Celebrating Sanford & Benedict: Santa Barbara Wine Community Gathers for 40th Anniversary of Landmark Vineyard

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
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.

So, a lot of sipping to do.

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
Richard Sanford
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


Through the Years: Jaffurs Tastes through 15 Vintages of Syrah

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/11/16

“Thinking of ageability is a more recent worry,” winemaker Craig Jaffurs tells the small group of friends sitting amidst a cavalcade of wine bottles.  “When we started, we just wanted to make a wine that was clean, palatable, immediately accessible and a little bit powerful.”

This special gathering of about 15 people at Jaffurs Wine Cellars last week is certainly a time to reminisce.  Jaffurs Winery GM Dave Yates is here – the two left the aerospace industry together to embark in the wine industry in 1994.  So is co-winemaker Matt Brady, who joined Jaffurs in 2005, and assistant winemaker Stephen Searle.  Antonio Gardella, credited with selling more Jaffurs wine during his tenure at distributor Henry Wine Group, is in attendance, along with a handful of longtime wine club members, wine aficionados and local wine writers, like me and Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, who’ve been tracking the Jaffurs effect for many years.

Thompson Vineyard is here, too, in more ways than one.  New owner Noah Rowles is tasting with us, along with vineyard manager Jason Grupp.  But this special spot – a rambling 42-acre estate along Alisos Canyon in the Los Alamos Valley – is also inside each of the bottles that have been popped open this afternoon.  Thompson bore its first fruit harvest in 1994, the same years Jaffurs started making wine.  And the newness that brought these two together 22 years ago would turn out to be shared promise, in the form of a Thompson Vineyard-designate syrah – and fruit soured from the very same block – made under the Jaffurs label every year since.

Today, Jaffurs makes several vineyard-specific syrahs every year – his current releases feature Bien Nacido, Kimsey and Larner, along with Thompson – as well as a blended entry-level Santa Barbara County syrah and a super-premium selection of each year’s six best barrels, dubbed Upslope.  But his relationship with Thompson is important.  “I was making wine at night back then, and on weekends,” he tells us, “and sourcing from Thompson from the very start certainly helped push my winemaking along.”

The lineup
The tasting
The aftermath
The winemaker
The original
The cork was pulled slowly from the unlabeled bottle of 1994 Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard syrah that we were about to share.  This was a special treat: once we emptied it, only three bottles of Jaffurs’ very first creation would remain.  As expected, lots of sediment in the glass.  But the racy acidity, the juiciness, and the red licorice flavors in the wine are remarkable.  “I was tickled,” Jaffurs would later tell me.  “It’s still holding up – enchanting, nice flavors, still lighter in color and aromas you don’t usually get.”

The impetus for our gathering, though, is to witness how Jaffurs’ Thompson Vineyard syrahs have grown and developed in the years since.   We’re gathered inside the eastside Santa Barbara facility that Jaffurs opened in 2000, where, all along, a philosophy of limited intervention – minimal handling or pumping, no filtering or fining – has prevailed.  But the Jaffurs team has never before done a comprehensive 15-year analytical tasting like this – a side-by-side comparison of the 15 vintages from 1998 to 2013.    The nuances we’re about to find will, most likely, be snapshots of year-over-year variations in weather.  And whatever common thread emerges will show us what happens when sense of place and winemaking knack coalesce.

While all wines impress, several vintages shine for me.  The ’99 showcases a liqueur nose, velvety mouth feel and solid tanning structure; it tastes surprisingly young.  The 2001 is balanced and structured, with lively flavors and a grippy texture.  The perfume on the 2005 is lovely, and there are caramel notes and supple tannins.  The 2007 is downright beautiful, with an intense black cherry nose and a lively bounce in the mouth.  The mint and tobacco profile on the 2008 is fascinating.  The 2010 and 2011 syrahs, both products of a soggy growing season, are remarkably spicy, earthy and tangy.  And the newest wines, the 2012 and the yet-to-be-released 2013, impress with red fruit character, springy acidity and clean finish.

