The smell of smoke still hangs heavy in the air as I pull up to Bien Nacido Vineyards, located in the Santa Maria Valley appellation of Santa Barbara County. The recent Alamo fire nearly butted up against this iconic site, but stopped short of consuming any of the vineyard rows. Eventually this aggressive wild fire burned 28,687 acres and took nearly two weeks to extinguish.
I’m here to meet up with Michael Brughelli, the Director of Sales at this vineyard site, as well as at Solomon Hills Vineyard just down the road. A former fire fighter and EMT, the usually calm and collected Brughelli appears anxious and concerned for his former colleagues and friends who still fight fires along California’s Central Coast, where in recent days leading up to our interview, two wild fires have wreaked havoc in Santa Barbara County.
While he began as a Paid Call Fire Firefighter, working with a team of two or three men on wild fires, he quickly assumed more of a leadership role within the San Luis Obispo County Fire Department as the Company Administrator and a Paid Call Driver Operator / EMT, otherwise known as a Paid Call Engineer. He was often sent off on wildfires, working structure protection and leading a crew, while also providing medical assistance as needed as a certified EMT. Brughelli looks off in the distance towards the charred hillsides. “It’s terrible when you know what they’re up against and you can’t help out. You feel helpless.”
Upon graduation from Cal Poly, Brughelli faced a crossroads: either he’d head into full-time fire fighting, which he loved, or pursue a long-held creative passion to farm and make wine. Eventually Brughelli went on to pursue a double major in Wine and Viticulture and Agribusiness with a focus Wine Business Management and Marketing. “I followed my passion, which has been great, but I miss getting to help people in such a hands-on, intimate way. I’ve been feeling shackled with these fires; not being able to just grab a shovel and help has been really difficult. I’ve weaned myself off of the compulsion to just jump in and help when someone’s in trouble, but once you’ve been in either one of those professions, it’s hard to shake that impulse.”
I ask Brughelli about the challenges of leaving behind the world of service for something more creative. “I’m serving a different master now,” he says. “At first I had an almost unchecked devotion to the workplace…to the detriment of my relationships and my health. I was working up to 110 hours a week. No breaks. No lunches.” Brughelli chalks up this mentality to being in a field, where constant vigilance and assistance is a requirement. “I was able to eventually transition out of that mind-set and lead a more balanced life. I will say, though, that the work ethic instilled in me as a firefighter and EMT helped me to excel in the wine business, which is highly competitive. I was able to out-work others because of an almost obligatory sense of drive and dedication. I was also very lucky because I was at the right place and the right time, working for people who treated me well and who I was happy to treat well in return.”
One of those people turned out to be winemaker Kenneth Volk, a Central Coast winemaking pioneer who became somewhat of a mentor to the then recent graduate. Hired on as Director of Operations and eventually working into a role of winemaker and general manager, Brughelli honed his skills in the cellar and vineyard there, after having embarked on a winemaking apprenticeships in New Zealand, Napa, and on the Central Coast. After working six and a half years for Ken Volk, Brughelli joined the team at Bien Nacido Vineyards/Solomon Hills Vineyards, where the fourth-generation Californian took the reins officially as their Director of Sales.
A recent father, Brughelli, now 35, channels his protective nature towards his wife Brooke, and their baby daughter, Charlee. They are expecting another baby by year’s end. “There is always an evolution with people and I hope I’ve evolved over time. My personal evolution involved stepping out of a devoted and dedicated winemaking role and into a full time client-relations role, which involves fruit sales. That basically instilled a level of integrity in me that just didn’t exist before. I mean, I look back at my younger days and I was more of a nuisance back then. But, when you’re put into a position where you need to set up your clients for success, there’s really no room for BS.” Brughelli cites his transition from winemaking to grape sales as a tremendous period of personal growth. “There is no way you can develop a successful career in sales if you take advantage of people. You have to have integrity and solidarity with your clients. There’s a fine line you’re constantly walking between doing what’s in the best interest of your employer, while also looking out for the best interest of your clients, with whom you’ve developed trust and, again, solidarity. If the negotiation isn’t feeling good for the client, I don’t push it, as I’m not interested in pushing a sale so far that it puts someone’s business in jeopardy. Learning how to focus on transparency with my employers and their clients, along with becoming a father, has helped me evolve as a person.”
