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Hilliard Bruce Vineyards: Magnificent Wines from the Sta. Rita Hills

I detailed Hilliard Bruce Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills recently in the PinotFile at This was my first opportunity to taste the wines in detail and I came away very impressed. The 101-acre ranch was acquired in 2002 when Christine, a successful Arabian horse breeder, and John, who had just undergone a second kidney transplant, looked to relocate their farm from their native Texas to California. Christine needed a place where she could raise her horses, and John was determined to pursue his dream of establishing a vineyard. The first vines went in the ground in 2004, and the inaugural wines were offered from the 2008 vintage.

John and Christine acquired their winemaking skills through courses from the University of California at Davis Extension Program and the Allan Hancock Viticulture and Enology Program, and have had two consulting winemakers, Peter Work (Ampelos) and Paul Lato (Paul Lato Wines).

By harvest this year, a new LEED-certified winery will open including a humidity controlled underground cellar and a tasting area. The wines are sold through a mailing list. Tours and tasting are available by appointment at

Three 2011 Pinot Noirs reviewed below were stellar. The Hilliard Bruce lineup of Pinot Noirs normally includes Moon, but it was not produced in 2011 due to the cool growing season. It is meant to emphasize darker, riper fruit flavors. The three that were reviewed include Sun (bright, fruit-driven expression of the vineyard), Sky (higher acid profile due to earlier picking), and Earth (the leanest release produced from the earliest picked fruit). The differences between the three wines were very subtle but evident. The Chardonnay is also appealing. It will be of interest to see how these wines change over the subsequent ten years as the vines mature.

2011 Hilliard Bruce Earth Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

13.75% alc., 240 cases, $45. Clones “828” and 777. Aged 18 months in 75% new French oak barrels. · Medium reddish purple color in the glass. Expressive nose that becomes more appealing over time in the glass. Aromas and flavors of dark red cherries and blueberries with an earthy tone and hints of toasty oak and sassafras. Lightest in weight of the three 2011 Pinot Noirs, but equally flavorful with plenty of bright Sta. Rita Hills acidity in the background. The wine displays impeccable balance and the evolution over time in the glass suggests age ability. Score: 91

2011 Hilliard Bruce Sky Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

13.57% alc., 420 cases, $55. Clones include Calera, Pommard, 115, 667 and 777. Aged 18 months in 50% new French oak barrels. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. The aromas of fresh black raspberry, spice and subtle oak really draw you into the glass. There is plenty of sappy fruit concentration like the Sun, but there is more vibrant acidity and resulting juiciness. The core of darker berry and stone fruits is flatout delicious and very plush on the palate. The finish is strikingly endowed offering waves of bright fruit returning over and over for an encore. This beauty blurs the line between wine and heaven. Score: 94

2011 Hilliard Bruce Sun Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 529 cases, $55. Clones include Calera, Pommard, 115, 667 and 777. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. The aromas arrive over time in the glass, offering a blend of boysenberry jam, plum, black grapes and spice. The sappy mid weight core of black cherry and dark berry is strikingly vivid and pure, set off by an appealing earthiness. Everything is in balance with modest tannins and bright acidity. The fruit-driven finish is noticeably long and intense. This is highly enjoyable juice. Score: 92

2011 Hilliard Bruce Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay

14.3% alc., 475 cases, $45. Clones are 76 and 96. Aged 16 months in 30% new French oak barrels. · Light golden yellow and clear in the glass. Vibrant aromas of lemon, lime and walnut lead to a discreetly concentrated core of lemon curd, yellow peach and subtle butterscotch flavors. Nice fullness on the palate with a slightly creamy texture, and a long, soprano finish. I like this wine for its restraint and seamless quality. Score: 90

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