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Miller Family’s Agricultural Roots Run Deep in Santa Barbara County, and the Central Coast

After generations of quiet success, pioneering owners of Bien Nacido Vineyards taking higher profile for diverse range of leading wines

Clan Miller during an August photo opportunity. From left, Amy and Marshall Miller with daughter Eleanora; Shelly and Nicholas Miller with sons Dual and Brody; Ladeen and Steve Miller; and Claire and Tom Loh with their children, Oscar, Tabitha and Steve. Click to view larger
Clan Miller during an August photo opportunity. From left, Amy and Marshall Miller with daughter Eleanora; Shelly and Nicholas Miller with sons Dual and Brody; Ladeen and Steve Miller; and Claire and Tom Loh with their children, Oscar, Tabitha and Steve. (Amy Lundstrom photo / Vita-Bella Photography)

While Stephen T.B. Miller and his family are best known in Santa Barbara County as owners of the famed Bien Nacido Vineyards, the Miller family’s roots grow deep in Southern California’s agricultural timeline, starting with Ventura County’s historic Spanish land grant Rancho Guadalasca in the late 1800s.

Under their umbrella company, The Thornhill Companies, the family, longtime residents of Santa Barbara, own and manage three vineyards in two counties, two custom-crush wine production facilities, two branded estate wine labels and the Turn Key Wines Brand.

The family owns a third branded label, Santa Maria Valley’s J. Wilkes Wines, which has brought the family some notoriety in recent months:

While working with Thornhill’s East Coast wine distributor at a tasting in Alexandria, Va., J. Wilkes winemaker and “brand ambassador” Wes Hagen met Jason L. Larkin, executive chef for the State Department’s Chief of Protocol.

Soon after, it was learned that several J. Wilkes wines had been selected for a diplomatic luncheon hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State John Kerry in attendance, as well.

The wine chosen was the 2012 J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay, according to Hagen and Nicholas Miller, one of Stephen Miller’s two sons. Hagen joined J. Wilkes last fall after years at Clos Pepe Estate Vineyard as winemaker and vineyard manager.

Days after the May event, J. Wilkes wines and Hagen himself were part of a luncheon meeting of Nordic leaders, also at the State Department and also coordinated by Larkin.

A Timeline of California Agriculture

The Miller family’s farming operations in Santa Barbara County originated with Steve Miller’s parents, the late Capt. Robert N. Miller III and Elizabeth Broome Miller, who both lived in Santa Barbara.

Miller, president and CEO of The Thornhill Companies, lives in Santa Barbara, with his wife, Ladeen. They have three children, Marshall, 38; Nicholas, 36; and Claire, 31.

Both Marshall and Nicholas and their wives, Amy and Shelly, respectively, also reside in Santa Barbara. Marshall and Amy have one child, Eleanora, 2; Nicholas and Shelly have two, Dual, 5, and Brody, 2. Claire and her husband, the Rev. Tom Loh, an Anglican priest, reside in England, and have three children: Oscar, 5, Tabitha, 3, and Steve, an infant.

Nicholas serves as vice president of sales and marketing at The Thornhill Companies, and Marshall as vice president of finance. Their father is quick to praise the brothers.

“They identify goals, execute strategy and carry out the tasks,” he told Noozhawk. “I am very proud. They make it fun to come to work.”

The family’s Santa Barbara-based parent company is named for Thornhill Broome, and both Steve and Marshall share Thornhill as a middle name, Nicholas said.

Born in Santa Barbara in 1878, Thornhill Broome raised livestock and grew walnuts, afalfa and beans before the family ranch’s focus shifted to lemons and other citrus, strawberries and avocados. Click to view larger
Born in Santa Barbara in 1878, Thornhill Broome raised livestock and grew walnuts, afalfa and beans before the family ranch’s focus shifted to lemons and other citrus, strawberries and avocados. (Miller family photo)

Steve — along with his siblings, Caryl Lockett Miller, Leslie Miller Chrismen and the late Robert “Bob” Miller — represents the fourth generation of the legendary Broome family to farm citrus, flowers and wine grapes on the Central Coast.

The family’s farming and ranching legacy dates to 1871, when William Richard Broome purchased 23,000 acres of the southern portion of the Ventura County land grant Rancho Guadalasca, which originally spanned 30,594 acres.

Thornhill Francis Broome, William Broome’s son and Steve Miller’s great-grandfather, was born in Santa Barbara in 1878 and died in 1946, according to Nicholas.

During Thornhill Broome’s lifetime, he and his wife, Caryl (nee Spoor), a Chicago native, raised livestock and grew walnuts, alfalfa and beans, dividing their time between Santa Barbara and Chicago, Steve said.