Jaffurs would later tell me that he’s especially impressed by the 2007 – a vintage he had previously underestimated – and the 2012, which, with age, “is going to be a dynamite wine,” he said.  But the entire lineup pleases him, actually, “because there is a lot of uniformity.”  Indeed, if there is a common thread here, it’s purity and balance and a drinking experience driven by red fruit flavors, spice edges and elegant finishes.  A clear dependability to Jaffurs’ syrahs, year after year, is what’s helped him develop a successful brand.

“That’s what I want for the consumer,” he’d later tell me.  “That when you see a Jaffurs wine on a list, you can order it blindly and know that there’s quality there and that you’re going to get a nice glass of wine.”

The 15 vintages I tasted are certainly proof of that.

Many of the notes gathered last week will be part of an upcoming Jaffurs wine club newsletter.  You can taste Jaffurs’ latest releases, which also include viognier, grenache and pinot noir, at the winery, 819 E. Montecito Street in Santa Barbara.  You can also shop for wine on the website, jaffurswine.com.


Pit Stop: Vintner Hopes New Tesla Charging Station Revs Up Business

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/29/16

Rick Longoria moved into his brand new winemaking and wine tasting facility in Lompoc just last week.  It’s a pit stop for wine aficionados to be sure: Mr. Longoria’s premium reds and whites have been among Santa Barbara’s most sought-after wines for almost 35 years.  But there’s something else onsite that’s got customers all charged up.

This Tesla charger makes Longoria Winery a destination
The Lompoc Winery Tasting Room at 415 E. Chestnut just became the only location in Lompoc, and one of a few in the Santa Ynez Valley, where Tesla car owners can charge their vehicles.  As part of Tesla Destination Charging, the 9000-square-foot facility is outfitted with a high-power wall connector and appears on a GPS-powered interactive website that Tesla Model S drivers can navigate through a touchscreen on their car’s center console.

“We’ve always been eco-conscious,” says Mr. Longoria, so the charging station is really an extension of the way he and his wife, Diana, run their business.  In fact, “when we were developing this property, I had space in the parking lot pre-wired to accept a charger.”  The Longorias then applied to have Tesla Motors approve their tasting room as a charging destination.  Approval, based on hours of operation, location and amenities, meant that Tesla picked up the costs for the charging unit and half the installation.  And now, “we’re the only spot along Highway 1 between Goleta and Arroyo Grande where Tesla owners can stop for a charge.”

The convenience has the potential of generating business.  The stations add 58 miles of range per hour, just enough time for drivers to stretch their legs and visit the Longoria facility.  “Tesla owners are well- heeled, so they’re the key demographic for wines in our price range,” says Mr. Longoria, whose wines range from $19 to $55, with most vineyard-designate pinot noirs priced at $50.  “They’re the perfect group for us to get in front of.”

The dual charger at Bob's Well Bread in Los Alamos, one for Teslas
and one for everything else, like this BMW i3
Longoria joins a rapidly growing network of Tesla charging locations on the Central Coast.  Only one other winery in Santa Barbara County has one: Presqu’ile in Santa Maria.  Spots in Santa Barbara include hotels like The Canary, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore and The Fess Parker – a DoubleTree by Hilton Resort.  In North County, the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton, ForFriends Inn in Santa Ynez and public parking lots in Solvang have them.  And the only Los Alamos spot, Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, has provided a dual charging station – one for Tesla Model S cars and a universal plug for all other electric car types – for the last 10 months, with most all installation costs picked up by Tesla Motors. 

Rick Longoria welcomes the Taylors to charge and sip
“The only thing I’m responsible for is promoting it, and for the electric bill,” says owner and master baker Bob Oswaks.  With monthly power costs that amount to less than $20, and with the foot traffic the charging outpost drives to his doorstep, this is also about smart business for him.  “They hang out here and eat, so it gives us a chance to make a good impression,” adds Mr. Oswaks, “especially as more and more electric cars hit the road.” 

Since last week’s opening, the Longorias have welcomed just one couple who found their tasting room on the Tesla website.  They expect many more Model S owners to follow, though.  As Mr. Longoria puts it, “It’s good for us just to be on the map.”