When Steve Millier came to Murphys to make wine in 1982, he was venturing into largely uncharted territory.
Coming from David Bruce Winery in Santa Cruz, the professional winemaker saw vineyards all through the valley along the way, but by the time he and his family reached Murphys, the grapes lining the route had thinned to none.
He had come to work for Barden Stevenot, who had the only commercial winery in the town at the time, he said, and had to ask, “Where are the grapes?”
They were down in a canyon, hidden well from plain sight.
The scene bore little resemblance to the Calaveras County of today, where a host of small wineries drive tourist visits and vineyards pave the Highway 4 route through Vallecito and Douglas Flat past Murphys to Brice Station.
Millier, 63, feels fortunate to have been a part of the local wine industry’s growth. He and wife Liz encouraged it early.
The first meeting of the Calaveras Wine Association consisted of a small barbecue at the Milliers’ Murphys home in 1987. There were six or seven wineries taking part in the beginning, a number that has since quadrupled. Today, it is the Calaveras Winegrape Association, having merged with a grape growers’ organization.
The growth is “something that amazes Liz and I all the time,” Millier said.
Millier was responsible for a large part of the growth not only of Calaveras wineries as a whole, but also Calaveras’ single largest winery.
He met John Kautz in 1982 when the Lodi farmer was supplying Chardonnay grapes to Stevenot. Kautz had impressed Millier by figuring out how to grow the varietal in Lodi, an area considered hostile to those kind of grapes. Later that decade, “he offered that he wanted to start a winery and (asked) could I come over and help him?” Millier recalled.
He became the winemaker at Ironstone Vineyards in January 1989, beginning a relationship that has continued to this day. When the Kautzes bought Bear Creek Winery in Lodi in 1997, Millier’s role expanded to director of winemaking.
Though he has been involved with two of the biggest names in foothill wines, Millier is also here to live out his dream of owning his own small winery. He launched the Milliaire label in 1983 and purchased Black Sheep Winery from friend Dave Olson in 2007. His son Bob is now co-winemaker for both operations and daughter Kathy manages the Black Sheep tasting room. Bob’s wife Jana Nadler is the Milliaire tasting room manager and Liz handles sales and marketing for both wineries, making it a family business through and through.
At Ironstone, “I do winemaking, but I do it through a lot of people … because it’s just so large,” Miller said. At Milliaire and Black Sheep, “I get to be hands-on and do the fermentation, crush the grapes, taste the grapes and it’s much more intimate. Everything is done either by myself or my son.”
Family is important to Millier, who has been married to Liz for 34 years and has another daughter, Elisa, who teaches school in Tuolumne. Ties to other families have been integral to his career, whether it’s the Kautzes or the Ghirardellis in Burson.
“I tell people Liz has me ‘on loan’ to the Kautz family,” Millier laughed.
The Ghirardelli family provides the grapes for one of Millier’s two proudest creations, his Ghirardelli Zinfandel.
“They’re a family enterprise kind of like ours … they all do the picking and socializing (in the field),” Millier said.
On a ranch owned since 1900, the Ghirardellis long took their grapes to the produce markets in San Francisco, before seeking relationships with winemakers at the end of the 1980s, said Alan Ghirardelli. In 1989, he met Millier.
“Winemakers can be very uptight and very particular about the grape and when they get it,” he said. “Steve, simply because of his knowledge and experience, is easy to deal with. He doesn’t worry about (little) things because he knows how to compensate in the winemaking process.”
When he first tasted Millier’s 1990 vintage with his grapes, Ghirardelli said he liked it. In 1993, when it won double gold medal honors at the Orange County Fair, “we really knew we’d found a good home for our grapes,” Ghirardelli said.
The latest to be judged kept up the high standard. The 2007 by Milliaire won double gold at this year’s California State Fair.
Millier’s other proudest wine is his Clockspring Zinfandel, emerging from an Amador County vineyard from which he has made wines since 1978, beginning while at David Bruce. This year, the 2007 Milliaire vintage took home silver and bronze awards at the Calaveras and Amador county fairs plus the state fair and San Francisco Chronicle Tasting.
Frank Alviso, managing partner at the Plymouth estate, like Ghirardelli, knows Millier as a mellow, casual but talented winemaker.
Alviso said he and his wife drink bottles of Millier’s wine sometimes a decade after they are bottled and enjoy the fruits of not only Clockspring’s harvest but others he creates as well.
He certainly has a favorite vintage that came from his own vineyard.
“82 was a wonderful year,” he said. “That stands out. He’s just a very good chap to do business with.”
The ability to cultivate and maintain such friendships as well as business relationships is something Millier looked forward to when he graduated from the Fresno State winemaking program in 1975.
“In college, you learn how to work for a big winery,” he said.
Wanting to work for a smaller operation instead, he went immediately to David Bruce before the move to Calaveras. His choice has served him well as Black Sheep and Milliaire enjoyed banner years for awards this year and Millier has been pleased to see steady traffic at the tasting rooms.
The highlights include double gold for the Ghiradelli zin plus both the 2009 Milliaire Sierra Foothills Chardonnay at the Amador County Fair and the 2007 Sierra Foothills . at the Calaveras County Fair. The 2006 Black Sheep Fortissimo also took double gold honors at the El Dorado County Fair.
“I think what we’re doing is creating wines that people respond to,” Millier said.
He has and he looks like he can keep it up for as long as he likes.
“Not only is he a good winemaker,” Ghirardelli said, “He looks like a winemaker. A little, old winemaker.”