‘Round about 2012, on his days off, Brughelli and his friend and co-worker from his days at Kenneth Volk Winery, Mikey Giugni, started to kick around the idea of making wine and hard ciders together, on the side. Receiving the blessing to do so from his employers, the Miller family who owns Bien Nacido Vineyards, Brughelli and Giugni began building their brand. Giugni, who’d recently returned from a stint making hard cider in Tasmania, suggested a name for their nascent project: Scar of the Sea. He explained to Brughelli that it was the name of a small, run-down but beautiful old Catholic Church just feet from the shores of Bass Strait, which separates the island of Tasmania from Australia. Having shared a love of fishing, surfing “and all things ocean living”, for years, the two friends ran with Giugni’s name idea. Only later did they realize that Giugni “couldn’t read Old English,” says Brughelli. “Turns out the church’s name was Star of the Sea, but we kept “Scar” anyway, because our wines are heavily influenced by the Pacific – the climate, the oceanic soils around here.” Brughelli and Giugni believe the ocean leaves a good “scar” or signature are their wines. It defines them. And, indeed, their line-up of six wines – three pinot noirs and three chardonnays – are alive with tension, structure and saline notes, all a result of the maritime influence upon the sites with which they work.
Established in 2012, Scar of the Sea is a 50-50 partnership. Giugni oversees their small production space within the Central Coast Wine Services, a custom-crush facility not far from Bien Nacido Vineyards. There Giugni works mainly with their popular hard ciders, their Pet Nat and their county-designated Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Brughelli oversees their single-vineyard offerings, made inside a small, modest winery space located at Bien Nacido proper, a few hundred yards as the crow flies from Au Bon Climat Winery. There Brughelli keeps careful watch over about 12 barrels of their single-vineyard Chardonnays, and 24 barrels of their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, including their critically-acclaimed Bien Nacido Old Vine Q Block Pinot Noir.
When I ask him how he balances working full-time at Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards with fatherhood and Scar of the Sea, he tells me he builds his vacation time “around working the market for SOTS, whether it’s in Southern California or Colorado. It’s not fair to my wife and baby, though, if I’m doing that during the whole vacation, so I’m aware of how important it is to balance market work with family life.” He otherwise carves out two to three hours very early each morning to work on SOTS, before heading over to Bien Nacido Vineyards. He then completes any work on his own brand in the evenings, while still making time for family dinners and play time with his toddler, Charlee. Several days a week, he also finds time to play guitar, which he finds help calm and center him.
When asked to describe the style of SOTS wines Brughelli says, “I think style comes down to experience and what you’re exposed to. My biggest eye opener, regarding experience, has been working here at Bien Nacido and working with all of our clients who are choosing to do things a particular way, or wanting to have things done a particular way for them in the vineyard. On a day-to-day basis, I’m working with legendary guys like Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Justin Willett (Tyler and Lieu Dit), Adam Tolmach (Ojai Vineyards), Sashi Moorman (Piedrasassi) and Paul Lato (Paul Lato Wines), all people who source from Bien Nacido and they share a common vision: to produce the best wines they can from the vineyards they source from. Observing the cause and effect of what such driven, passionate, motivated and successful people are doing in the vineyard and cellar – because I visit their cellars often – has allowed me access to this amazing data base of knowledge that they generously share with me. That’s been such a mind-opening experience. And I get to eat lunch with these people often and they share great wines at the table and that’s also been very inspirational. All of these aspects have contributed to the style of our SOTS wines. Ultimately, though, I think I’ve learned the most from Chris Hammell. Chris is one of the most incredible people I’ve gotten the pleasure to know. Aside from being truly in tune with the vineyards and able to coax quality out of a wide variety of vineyard blocks Chris is able to focus his energy like no one I’ve ever met. I’m more than proud to work alongside him, and I’m honored to be able to call him a friend.”
Brughelli and Giugni source their most prized fruit from Bien Nacido, where their wines are vetted for vineyard-designation, just as all other clients sourcing fruit there. “I have to go through the same process as all Bien Nacido fruit clients if we want to include the Bien Nacido Vineyard designate on the label. We have to submit samples of our wines beforehand, and the Millers have been wonderful to work with. They’ve been very complimentary and supportive along the way.”
