Exclusive: How to Get Your Hands on Santa Barbara’s Best New Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Sara L. Schneider
·3 min read

Seventeen years after Miles caused a collective swoon over Santa Barbara Pinot Noir in the movie Sideways, the county’s expressive red proves it’s capable of generating as much excitement as ever. Meet the wine region’s newest Pinot—and Chardonnay.

The pair, created by Michael Brughelli, embody wines’ best contradictions. They’re powerful and delicate at once, nuanced and bright—intense expressions of a place. The 2018 Brughelli Pinot Noir, from a few rows of own-rooted vines planted in 1973, opens with soaring aromatics that belie its slightly pale color. Exotic spices (including a little cardamom) pop over sandalwood and haunting florals. The palate packs a punch of pure and concentrated fruit—cherry and black raspberry—layered and tense in a delightful way, but bright and light on its feet too. A savory salinity on the finish conjures an ocean breeze.

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Its counterpart, the 2018 Brughelli Chardonnay is a ringer for a great white Burgundy, perfumed with lovely florals with bare hints of vanilla and spice (there’s 50 percent new oak here, but in the form of a large puncheon) and elegant oyster-shell minerality. White nectarine and citrus zest keep the palate bright, and distinctive delicacy balances significant weight and gravitas.

Wines like these aren’t whipped up in a season by recipe in a tank and brought to market. It was a decade ago, when Brughelli was general manager and winemaker for well-known Ken Volk, that he began wondering what it would take to make wines that deserved to launch in the highest tier. A position with Bien Nacido gave him the chance to take a deep dive into the vineyard details that differentiate a great wine from a common one, and to work with some of the county’s most talented winemakers sourcing fruit from the legendary vineyard.

What Brughelli came to believe, he says, is that “you have to take the time to develop a vineyard—do the hard work in the field—for absolutely unique terroir.” The ultimate goal is to reach a point where, when perfectly ripe on the vine, the fruit will need a very light hand in the cellar. In the cause of creating that precise point, Brughelli walks his rows two or three times a week. “The vines give you an indication of exactly what they need,” he says. Water, for instance. He prefers not to irrigate, but will judiciously on demand, which he can only know with boots on the ground. Precise timing of shoot thinning or tipping is critical to coercing concentrated clusters, and Brughelli thins the berries himself before harvest. Taking the fruit load down is necessary for world-class wine. Improving inputs in the vineyard over the years, Brughelli believes, has had a major impact. The wines stepped up. In 2017, he says, they were spectacular, and in 2018, ready for the big stage.

Why the pelican theme on the labels? Brughelli, whose family is Swiss Italian, explains that in his ancestral region pelicans are widely depicted as a symbol of self-sacrifice and charity—principles he felt compelled to act on after the country’s tragedy of 9/11, joining the local fire department in college and becoming an EMT.

There’s little sacrifice, though, in these inaugural Brughelli Wines, except for those berries individually sorted in the vineyard and winery (and perhaps a little dignity over some old-fashioned foot-treading that goes on). And Brughelli has priced them in the big leagues, at $200 a bottle, $800 for a four-pack (you can choose two bottles each of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, or four bottles of the Pinot). The wines will go on sale to the mailing list on May 13, and you can sign up for the list now.

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