But because of the ranch’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, lemons ultimately fared better, setting the stage for what would evolve in the 1900s as a citrus, strawberry and avocado production site, he explained.

Thornhill Broome’s son, John “Jack” Spoor Broome — Steve Miller’s uncle — was born in 1918 in Chicago. An aviator from his teen years, he served as a transport pilot during World War II, and, following the war, was a pilot for American Airlines from 1943 to 1946, according to Wikipedia. Thornhill Broome died that same year, and Jack inherited the ranch.

Over the years, pieces of the original ranch were sold off. In 1932, the State of California bought approximately 1,700 acres and established the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, now the site of CSU Channel Islands, which opened in 2002. Before his death in 2009, Jack Broome was a benefactor of the campus library.

That philanthropy is a hallmark of the generations: In 1880, Jack Broome’s grandfather, William Richard, donated the land on which Trinity Episcopal Church, 1500 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara, stands today, Steve Miller noted.

The Broome-Miller family of farmers have successfully grown citrus (oranges and lemons) and avocados for several large companies, among them Sunkist, Steve Miller said.

“We also work with other growers who grow other kinds of fruit,” he added.

Taking their earlier generations’ farming successes to heart, brothers Steve and Bob Miller in 1969 purchased the land now known as Bien Nacido in northern Santa Barbara County along with an adjacent parcel from the original land grant.

Both parcels, which the family christened Rancho Tepusquet, comprised more than 2,000 acres, and included the Ontiveros Adobe, which dates back to 1857.

Lima beans are harvested on the Miller family’s original Rancho Guadalasca on the Oxnard Plain in a photo from the early 1940s. Click to view larger
Lima beans are harvested on the Miller family’s original Rancho Guadalasca on the Oxnard Plain in a photo from the early 1940s. (Miller family photo)

After researching the region’s soils and cooler climate, the Miller brothers realized their Bien Nacido site was ideal for wine grapes, and planted the vineyard in 1973.

Today, at nearly 900 acres, Bien Nacido is planted mostly with chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot blanc and syrah grapes, and is the source vineyard for approximately 35 wineries.

In the early 1970s, the Miller brothers were witnesses to California’s “growth of land” being planted to crops, Steve said.

He noted that the booming regions were Salinas, the Santa Maria Valley and the Oxnard Plain — site of the family’s original Rancho Guadalasca. In addition, those three regions had a top crop in common: sugar beets.

The Thornhill Companies’ French Camp Vineyards, also planted in 1973, now totals more than 1,700 acres east of Santa Margarita in San Luis Obispo County, making it the largest single vineyard on the Central Coast, according to its website.

French Camp, surrounded by the Santa Lucia foothills, gets hot during summer, but air from the Pacific Ocean is funneled across the property in late afternoon, creating the temperature swing that creates optimal growth conditions.

Grown at French Camp are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, muscat canelli, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, sangiovese, Napa gamay, syrah, petite sirah and La Grein.

The vines at both Bien Nacido and French Camp vineyards originate from rootstock grown by UC Davis.

In 1999, the brothers supervised the planting of another vineyard, this one Solomon Hills, located south of East Clark Avenue in Orcutt, along northbound Highway 101. That vineyard now sources The Thornhill Companies’ Solomon Hills estate label. It is planted with chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.

In an undated family photo, Elizabeth and Capt. Robert Miller III are surrounded by their children, from left, Bob, Leslie, Lockett and Steve. Click to view larger
In an undated family photo, Elizabeth and Capt. Robert Miller III are surrounded by their children, from left, Bob, Leslie, Lockett and Steve. (Miller family photo)

All three of Thornhill’s vineyard sites have at one time or another hosted row crops such as onions and carrots (French Camp), avocado and citrus (Bien Nacido) and, in “hoop houses,” various berries and tomatoes (Solomon Hills), Steve Miller said.

Avocado orchards are planted around Bien Nacido Vineyards on the north, east and south.

The Millers prefer to use “ranch manager” to describe Chris Hammell, the longtime vineyard manager at both Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills, because “he works with more than just vines — avocados, blueberries, strawberries and Meyer lemons,” Marshall Miller said.

When questioned if California’s ongoing drought was putting the heat on vegetables and fruits (including grapes), Nicholas said, “so far, we have been lucky that we farm the vineyards in areas where we still have water, in the Santa Maria Valley and Paso Robles.”

In addition, he said, “the crops we grow are not as water-intensive as other annual crops; wine grapes, avocados and lemons are all fairly efficient in their use of water.”

The Millers refer to The Thornhill Companies’ three vineyard properties as “the mature businesses,” as the citrus, row crops and grapevines they produce have been around for decades.

