Hilliard Bruce Wine Tasting Dinner

Hilliard Bruce Wine Tasting Dinner

I’m not a big drinker. Seriously, in spite of my great love of complex, beautifully crafted wine, I only imbibe in social situations. This is why I have such a yummy collection of favorites to share on special occasions. What better way to present my latest Santa Barbara discovery, Hilliard Bruce, than at the birthday dinner hosted by Greg and Ken for our good friend Peter? I didn’t have the inventory for a vertical or horizontal tasting but I had enough varied bottles that I could still showcase different aspects of the Pinot Noir grape as defined by the winemaker. Greg and I put our heads together and as I described the characteristics of each wine, he came up with small plate recipes that he thought might best compliment each one.

Hilliard Bruce is a spectacularly beautiful winery located near Lompoc in the Santa Rita Hills. Date palms line the road up to the winery and tasting room. Roses bloom on the edge of certain rows of vines. A breathtaking unicorn (oh, ok…) white Arabian horse, canters around a paddock. A building of glass, steel, LED light and color sparkles like a magical Apple Store or Charlie’s chocolate factory beckoning the golden ticket winners. Inside, chairs around a large dining table laden with wine friendly snacks facilitate conversation and intimacy, whilst the pouring counter suggests that you have wandered into your friend’s kitchen at a party. You can stroll around the upper floor where the grapes are pressed and catch your breath with the gorgeous views.

John Hilliard and his wife, Christine Bruce, care passionately about their grapes, their wines, their land, the workers on their land and the environment. The resulting wines are glorious. Hilliard Bruce has both LEED silver and SIP (Sustainability In Practice) certifications to acknowledge their green building and sustainable farming practices. They strive for a minimum and benign environmental impact. This is different from organic farming and I’ll let John tell you about it in his own words (see video).

Hilliard Bruce Chardonnay

Christine crafts the Hilliard Bruce barrel fermented Chardonnays the same way each year, allowing natural malolactic fermentation to occur, so that the personality of the vintage shines through. Our Birthday Boy Peter maintains that he isn’t a fan of Chardonnay, so when I tasted the 2011 product of a chilly growing season, I knew this wine had to be included in our dinner to show him how fresh and elegant a 93 point (Wine Spectator) Chardonnay can be. This wine is not the heavy, oaky, buttery pour of apple pie that Peter generally associates with this grape. As I predicted, Peter liked it!

Hilliard Bruce Pinot Noir

John oversees the Hilliard Bruce Pinot Noirs. An artist at heart, he experiments and explores the different expressions that can be coaxed out of the grapes: Earth, Sky, Sun and Moon. The wines are small production and the bottles are numbered on the top right of the labels so you really feel like you are holding a limited edition numbered print in your hand. Though technically sold out at the winery, I stumbled upon a couple of bottles of 2011 Earth at The Wine House and bought number 1999 to serve at Peter’s party, along with a 2011 Sky and 2010 Sun. Alas, no Moons in sight and I gather they only get made if the vintage is right.

Ken thoughtfully marked the names of the wine on the glasses so that we would not mix them up. However, as I began pouring the wines to air, it was obvious that the wines could easily be told apart on color alone, Earth being the lightest with a lovely, transparent garnet hue and Sun being the darkest ruby.

Earth contains the earliest grapes of the harvest, picked before the brix (sugar) levels get too high. The 2011 presents a classic Burgundian smile on the tongue; the acid is high but not cheeky, the bright berry fruit is present but not pushy and the more it breathes, the lusher it becomes. Greg paired Mushroom and Burrata Tacos with the Chardonnay, but I guzzled ahead and loved the way the Earth tasted with them too. Much to my surprise, the Birthday Boy, who typically prefers his wines big and bold, absolutely loved Earth as the perfect accompaniment to the Warm Plum Bread Salad second course.

