Golden Milestone: Pierre LaFond Reminisces on Winery's First 50 Years

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on July 19, 2012)

Pierre LaFond
Pierre Lafond is a remarkably quiet man.  As we’re chatting at his downtown Santa Barbara office – adjacent to a warehouse teeming with winemaking equipment – I can tell this man of few words and a calm disposition is most comfortable staying behind the scenes, away from the spotlight.  It certainly works well for him; it’s from behind the scenes, after all, that he’s managed to build and run one of the most successful wine businesses in the country.  But that spotlight – now that Santa Barbara Winery prepares to celebrate 50 years – is becoming a bit tougher to avoid.

Lafond launching Santa Barbara winery in 1962 was a remarkable landmark: it was the first winery in Santa Barbara County since Prohibition (which came to an end in 1933).  No one had even planted wine grapes yet, and the next winery wouldn’t take root for another decade.

“I’m not sure why, but there was a theory back then that using the name of a town for a winery was not a good thing,” he tells me, which I find fascinating, especially considering the lucrative cache the city of Santa Barbara has since developed.  “But for me, it’s certainly been a name worth protecting.”

Brand protection has certainly been part and parcel for Santa Barbara Winery, especially in recent years, when mega-producers have flooded the market with low-cost labels bearing suspiciously similar names.  Think “Santa Barbara Wine Company” and “Santa Barbara Landing.”  Lafond, though, doesn’t seem bothered when he discusses them.  “They’ve backed down,” he says, “or they’ve disappeared pretty quickly.”

Much different, certainly, than a strong 50-year run that started when Lafond, a Canadian native with an architecture degree, and friend Stan Hill, an optometrist, turned an interest in wine into a business.  They took out a winery license and opened a wine shop and tasting room in Santa Barbara’s El Paseo shopping center.  And they used that facility to turn San Luis Obispo County grapes into wine.

It was two years later, in 1964, that Lafond moved the winery to its current downtown location on the corner of Yanonali and Anacapa Streets, just two blocks from the beach.  Then, the zone was “mainly a slum area, with warehouse buildings and a few small service-oriented businesses,” Lafond recalls.  Today, of course, Santa Barbara Winery sits in the heart of the buzzing Funk Zone – “It’s a much more upscale area now,” Lafond says – and anchors at least downtown tasting rooms (and counting).

Santa Barbara County first planted grape vines in 1965; the county’s first wine grape harvest took place a couple of years later.  Lafond would get access to some of that fruit.  But the national wine boom of the late 60s saw bigger players from northern California nabbing local fruit in large quantities, and the budding vintner was forced to become his own source for grapes.  Lafond Vineyard was planted in 1971 in a remote, unknown spot called the Santa Rita Hills.

“I had state ag[riculture] guys come out to check it out and they didn’t know much about the area at all,” says Lafond.

Experimentation goes hand in hand with pioneer planting, of course, and the vineyard was originally farmed to include varietals not necessarily suited to the region’s characteristically cool climate, including zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.  “The next year, though, we planted chardonnay,” Lafond recalls, which has since become known – along with pinot noir, mainly – as idyllically suited to Santa Rita Hills conditions.   

Today, Lafond Vineyard, which expanded with the purchase of adjacent land in 1996, is planted primarily to pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as smaller quantities of syrah, grenache and riesling.  Construction of a second winemaking facility – Lafond Winery – started in 1998, with Lafond serving as architect and his son, David, as general contractor.  It opened to the public three years later and today is used to make all the red wine for both the Lafond and Santa Barbara Winery labels; the downtown Santa Barbara facility is used for the production of white wine, as well as for bottling and processing the entire yearly production of about 50,000 cases.

Now, as Lafond sits in his office and thinks back on what’s surprised him most about a wine industry he helped launch 50 years ago, it’s pinot noir that he mentions most readily.  For one, it’s his wine of choice.  “”Much easier to drink than cabernet sauvignon,” he says.  But he’s also surprised about its surge of popularity in Santa Barbara County, where the push to plant it didn’t begin until the late 70s.  “There was a theory at one point that you really couldn’t make it here, because it was tough to grow,” he says.  “But possibly it was because we didn’t have the right techniques.  The way we make it now has become a lot more sophisticated.

“You also have to have the right personality to make it,” Lafond continues.  “You have to be patient and let nature do its thing.  Like Bruce, who doesn’t always get the recognition he deserve, because it’s the more flamboyant personalities that usually get the press.”

Winemaker Bruce McGuire
He’s referring, of course, to his winemaker, Bruce McGuire, a similarly reserved individual, whom he credits for pushing him to plant pinot noir in earnest when he was hired in 1981.  Today, McGuire confirms that high end pinot noir, along with high-end chardonnay, are at the core of the winery’s program moving forward.  “We still have several other varieties – lagrein, primitivo – which we’ll continue to make in small quantities for local distribution though the tasting room,” McGuire says.  “But pinot and chard will definitely be the future focus for national distribution.”

Three years ago, Lafond leased Burning Creek Ranch – 37 acres adjacent to Lafond Vineyard that comprise three distinct soil types and which were planted exclusively to eight different pinot noir clones; those grapes will see their first pick later this year.  And the 2012 harvest will also be the first vintage that 18 redeveloped acres of Lafond Vineyard will yield multiple clones of chardonnay.  “We’re aiming for clonal bottling of those,” says McGuire.  “They key is that each will be distinctive.”

With McGuire’s eye on the wine, Lafond’s role remains developing his business empire, which today also includes a home design shop, clothing stores and restaurants in both Montecito and Santa Barbara.  At 81, Lafond spends his days overseeing wine distribution and tasting room sales.  And he manages no less than 11 web sites – individual sites for each of his businesses and personal web pages for internet entities like the Santa Barbara Wine Trail (not to be confused with the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail), the Santa Rita Hills Wine Trail and the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Trail.

“They’re all just portals,” he says, modestly.  “I’m just trying to lead people back to the winery.”  Which proves that some things haven’t changed in 50 years, after all.

Gabe Saglie is a big fan of Santa Barbara Winery’s pinot and chardonnay but may be partial to its recently-released Rosé of Syrah on a warm summer afternoon.

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