance, Nicolas Miller said.

“Gracia cut line breaks and for years has practiced responsible ranching and range management,” Nicholas Miller noted.

In the end, when the fire was contained and the employees headed home to rest, the aftermath was almost a storybook ending.

“No lives were lost, no equipment destroyed and no grapevines burned,” Marshall Miller said. 

They felt very blessed, Nicholas Miller said, adding they were grateful to be upwind of the fire and the risk of so-called smoke taint was lower. 

The Alamo Fire burned down hillsides above the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards east of Santa Maria. Vineyard and winemaking employees teamed with fire crews to save the 800-plus-acre vineyard property, and the fire stopped just yards from the grapevines. Click to view larger
The Alamo Fire burned down hillsides above the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards east of Santa Maria. Vineyard and winemaking employees teamed with fire crews to save the 800-plus-acre vineyard property, and the fire stopped just yards from the grapevines. (Courtesy photo )

The Viticulture & Enology Department at University of California, Davis, defines the issue as grape clusters negatively impacted by exposure to smoke, which leads to a characteristic “smoke taint” in the resultant finished wines.

Many vineyards across wildfire-prone California and the West Coast have suffered smoke taint from fires adjacent to or within a property. That taint has been described as “smoky, “dirty” or “burnt” aromas with a lingering “retro-nasal ‘ash’ character on the palate.”

“We will continue to do testing, but it’s apparent that since we were northwest of the blaze, smoke taint and ash were bullets we dodged,” Marshall Miller said.

The timing of the Alamo Fire was critical, the Millers said. If it had occurred closer to harvest, when the skins of grapes have softened, any damage would have been more critical.

Nicholas Miller estimates that harvest will start at Bien Nacido by the third or fourth week of August.

Projected yields for the current vintage appear to be below average with smaller berries, he added.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]

A hillside smolders on July 10 after flames from the Alamo Fire raced above vineyards on Santa Maria Mesa Road. Click to view larger
A hillside smolders on July 10 after flames from the Alamo Fire raced above vineyards on Santa Maria Mesa Road. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

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