Brughelli, typically a man of measured words, seems to cotton to discussing style as it relates to their SOTS wines. “Ultimately what matters to me and Mikey most is how a wine smells and tastes in the glass. A few years back there was such a stylistic swing of the pendulum with the emergence of IPOB (In Pursuit of Balance). All of these loud voices wanting to chime in on a few singular elements in wine, really dissecting it in an odd way. Alcohol, pH, TA, acid profile. Why would you wax poetic on alcohol levels of all things? It’s just one component of what we as winegrowers do. Alcohol should be an integral component in a wine, but it should never be singled out for any reason, in my mind. While I’m probably still most intrigued with the wines coming out of Burgundy, I also understand that we cannot replicate those wines here in California. We have different climates and soils. But it’s an important reference point in my mind. If you really want to study Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, you must be willing to admit that Burgundy is a mecca for those varieties. Sometimes I struggle with this realization a little; while I know we cannot duplicate those wines, I think sites like Bien Nacido, for example, are at least in the same lane. And we at SOTS wines, and many of our colleagues, are in the same lane as our fellow winemakers in Burgundy: we seek to produce wines with verve, tension, and energy that are pleasant in the glass; that smell and taste great. That’s ultimately what we’re after.”
I’m often intrigued by wine brands that function as 50-50 partnerships, where both partners are involved in winemaking. It is not uncommon for winemaking partners under one brand umbrella to become disenchanted or impatient with one another, especially if they cannot see eye-to-eye on the fundamentals of winegrowing and winemaking. “We’ve had our struggles,” Brughelli says of his partnership with Giugni, “but we’ve worked through them and forged a stronger partnership as a result. We are both aware that we’re fortunate and that we have a good thing going, so we make a point of speaking candidly and openly with one another, and that’s been great. I give him the benefit of the doubt and he does the same for me, so we’re always able to move forward after a bump in the road and remain positive.
As the morning fog begins to burn off, Brughelli and I head out to nearby “Main Street”, a little-known fishing and surf spot at the end of Main Street, in the nearby small township of Guadalupe. Only miles from Bien Nacido, arriving at Main Street is transportive. Little known these days, except among a handful of locals, hardcore surfers and salty-dog fisherman who cast from the shoreline (for mostly perch), once upon a time Main Street (also known as the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes) was popular with film-location scouts. Included in the movies that were, in part, filmed along this foggy, moody shoreline are The Ten Commandments (remnants of the set still peak through the dunes) and portions of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Brughelli comes out to Main Street several times a week to center himself, either by fishing or surfing; sports he pursues avidly. More recently, he has also restored a Husqvarna dirt bike he first purchased on EBay for $1,500.00, when he was just 15-years old. “I bought it from a guy in Pennsylvania who shipped it out to me for an additional 150 bucks. I saved up for it by working summers at the family farm.” He began restoring it just a year ago, and recently took it for a spin through the dry Santa Maria river bed. “It was almost too much bike for me when I was 15 years old, but I’ve grown into it.” Brughelli credits his Uncle Gerry (Monty) as a great source of inspiration for his current love of motorcycles. “They call him ‘Scary Gerry’,” he says, “because he’s such an avid outdoorsman with an unquenchable zest for life. Expert spelunker, road biker, motorcyclist, climber, paraglider, heli-skier, sky diver, etc. He’s notorious for embarrassing arrogant young men on the street who just bought the fastest Ducati on the market with his humble KTM Super Duke.
When I ask Brughelli why he prefers surfing and motor-biking over team activities, he admits that he feels a greater reward when he challenges himself undertaking these somewhat solitary pursuits. “Straight line speed and acceleration is only exciting for a fleeting instant. I find it ultimately self- serving and boring, whereas channeling energy through the arc of a turn provides a means by which one can express oneself more thoroughly. There will on every occasion be a display of skill, finesse, and innate beauty in working through the turns…whether it be on the dirt, on the street, on the track, in the surf, or throughout the varied avenues of life. In surfing, one must turn (on a shortboard) to generate speed. There is no other way. The wave will pass you by otherwise and leave you in the whitewater. Sometimes life presents us with that predicament. Invariably, there be falls along the way where one is forced to get back up and work through the system again (sometimes again and again). It’s how we pick ourselves back up that defines us, and it’s the combination of turns, descents, and resurrections that keeps things exciting. Whether it’s throttling through a soft patch of soil on a dirt bike, positioning for counter steering and dropping into the corner on a road bike, or pumping off the bottom and setting up to project off the top and down the face of the wave, life is made in the turns.”