Of the 44 people enshrined in the Vintners Hall of Fame (housed in the Culinary Institute of America in Napa), only one has made his career in Santa Barbara. That man is Richard Sanford, who figured out years before people were even sure grapes could grow well in what would become the Sta. Rita Hills, that the region would be the perfect spot for pinot noir. "I've been out proselytizing for forty years," Sanford, director of winemaking at Alma Rosa, says. "I always knew Santa Barbara would be the wine area for Los Angeles just as Napa and Sonoma are for the Bay Area. But these kinds of things take generations -- so much of this is word-of-mouth."
Sanford, a Berkeley grad in geography, was drawn to the area in the early 1970s. Fresh from the terrors of a tour in Vietnam with the Navy, working with the land "was a really spiritual experience," he says. "It was my way of rejecting the culture that sent me to war." Convinced people at the time were growing pinot in climates too warm for its fragile nature, he drove about with a thermometer out of his car. "I was very excited about what I was discovering," he says, "but people watching me were not getting it."
What he ended up getting, with then-partner botanist Michael Benedict, was the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. "I had to knock on a lot of doors, but finally a group of men who ran the wine committee at the Los Angeles Country Club saw our enthusiasm and decided to make this investment," he recalls. "I put in my sweat equity -- it was my job to drive the tractor. Those are still some of the best times of my life, smelling the smells of the new earth."
There has to be some fast-forwards in the telling of a life as full as Sanford's. Sanford & Benedict Wines were soon a hit, to the point where Dick Graff from Chalone Vineyards, an even earlier pinot pioneer in an odder spot (Soledad!), introduced Sanford to Julia Child. The goal was to shake her from some of her then well-earned Francophile nature, as she was new to California wines. "I said to Thekla [his wife], 'Guess who's coming to lunch?'" he laughs, adding, "Actually I made lunch that day and we all wound up becoming very close."
What grew apart was his relationship with Benedict and the investors. In 1980 he left the partnership and the land he loved to form Sanford Winery. It was a crazy time for the fledgling Santa Barbara wine region, as favorable tax deals meant investors got in hoping for losses. "Prudential Life Insurance and Bank of America owned most of the vineyards by the late 1970s," Sanford points out, "as so many failed. But they didn't want to be in the grape business." It took until the mid-80s for the banks to sell out to larger wine corporations like Mondavi and Kendall Jackson. "It was in 1985 when I called to see if I could by some fruit from Sierra Madre, which had been bought recently, and they said no, you're competition," he remembers. "That's when I realized I had to be in control of my own vineyards."
He proceeded to plant La Riconada and La Encantada Vineyards, both close to his old Sanford & Benedict location. Things were good, the chardonnay in particular a hit. "A Wine Warehouse sales manager told me that all his salespersons were paying their mortgages on Sanford chardonnay sales," he claims. "It really made our reputation."
But the success was almost too much. "We're all a little bit guilty of adjusting our winemaking to trends and peoples' tastes and wines get sidetracked, Sanford says. "Our chardonnays were becoming big, fat and overly cumbersome, losing expressions of our region."
A conscious effort led to a dialing back oak and alcohol levels. Now his "chardonnay is more Chablis-like; it dances on the palate. It's the kind where you'd like to have another glass."
Alas, that Sanford experience didn't last, either. After building a state-of-the-art winery that more than doubled in cost during production, September 11th happened, bad harvests followed, and he had to turn to investors Terlato Wines (then called Paterno Wines International). Once again he got squeezed out of a business with his name on it; confidentiality clauses have cloaked the exact causes in mystery, but Sanford insists he was fighting to keep things organic. He says, "We've been through some huge hurdles. The lack of ethics in business discourages me, having dealt with some unscrupulous people hasn't been easy. It's not a particularly good reflection on capitalism."
That break led to the creation of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, now based on the home ranch and vineyard El Jabalí, still focusing on pinot noir and chardonnay in the region he put on the map. Working with winemaker Nick de Luca, simplicity is Sanford's goal. "I think people sometimes try a little bit too hard," Sanford says. "People who have a lot of education tend to want to do something and often the best thing to do is nothing and that's hard, as we all want to impose."
He's doing his best not to impose, building a wine facility at El Jabalí he wants to be zero carbon. That's no surprise from the man behind the first organically certified vineyard in Santa Barbara County. He has a new business partner, Robert Zorich, to help provide capital, and he says, "Mr. Zorich wants to have fun, too."
Some of that fun is at a new tasting facility in Buellton right next to dining hotspot Industrial Eats. "This should not only be about the wine but an educational experience," Sanford says, pointing at the AVA maps and photographs that show the lay of the land. The tasting room also lacks the usual bar. Instead, he wanted "people to just sit around and visit and a host will come to you in your space." It is invitingly comfortable for a warehouse, partially because of the large Rumford fireplace, partially because of the Swan Hill Olive tree (that bears no fruit) in the room's center, and partially because of all the wood Sanford salvaged and then used. "It's Douglas fir harvested in 1912," he says. "People come here and become inspired; this wood was growing when Columbus discovered America."
Sanford will also be pouring his wines at the Santa Barbara Wine Festival on June 27, as he has since the festival's inception. "I'll always remember, I had just separated from Sanford & Benedict Winery and had my first Sanford wine but it didn't even have a label yet," he recalls about that day under the oaks in 1982. "If there's one Santa Barbara County wine event to attend, I'd recommend that one. All the winemakers feel pride to be in the community and want to share their wines." Especially with a legend of the business like Sanford.