He started out in finance, directed his family’s shipyard business, and worked as a full-time painter; along the way, he fought a successful battle with cancer and underwent two kidney transplants. She was a professional musician, had her own biscotti business and trained Arabian horses. The amazing journey of John Hilliard and Christine Bruce led them to the California’s Santa Rita Hills, where they purchased an estate, planted grapevines, and reinvented themselves once again to become winemakers.
The wines of Hilliard Bruce appeared with the 2008 vintage, and they are well worth seeking out. While many California winemakers aim to make wine in the Burgundian style, and still more claim to be growing grapes in a cool region, few are fortunate enough to have a climate like the Santa Rita Hills. Warm days and nights filled with cool ocean breezes keep acidity levels high, making the area a perfect stage for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The charms of that climate are apparent in their 2011 Chardonnay ($45), which tastes like a mythical New World cross between Aligoté and Chablis. The wine is crisp, taut and spicy, with citrus flavors resting on a broad mineral background. As I tasted it, I was craving oysters.
The two Pinot Noirs I tried were radically different. The 2011 Sun ($60) had a nose perfumed with red berries and pungent spice; in the mouth, it was medium-bodied and extremely well-balanced, offering ripe berry fruit intertwined with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and pleasant earth notes. By contrast, the 2011 Sky ($60) was riper and more generous, with lush flavors of black cherry and blackberry jam offset by good acidity. While the first was reminiscent of Pommard, the second was pure Santa Barbara.
As of this writing, the production of Hilliard Bruce is small (perhaps 5,000-7,000 cases in a good vintage), and distribution is limited. The best way to try the wines is to sign up at hilliardbruce.com, and you’ll be notified of the next release. Make sure you have those oysters ready.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in July. For more information, go to amazon.com.