Building a brand “backward” took ingenuity and flexibility that really came to fruition in 2022.
There was nothing textbook about how the Miller family evolved from being primarily an agricultural company family on California’s Central Coast into managing nearly a dozen brands and partnerships, from luxury-level estate bottlings to nationally distributed retail lines and even a stunningly successful no-alcohol wine.
“We started backward,” admits Nicholas Miller, who is the chief sales & marketing officer and executive vice president of the Miller Family Wine Company. “We had an upside-down pyramid.”
The Millers, who got into the grape business in the early 1970s after a century of growing lemons and avocados in Ventura County, already owned more than 2,000 acres of vineyards and large production facilities by the time they ventured into winemaking about 15 years ago. But their business model was selling grapes—from Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills in the Santa Maria Valley and French Camp in Paso Robles—and leasing out processing space, where dozens of now-famous wineries launched their brands.
“We were doing everything except making our own wine,” explains Miller, who’s the fifth generation in the business along with his brother, Marshall Miller. “That’s the front-row seat to telling your own story and marketing the grapes you’re growing.”
Miller spearheaded the move into making their own estate wines in 2005, going commercial with the 2007 vintage. “That was our toe in the door,” says Miller. Distributors quickly wanted more. “We didn’t know the Pandora’s box that we opened.”
A decade ago, the Millers began launching and acquiring a series of brands: Ballard Lane, Smashberry, J. Wilkes and Barrel Burner were the first “core four,” then they bought Butternut in 2020. “That finally gave us a foothold into the three-tier system nationally,” says Miller, who had to learn quickly. “The wholesale world has a lot more challenges to it. There are just more layers. You have to be a lot more vigilant.”
Partnerships lined up as well: Brothers Miller, the first organic wine sold by Naked Wines; Optik Wines, a richer style of estate wines made by Santa Barbara superstar Joey Tensley; and Hand on Heart, a no-alcohol brand with celebrity-chef Cat Cora, whose release followed two years of R&D. “Our timing could not have been better,” Miller says of the Hand on Heart launch, coming in the midst of COVID. “The ‘Better for You’ category was on the forefront of everyone’s minds, and wine is way behind beer and spirits in the no-alcohol category.”
Just this year, the Millers began distributing a line of Scout & Cellar wines, became an official wine partner of the Calgary Flames hockey team and released Reciprocity, a sub-$20 Cabernet Sauvignon from French Camp. “You can’t get a single-vineyard Cab at that price point, let alone a single-vineyard Cab from Paso that’s sustainable and certified organic,” says Miller. “It almost checks too many boxes.”
Next is opening The Gatehouse at Bien Nacido, a tasting room for the Millers’ estate wines located on their historic vineyard. Timed to open in the spring to coincide with the vineyard’s 50th anniversary, Miller explains, “it’s the first time we’ve opened up Bien Nacido to the public.”
Though a family business, Nicholas was never assured that he’d have a seat at the table. “My dad made it very clear to us that there was no job waiting for us when we grew up. We had to go out and create value by ourselves before returning,” he says, noting that he’d worked for a marketing firm in Boston upon graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine. “I feel very fortunate that I got steered back to California and got to stand on these shoulders that I stand on and have the blessing of a family business.”
You’re Invited: 2022 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners will be honored in person at The Westin St. Francis on Union Square, San Francisco, CA
For event inquires or to attend, please contact Abigail Turrisi, Events & PR Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: October 11, 2022