(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 23, 2011)
“I thought, ‘I could either have a degree in four years, or I could have grapes in four years,’” he recalls. And I chose grapes.”
That unabashed pioneering attitude has been well recognized by the Santa Barbara wine community for decades. The vineyard that has long bared his name – Sanford & Benedict – remains to this day one of zone’s more stories sources for Burgundian grapes. And the wineries he founded – Sanford first and, most recently, Alma Rosa – have been indisputable pacesetters in quality wine production.
Now, that acknowledgment has officially gone mainstream. The Culinary Institute of America is inducting Sanford into its 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame, an honor that recognizes his profound contribution to an industry that may be as much about business and marketing as it is about instinct and art. The new inductee feels humbled.
“I am flattered and proud,” he says. “Just sort of overwhelmed, frankly.”
But even for the characteristically modest Sanford, there’s also as admission that the road to recognition has been paved with plenty of hard work and a fair share of innovation.
“For a long time, people have been talking about me as some sort of pioneer, and it’s all felt silly, really. But truth is, it has been a long effort and experience and commitment. And it feels great to look at the whole region and to see the quality we’ve achieved here. That’s the biggest reward.”
The region Sanford refers to is the Santa Rita Hills, those roughly 100 square miles of now-prime grape growing real estate that stretches west of Highway 101, from Buellton toward Lompoc. It won the federal stamp of approval as a unique appellation 10 years ago, and was touted as an area especially well-suited for cool climate grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay for at least a decade before that. But back in the late 60s and early 70s, when a young Sanford spent many a day driving through the rolling valley with a thermometer in his car to study temperature and climate, “people thought I was nuts,” he recalls with a laugh. No one was growing wine grapes there, with plantings relegated instead to warmer areas like Foxen Canyon and Los Olivos. “But I had confidence.”
In many ways, this environmental experimentation was cathartic for Sanford. As soon as he’d graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965, he’d been drafted, and he spent the next three years at war as a sailor in the U.S. Navy. “Back from Vietnam, to drive around in a tractor in nature was very healing,” he says. “That time was precious, a spiritual kind of journey and a great period for me, personally.”
But the young man who’d opted for planting grapes instead of seeking a school degree had still managed to do his homework. An early admirer of French wines, “I’d done a lot of research into the climates of Burgundy, went back 100 years in gathering climate information, and started comparing it to climates in California,” he recalls. “My prejudice then was that pinot noir was going into climates that were too warm. And I found that the east-west mountains [in the Santa Rita Hills] allowed weather to come in and make it cool. That marine influence was important. It’s about a degree Fahrenheit cooler for every mile you go west. And that’s unusual for almost anywhere in the world.”
This, of course, was Sanford’s eureka moment. It was the birth of a winemaking movement that, today, is responsible for some of Santa Barbara’s most lauded wines. But in the years that followed, pioneering was a relatively lonely business.
Sanford and botanist Michael Benedict established the Sanford & Benedict nursery in 1970, cultivating cuttings from an experimental vineyard that had been planted in the Tepesquet Mesa in the mid 60s. A year later, they put in the ground their namesake vineyard, which would take until 1976 to offer the young winemaker viable fruit. That vintage was aged for two years and finally released in 1978. “That’s when people started to take some notice of the possibility here,” says Sanford, who left Sanford & Benedict in 1980.
Sanford Winery was founded in 1981, and much of the first decade of his solo winemaking project took Sanford on the road. “I spent a lot of time traveling and talking about the region,” Sanford remembers. And touting something brand new was no easy task. “It would have been a lot easier if I was in a recognized region, like Napa. And on the East Coast, everyone was looking to European wines in those days.”
Sanford admits that the Santa Rita Hills finally attained more widespread recognition in the 1990s, but he speaks about that period with a bittersweet tenor. “By 1995, Prudential and Bank of America were the biggest vineyard owners in Santa Barbara County, and they were looking to get rid of them,” he says. “Napa guys like Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Beringer were already buying up chardonnay from here to blend with Napa chard to increase quality, so they ended up buying all the vineyards from the insurance companies. Of course, I lost the opportunity to buy grapes from Sierra Madre Vineyard when Mondavi bought it.”
He adds, “Once they had major investments here, that’s when they finally started to toot the horn. It’s curious how it takes the effort of marketing to create a buzz,”
Sanford sold his eponymous winery in 2005 (the new owners continue to capitalize on the name) and launched his current and very personal winemaking endeavor, Alma Rosa Winery.
“This whole new effort is a chance to recognize the quality of the grapes growing in our region,” he says. “At Sanford, we were making great wine but it was more classic and used more oak aging. But I thought, here we are with these beautiful bright grapes and high acids, why not preserve that?” The Alma Rosa wines include pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir; much of the latter is sourced from the latest vineyard planted by Sanford, La Encantada in the Santa Rita Hills. The wines are produced sustainably from organic grapes and are typically brilliant and light; Sanford uses absolutely no malolactic fermentation, a process that converts tarter malic acid to softer lactic acid, to give wines a fuller, more buttery mouth feel.
And he uses screwcaps, no corks, in all his wines. He and wife Thekla “are very pleased with the way the wine keeps in terms of freshness and aging,” he says. He admits that some traditionalist consumers are yet to be won over, but “I’m sold on it.”
Spoken like a pioneer.
Sanford will be inducted to the 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame on February 20th, 2012, at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena. The induction class, the 6th annual, will also include Peter Mondavi, Sr. of Charles Krug Winery, Professor Albert Winkler of UC Davis, Joe Heitz of Napa’s Heitz Cellars, former Beringer winemaker Myron Nightingale, Mendocino vintner Joe Parducci and soil scientist Dr. Eugene Hilgard. Tickets are $175. For more information, visit www.ciachef.edu.
And for more on Richard Sanford and Alma Rosa Winery, visit www.almarosawinery.com.