photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/25/16
|Sanford & Benedict Vineyard|
“I call this vineyard, ‘hallowed ground,’” winemaker Frank Ostini tells me, referring to the sweeping Sanford & Benedict Vineyard that runs along Santa Rosa Road in Lompoc. “It’s one of the birthplaces of an industry that’s really substantial now.”
That nostalgia, and a first-hand appreciation for all that this fertile lot has to offer, is what inspired Ostini to throw a spectacular fete this past weekend in its honor. And to celebrate the men who, in a story that’s probably equal parts personal intuition and divine intervention, brought it to life. And to celebrate the wines that have been born here for decades.
Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict were there -- a dual celeb sighting, of sorts, and a rare treat, especially since Benedict keeps a pretty low profile these days. Winemakers who’ve made wine from the pinot noir and chardonnay that have always flourished here came, too: long-timers like Jim Clendenen, Bill Wathen and Rick Longoria, along with buzzy newcomers like Gavin Chanin, Rajat Parr and Nick de Luca. And then there was the wine: dozens of bottles, many of them rarities, all made from Sanford & Benedict fruit and all representing every vintage between 1976 and 2014.
Dinner was served up by the stellar crew from Frank and Jami Ostini’s Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton – duck, ribeye, lobster tails, chicken, veggies, all roasted and smoked over that signature oak wood fire. We feasted inside the old barn that sits overlooking the vines, a rustic wooden structure with vaulted ceilings and stone floors, shrouded in yellow lichen, that once housed the first Sanford & Benedict winery. And as the evening hummed along, and as guests clinked and mingled, it was impossible to ignore – visible in all its glory through those oversize barn doors – the night’s true guest of honor.
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard is a gorgeous property, breathtaking in the way it undulates to and fro and in the way it glows as it’s bathed by the afternoon sun. This time of year, with harvest in full effect, those vigorous vines are ample and shapely, buxom even, and full of promise. It’s a forgone fact now, of course – that they will yield grapes of the utmost caliber. What Ostini calls “the fruits of a truly grand cru-type vineyard.”
We know that now. And the wines we’re sipping all evening long, regardless of age – in fact, especially the chardonnays and pinots with several years on them – are a testament to that. The Sanford & Benedict name on any label is a badge of honor. Pedigree. Lineage, even.
But it was different in the beginning. There were no grapevines planted in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA when Sanford and Benedict partnered in the early 1970s. They were trying something totally new. Setting a new course. Unchartered territory. Though Sanford, a Vietnam navy lieutenant who was now, in his 20s, aiming to connect with nature as a way to reconcile the pain of a thankless return home, did feel a special connection to this untamed plot. “The climate and the structure of the soils were so remarkable and unique,” he tells me. “And then there was just the physical beauty of the place.”
Sanford and Benedict’s first pinot, vintage 1976, generated buzz right away. It was a remarkable wine. Something special was happening in an unknown part of Santa Barbara County, and the industry took notice. And 40 years later, the fascination continues.
|Michael Benedict and daughter, left, catching up with Thekla and Richard Sanford|
|Winemakers Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Steve Fennell (Sanford) and Frank Ostini (The Hitching Post), all of whom source the fruit behind them for their wines|
|Ostini with Foxen winemaker Bill Wathen|
|Clendenen with Carina Cellars' David Hardee|
|The Wathens and the Saglies|
|Plenty of wine to go around...|
|...and a good time was had by all|
|The Hitching Post II knows how to throw a feast|
The story of this vineyard comes with some ups and downs, a few twists and turns. Sanford sold his stake in the vineyard to launch Sanford Winery in 1981. A tough decision, he says. But when Robert Atkins, and English wine collector, bought the property from Benedict in 1990, he tapped Sanford to manage it. “The fact that the vineyard came back to me was extraordinary,” says Sanford. He’d go on to plant vineyards adjacent to Sanford & Benedict – La Rinconada and La Encantada – and he’d build a dream winery. But financial challenges would force the Sanfords to bring on the Terlato family, big industry players, to help. And the new investors would eventually buy Sanford Winery, along with Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, outright. Today, the Terlatos continue to make major investments in both enterprises: the vineyard has seen a handful of re-plantings, though many of the original vines remain, while the Sanford label, under the direction of winemaker Steve Fennell, continues to produce outstanding wines. Richard and Thekla Sanford now make wine under the Alma Rosa label, which always impresses.
Through it all, when it comes to Sanford & Benedict, “there’s a lot of my soul that remains there,” says Sanford, almost wistfully. And that makes his presence among this ebullient crowd of wine lovers especially wonderful.
|Frank Ostini (and that's me wearing real cowboy boots!)|
The night wears on and the wine flows. Many of the winemakers will pause, on occasion, to reflect on the common denominator in the dozens of bottles before us: this beautiful vineyard just a few feet away, which is now sparkling under an August moon. “There was always this sense that this was a great spot, that this was a great vineyard for pinot noir,” says winemaker Rick Longoria, who’s been sourcing from Sanford & Benedict since 1985.
“You know it’s a great vineyard when it can make wine that’s good when it’s young and when it’s old,” says Ostini. “Some of us aspire to make wine that continues to get interesting over time,” he adds, and Sanford & Benedict allows for that.
Even Sanford admits, “Within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, you can specifically taste the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. The deep soils, the weathered rocks, the climate – they give character to all the wines made from this place. And I can taste that connection.”
A connection 40 years in the making.
This very special 40th anniversary celebration of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard's first vintage was an experience co-sponsored by the Ostinis and Sanford Winery and auctioned off live during this year’s Santa Barbara Wine Auction. The affair, thrown by the philanthropic Santa Barbara Vintners’ Foundation, is held every two years to benefit Direct Relief. To date, it has raised more than $4 million.
For more information, check out sbwineauction.org.