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Q&A with Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines


There is a quiet but perceptible defiance that lingers amongst the attitudes and actions of California wine growers. It rolls in and augments the landscape of their decisions like the coastal fog. It's an attitude that's one part confidence, two parts curiosity, and a dash of mischievous provocation that wants to break something. It's been described as innovation, dedication, and a litany of other non-offensive descriptions, but really it's just punk.

While the punk attitude might be synonymous with daring growers and producers in California, there are a few who were actual punks in bands and now sucessfully hiding out in plain sight as accomplished winemakers. One such individual is the frontman of Idlewild Wines: Sam Bilbro.

The fourth-generation California winemaker farms Piedmontese varieties in the coastal highlands that stretch from the Russian River Calley up through Mendocino. He speaks about Nebbiolo with great reverence and is almost dismissive when approached with accolades. He appears as a blend of Bordain and Verlaine (both of television fame). In other words, he's here to f*%k s*%t up.

We caught up with Sam after the Idlewild harvest wrapped up this fall. 


Revel Wine: How was the harvest?

Sam: 2023 was amazing. It was definitely, um...I think a lot of folks really freaked about it being late, and it could have been disastrous of we had a really cold/wet October, but the fact is generally speaking when we have these really cold springs and cool summers we get these warm kind of lingering Autumns. At least in my neck of the woods, we definitely got that and you get those really classic vintages during those years when you get late-season ripening and long hang-time. The vines are kind of keeping all their freshness with a lot of time to develop density and breadth of flavor while still being bright and light and that's my favorite thing was great.

RW: How did you start in winemaking?

Sam: Sure, so I'm a 4th generation vitner/winemaker up here in northern Sonoma County, my great-grandpa, when he came over from Tuscany, right away was making wine and supplying local bars and hotels, and then eventually founded his own winery. Along the way, he was bootlegging to North Beach during Prohibition and spent a little time in Folsom along the way for it, which is kind of a fun aside.

His son, my great-uncle kind of kept it all going, then my dad branched out with his own brand. Very humble beginnings but found some nice success making Zinfandel blends that were just for the everyday person at a very fair price-point, which is something I love. It was a very blue-collar version of what winemakers look like. I always loved growing up with that but never connected to it personally other than I loved my dad, and I loved hanging out with him in the winery, which is when I got to see him.

When I was finishing up college, bartending, working at restaurants, moonlighting as a wannabe punk guitarist, and touring around in bands, I had a sales rep basically sit me down and say, 'You should pay attention because I can tell you know some stuff about wine but there's a lot more to learn,' and we finished that tasting with a Barbaresco and for me it was like lights out, that one taste and all of a sudden all of my childhood really felt like it made sense. I saw it through a...basically like you saw something through a lens and it suddenly made it work for you. Since then as much as I've loved every bit of the wine world, Piedmont has always been a favorite and I still circle back on that all the time.

RW: So why still Piedmont?

Sam: Just that first taste. The first experience of loving it, that was really it. Then of course it goes from there, I mean, strictly it's Nebbiolo.

There's very few grapes like Nebbiolo, and that's the one I connect with. There's a couple of others. You know, people may throw Pinot Noir in that same camp and maybe Nerello Mascalese from Sicily, and certainly a few others, these really transparent, soil-driven wines that are kind of haunting when they're great. For me it's always been that grape (Nebbiolo) by far the most.

There's that piece of the puzzle but the other piece that i love is, like you know where a place like Burgundy is, pretty much two varieties, maybe you're gonna mention two others, but it's really strictly two that everyone focuses on. Piedmont is incredibly diverse, tons of native grapes still in production. You get to have this one main special, special varietal and then you get to also have so much more. I have 16 different wines we make now and more still coming, and they're all unique varieties. That's thrilling. Piedmont does that kind of diversity really well.

RW: How many of those are farmed by Idlewild?

Sam: They're all within the three vineyards I work with. Maybe I can just walk through the three vineyards to make some sense here?

It all started with Fox Hill which is a vineyard that I had known of prior and then as I started to research what would make sense for this - you know this all started on a shoestring budget assuming that I was going to have an expensive hobby - so I bought a couple tons of grapes and I felt like I was pretty crazy. That was 2012. That first vintage was released and it sold out. It was just nuts to me that it happened, and it grew from that point forward.

At the beginning it was just Fox Hill. Not really sure if it would work and not really sure if it was the right thing. It's an amazing site. It was already planted by the original owner, Lowell Stone and he planted, basically on a whim, the things that he loved from trips to Italy. That was the whole dose of it. Some of it made great sense, some of it was a little kinda all over the place.

From there I expanded into my own vineyard that I ended up inheriting when my dad passed away, which is the last reason I want to have the property but I do, so I want to honor it and do the right thing by it. This is Lost Hills (Yorkville) and this is in a wonderful little appellation called Yorkville Highlands that's high-elevation and about 15 to 18 miles from the ocean as the crow flies. At that vineyard I have all the core [Piemontese] varieties planted and I think it's perfect for these grapes.

The new site is called Las Cimas. it was momentarily called Rancho Coda, and you might see that on some labels, but due to a trademark issue we had to switch it over, but Las Cimas is actually a better fitting name. That's owned by a good friend of mine who I met through the tasting room. He asked me to come look at his vineyard and we really connected over developing a special explorative vineyard, like a Fox Hill but even more. We have 46 different varieties planted over 70 acres. It's confusing at times and a lot to keep up with, but it's amazing to have the chance to plat with that many things.

RW: And that's in Mendocino?

Sam: Las Cimas is in Russian River Valley. Also at high-elevation and kind of a similar situation to Yorkville, but Lost Hills is a little bit more wild and exposed and this is a bit more temperate. So, a slight difference but there is a similarity in both soil types and general feel in those two properties.

RW: What is your philosophy on farming? How is that changing year to year?

Sam: I think there's always a process there, and I hope I'm always going to be learning, always improving, keeping an open mind. I think about farming all the way through winemaking as ecology more than chemistry or anything else.

It's this idea where you create these natural systems. By planting a vineyard we take away from a natural system, we change it. So, I try to then work to replicate natural systems, as in regenerative practices and things that start to cycle on their own in respect of how nature would work, while also doing the agricultural processes that I need to do to keep on making a living and make the business work.

When you do all that correctly, maybe not 'correctly' but 'well,' I think you end up with well-farmed, expressive grapes that become long-lasting with some level of consistency across vintages and years in a good way, and then wines that become really true because you're removing yourself and your own ego.

If I mess up and don't do some level of guidance they might turn to vinegar but realistically grapes want to ferment because that's how the outer layers of the seeds are broken down so they can germinate. They're either going to go through a body's digestive tract or they're going to ferment.

RW: What music are you listening to right now?

Sam: I just looked at my Spotify and my number one artist of the year is a folk/country singer called Josiah and the Bonnevilles which I really like. That's certainly one facet of what I listen to, but then if I'm not out working I still listen to the pop-punk and emo music I played back in the mid-2000s and turn it up loud and get nostalgic, and hope no one notices.


If you'd like to check out Sam's wines, you can find them here.