2011 Sky:  I love this wine, I cannot better the tasting notes of the winery, so I am going to borrow them, “Aromatically, Sky offers notes of plum and dried cherry underpinned by rose petals and rosemary.” Stop reading for a moment, take a deep breath and just think about those notes playing in your nostrils.  This is a sensual tour de force! “On the palate, it exhibits a beautiful balance of both substance and lightness; a velvety mouthfeel of supple tannins juxtaposed by fresh acidity. Cola and white pepper carry over to an incredibly long finish.” Now, imagine all this in conjunction with Pumpkin Ravioli in a Brown Butter Sage Sauce – would you mind turning a year older? By this point, I think Peter was thinking that age could not wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety (thanks, Shakespeare).

The 2010 Sun was the wine I predicted would resonate best with Peter and his husband, Jeff. This wine is a lush, ripe fruit forward powerhouse of blackberry and plum in the voluptuous style of a Californian Pinot Noir. My tasting notes say something about razzamatazz roundness and then reference Angelina Jolie’s lips, need I say more? Being a vegetarian, I have it on good authority that the wine stood its ground when offered with Lamb Meatballs in Chimichurri (see recipe below). For my part, it was lovely with the lentils!

Hilliard Bruce Wine Tasting DinnerLamb Meatballs in Chimichurri

I tried to get a poll going around the table to see which of the Hilliard Bruce wines had been best enjoyed, but by this time, our senses were all but overwhelmed (we were merry), so it was difficult to get a true consensus going. If memory serves me correctly, Jeff loved Sun, Peter loved Earth, Ken and I loved Sky, Sharon, Rocco and Greg loved them all… or did Rocco settle on Sun? Did I mention how much I loved Earth? Did the Chardonnay surprise us all with its backbone? How much do we love each other? What better way to celebrate a birthday than with fabulous food, a family of wines and a family of friends? How lucky we are to have the finest of each! HELEN

Hilliard Bruce Small Plates Menu Small Plates Dinner Party Hilliard Bruce Wine Tasting Dinner

Cumin-Spiced Lamb Meatballs in Chimichurri 

Print This Recipe Total time Yield 18Published

Verjus is the pressed juice of unripened grapes, and can be red (made from either purely red grapes or a red-white mix) or white (made from white grapes). While acidic, verjus has a gentler flavor than vinegar, so I chose it here so that the chimichurri would be more compatible with the wine. You may substitute an equal amount of any vinegar you like.

Lamb Meatballs in Chimichurri


  • 2 cup flat leaf parsley (leaves only)
  • 1 cup mint leaves
  • 6 clove garlic (peeled, minced and divided)
  • 3 small shallots (peeled and minced)
  • 2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (divided)
  • 2 teaspoon lemon zest (divided)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoon smoked paprika (divided)
  • 2 teaspoon ground cumin (divided)
  • 2/3 cup red verjus (see notes)
  • 1 ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
  • 2 pound ground lamb
  • 2 large eggs (lightly beaten)
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (not dried)


Make the chimichurri: Place parsley, mint, half the minced garlic, all the minced shallots, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, sugar, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1 teaspoon cumin, and red verjus into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 10 or 12 times, then run the machine while drizzling in the olive oil until you achieve the desired consistency. You might not use all the oil. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and stir in the dried oregano. The chimichurri should be made up at least 1 hour and up to 3 days in advance. Mix well before serving.

Make the meatballs: Place the oven racks in the center and top positions then preheat the oven to 375°F.

In a small bowl combine salt, chili powder, remaining 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, remaining 1 teaspoon cumin, remaining minced garlic and cayenne and mix well. 

Place ground lamb in a medium bowl and add eggs, breadcrumbs, remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice, remaining 1 teaspoon lemon zest and the spice blend from the small bowl. Mix well with your hands. 

Use a 2‑inch scoop to divide the meat into 18 equally-sized portions. Roll each portion between your hands to form a ball. Arrange them 2 inches apart on 2 baking sheets. Bake on a middle and top rack, rotating the sheets halfway through cooking, until meatballs are browned and cooked through; 12 to 15 minutes. Move the sheets to a wire rack to rest about 3 minutes, then place the meatballs into a large bowl and toss them with about ½ cup chimichurri until well-coated. Pour the meatballs onto a serving platter and serve immediately with the remaining chimichurri on the side.

Serve with chimichurri sauce. Serves 5–6 (makes about 16 meatballs).