Sierra del Mar Vineyard
An up-and-coming winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands region
It can be a great deal of fun to experience the beginnings of a new winery and be among the first to taste the new entity’s first wines. Such is the case with this month’s Gold Medal Wine Club’s Gold Selection, wines from the Sierra del Mar Vineyards of Monterey County.
Sierra del Mar Vineyards will produce around 2,400 cases during its initial year, but is destined to become much larger in the not too distant future. Its co-owner, 45-year-old Richard Bruno, admits there is no 3 or 5 year plan for growth, and puts it thusly: “We are going to take our time with this winery. We will probably go a little slower than we have in the past and we have a specific idea in mind. We want to follow the route of making Sierra del Mar Vineyards an on premise (restaurant) wine that truly pairs with great foods. We know what good restaurants can do with the proper wines and we are working towards that goal.”
Bruno and his co-owner, Chris Condos, chose the name Sierra del Mar (loosely, mountain by the sea) Vineyards due to the location of the supplying vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County. The area has produced high quality fruit for the past four decades.
The owners also close to use the Monterey County appellation rather than the Santa Lucia Highlands tag their wines were entitled to use. “We both felt that the Monterey County annotation would please more consumers, especially at the price points we are attempting to hit. The name has excellent cache and that’s really important to a new wine entity like ours.”
Bruno and Condos met while undergraduates at UC Davis and both went their separate paths after graduation. Bruno (see winemaker’s section) stayed mostly along the Central Coast while Condos opted for a stint as enologist at Pine Ridge Winery in Napa Valley.
“While we were at school,” Bruno recalled, “Both Chris and I tended to be more interested in European wines than we were in those of California. We both went to work for other people, but those wineries were other people’s dreams. We had always talked about starting our own winery and that’s how our parent company, Vinum Cellars came into existence. We are 50-50 partners in everything but we are both free to develop our individual projects.”
Bruno also credits his wife, Anya, with developing the Sierra del Mar Vineyards label. “Her rendering portrays the ocean and waves and even a mystical view of fog. These factors influence the growing of our grapes and are critically important to their development. In a sense, the label is in homage to these natural factors.’
The Sierra del Mar Vineyards wines are produced at the Napa Wine Company facility in Oakville, Napa Valley. Sierra del Mar Vineyards wines can be tasted at the facility during the year whenever it is the winery’s turn to host tastings, usually twice a year.
Richard Bruno - Winemaker
As is the case in most start up wineries, co-owner Richard Bruno serves as the winemaker for Sierra del Mar Vineyards. Bruno is a product of the heralded UC Davis School of winemaking with a degree in Viticulture and Enology.
After his graduation in 1997, Richard became the head distiller at Randall Graham’s iconic Bonny Doon Vineyard and also worked for various wineries from Santa Cruz to Napa Valley. His longest tenure came with Don Sebastiani and Sons where he served as director of winemaking for more than eight years. He also currently consults for the well-respected Michael Pozzan Winery in the Napa Valley.
Richard Bruno & Chris Condos - Co-Owners
Richard Bruno has always professed an interest in the food business. He entered the field in 1985 and worked as a waiter and bartender until he found his real interest lay in wine. His decision to attend UC Davis nearly a decade later served to stamp his interest in wine with a capital W.
“I felt something of a kinship with wine and its intricacies. Remember, wine is a living thing and must be treated as such,” he verbalized. “I have now been in the wine business for more than twenty years. I have watched the Central Coast grow and been a part of the fact that Monterey County has thumped the competition on almost every occasion. It was only natural that I wanted to do my own thing in the area that I felt afforded me the best chance of making good.”
Doing his own thing included his best friend from college, Greek-born Chris Condos, another noted winemaker in his own right and co-owner of Sierra del Mar Vineyards. The pair founded Vinum Cellars several years ago as something of a side project. Their efforts have literally borne fruit and today Vinum Cellars has become more than a twenty-five thousand case operation.
But Sierra del Mar Vineyards is Bruno’s special project and he is extremely proud of the wines he has produced. “I am blessed with the wonderful fruit from the Santa Lucia Highlands that we use for these wines,” he stated proudly. To say the fruit is exceptional is an understatement, and it clearly shows its pedigree in the bottle. To have hit the price point we wanted is another accomplishment for our brand. Most of the fruit from this area goes into much higher priced wines.”
Bruno’s name itself is a revelation. When his for-bearers reached Ellis Island many years ago, their name Bruneau was difficult to pronounce and was finally written as Bruno. His heritage was changed from French to Italian with the sweep of a pen. “I don’t usually mention that,” he said smiling. “But this is the wine business after all.”
Richard Bruno admits to being a Francophile when it comes to wines. “It became apparent in school that I tended towards French style wines. It is all about the acidity. Many California wines are all about fruit expression and less about acidic balance. I favor some acidity but not to the extent of alienating the typical California palate. What I am after is an extremely well-balanced wine that pairs perfectly with food. That’s what the French and other Europeans are great at producing, wines that are tremendous food wines. Such pairings extend the food experience and enhance the entire mealtime experience. I guess I’m a bit old fashioned, but it seems like that formula has worked for many, many years.
In the end, I’m an American making California wines and I’m extremely proud of it. I am living my dream and hope to do so for many years to come.”
That Richard Bruno has the chance to live his dream comes from the fact that he and his partner Chris Condos have lived judiciously for the past several years. The pair started off selling their wines from the back of their cars. They sold 1000 cases the first year and doubled that number the next. Three years into their operation the number doubled again. During all this time, the partners allowed all their profits to remain in their company in order to expand when the opportunity presented itself.