The family sold the grapes from Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills for decades before launching their two estate labels during the past eight years.

Thornhill’s newer division involves case goods — lots of them. The aptly named Turn Key Wine Brands includes red and white wines crafted specifically for retail and restaurant outlets. The wines are made at the Millers’ Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria and Paso Robles, two wine production and storage facilities.

Among the many labels produced are Smashberry Wines, Bell Town Wines and Ballard Lane Wines. While some are available to the public via retail outlets such as Trader Joe’s and BevMo!, others, like Ballard Lane, are marketed directly to restaurants, Nicholas said.

Still other wine labels are crafted for specific restaurants: Front Runner, a cabernet sauvignon made with grapes from the Santa Ynez Valley, is produced for Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez has a chardonnay house wine produced by Turn Key, he said.

The same goes with the house wine at the famed Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

While the Turn Key wine program now encompasses thousands of cases that are sold throughout California and out of state, the Thornhill estate brands remain hand-crafted and smaller.

Steve Miller, right, and his late brother, Bob, left, with French Camp vineyard manager Hank Ashby. The Miller brothers were responsbile for the family’s entry into the world of big-time wine grape growing, while Ashby was instrumental in the vineyard mechanization that helped make it so successful. Click to view larger
Steve Miller, right, and his late brother, Bob, left, with French Camp vineyard manager Hank Ashby. The Miller brothers were responsbile for the family’s entry into the world of big-time wine grape growing, while Ashby was instrumental in the vineyard mechanization that helped make it so successful. (Miller family photo)

Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido wines are available from the Bien Nacido Vineyards tasting room in Los Olivos, which opened in September at 2963 Grand Ave. A new tasting room for the J. Wilkes Wines label opened in June in the space formerly occupied by Qupé Cellars, next door to the Bien Nacido site, Nicholas said.

“Our Bien Nacido estate wine program has grown slowly,” said Marshall, who described Turn Key as “day to day” versus the estate brands — “our passion.”

Award-Winning Estate Wines and Vines

The Miller family has received numerous high scores and accolades for both its wine labels and vineyard practices.

In February, the family was honored with the “Innovative Practices Award” by the Santa Barbara Vintners in recognition of its contributions to regional agricultural innovation. The award comes from the Santa Maria Valley-based EconAlliance Foundation’s “Growing Possibilities: A Forum to Celebrate and Support Regional Agriculture.”

The family was praised for its sustainable approach to farming, incorporation of organic principles and use of solar-powered facilities, as well as being one of the first on the Central Coast to adopt drip irrigation, night harvesting and pricing by acreage, according to the EconAlliance.

In January, Wine & Spirits Magazine included Bien Nacido Vineyards pinot noir and syrah on its list of top pinot noirs and syrahs for the year, Nicholas noted. The publication previously listed Bien Nacido among the Top 25 vineyards in the world.

Last year, both the Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills estate wines earned “great scores” from Wine Enthusiast, Vinous Media’s Antonio Galloni and Robert Parker, as well as praise from The Wall Street Journal, which described the nearly 900-acre Bien Nacido as one of California’s Top 5 Vineyards, Nicholas said.

Wine Enthusiast rated a Solomon Hills Vineyard chardonnay at 94 points and a Bien Nacido chardonnay at 93, he added. Both the 2012 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir and 2012 Bien Nacido Chardonnay also received 94-point scores from that publication.

Also last year, Galloni called Bien Nacido chardonnay the highest-scoring wine on the Central Coast, and described Bien Nacido as one of the best wineries in California, Nicholas said.

In his August 2015 article entitled “Santa Barbara: On the Road,” Galloni wrote: “Bien Nacido is best known as a historic vineyard that has played an important role in the development of American wine by supplying ambitious winemakers with top-notch fruit since the 1970s.

“But Bien Nacido also makes wines under its own label ... much of the credit goes to winemaker Trey Fletcher, who arrived in 2011, vineyard manager Chris Hammell and the Miller family ... simply put, Bien Nacido Estate is now one of the hottest wineries in California.”

In its November/December 2015 issue, Vineyard & Winery Management magazine named the Miller family one of the “Most Admired Grape Growers in North America,” noting the family’s “white glove” approach to farming.

“This is very exciting for our whole family,” Nicholas said in a news release announcing the recognition.

In 2010, the California State Fair named Bien Nacido “Vineyard of the Year.”

With Steve Miller the fifth generation to farm on the Central Coast, what does the future bode for the seventh generation, his grandchildren? Only time will tell.

Noozhawk contributing writer Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. Click here to read her Noozhawk columns.

(The Thornhill Companies video)

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