Richard Sanford is Sta. Rita Hills 2020 Vintner of the Year

Recently, I was invited to watch a virtual ceremony announcing Central Coast wine pioneer Richard Sanford as the 2020 Vintner of the Year by the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance.

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Photo of Richard and Thekla Sanford

In 2005 Richard and Thekla founded Alma Rosa Winery, which they sold to Bob and Barb Zorich in 2014. The Sanford’s continue to live at the Alma Rosa estate, where Richard serves as a winery ambassador and continues to be active as one of the leading advocates for the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Before the event I was sent two bottles of his wines to open, sip and toast throughout the event. The vibrant 2018 Alma Rosa Winery La Encantada Blanc kicked off the event and midway we toasted again with a pre-release of his Alma Rosa’s 2018 El Jabali Pinot Noir.  

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The host leading the live online tribute was wine critic, author and expert Matt Kettman. Surprise guests who joined in to honor the “Godfather of Central Coast Pinot Noir,” included Rick Longoria from Longoria WinesFrank Ostini from Hitching Post, Brian Babcock of Babcock Winery, and Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton Winery. Along the way I learned about Sanford’s lifetime achievement putting the Sta. Rita Hills wine region on the global wine map.

After graduating from Berkeley and serving in the Navy on a tour in Vietnam, Sanford and botanist Michael Benedict discovered that “growing grapes in the Central Valley, especially in Delano was too hot to grow Pinots.” Sanford, a geographer by trade, surveyed the California coastal valleys carefully and identified the unique transverse mountain range near Santa Barbara.

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Sta. Rita Hills

The valleys run east to west into the wind funneling air from the sea. This is an optimal climate to plant grapes near the Pacific Ocean for cool mornings. “When you drive to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, you are actually driving west,” Sanford said. “Even though Santa Barbara sits on a similar latitude to Tunisia, it is the fog and ocean air that tempers the heat of the sun’s rays. It is refrigerated sunlight.”

In 1971, Sanford and Benedict discovered land on the Central Coast near the Danish town of Solvang and took a shovel to plant the first pinot noir grapes on land, that soon became known as the Sanford & Benedict vineyard.

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Photo Courtesy of the Cal Berkeley Alumni

Sanford also discovered the areas well-drained soils has proven the Sta. Rita Hills to be one of the greatest places to plant Pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes in the world. “There has been a lot of trial and error. People are still trying new ways to grow grapes,” he said.

Sanford made estate-grown Pinot noirs from 1976 to 1980 at the Sanford & Benedict vineyard. In 1981, he launched Sanford Winery with his wife Thekla, and there they produced local and internationally acclaim wines for over 25 years. Sanford Winery became one of Santa Barbara County’s most iconic wineries, helping to establish the region as a wine country travel destination.

During this time, Richard established and planted many of the Sta. Rita Hills’ most revered sites, including La Rinconada, La Encantada and Alma Rosa’s current estate, El Jabali, which was originally planted in 1983.

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Rick Longoria

Rick Longoria from Longoria Wines spoke about their 44 year old relationship when they first met at the Stanford & Benedict winery. He shared a wonderful memory in Oak Grove wine tasting at his cabin and tasting wine at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos. He mentioned Sanford’s Sauvignon Blanc as the first white wine he made, and tasting wines together at a wine festival in Vail, CO. Longoria thanked Sanford for inspiring him to plant his first vineyard in 1980s, “It’s all due to Richard’s kindness and generosity.”

Next Bryan Babcock from Babcock Winery chimed in about how Sanford has been a big part of his life. “He is the greatest cheerleader, very engaging and open arms.” When he planted his first vineyard, he was asked by Sanford to “join the club.” Entering the wine business, he thought to himself “Am I being brave or stupid?” It turns out his timing was perfect, “Richard unleashed everyone’s passion,” Babcock said.

When the wine alliance started coming up with names for the appellation, Babcock suggested the name “Rita’s Earth.” Richard was the only guy to reel him in and consider the name, Santa Rita Hills. “Richard is the only guy who can put all the personalities in one room and keep them from killing themselves,” said Babcock.

When they agreed to the name, Santa Rita Hills AVA, one 120 year old, large winery in Chile, the Vina Santa Rita objected to the name, and argued its label trademark could cause consumer confusion. This winery that produces 300 million cases a year, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.

I learned that Sanford saved the appellation name by meeting the owners and managers in Santiago to talk to them about their concerns. Everyone agreed that if the Santa Rita Hills AVA abbreviated the word Santa to Sta. Rita Hills AVA, everyone would be happy. The deal was done, and soon a wave of winemakers started entering the Santa Barbara County region.

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Greg Brewer spoke next saying he is the youngster in the group. This wine maker of Brewer-Clifton Winery got emotional talking about the night Richard was honored in 2005 at a wine event at the Mission in Lompoc. “I was with my hero and 400 candles were flickering. The evening represented a beautiful family and guiding light.” Greg said, “I’m 50 years old and have lived in the Sta. Rita Hills for 30 years. I’m second generation in the relay race and ready to take the baton and run.”

Matt Kettman ended the virtual event with “As a city or suburban dweller, you as winemakers are injecting nature that has gone through a craftsman.” Sanford said, “The future is not where we are going, but where we connect to nature. Wine is a pathway into nature. The pandemic is having people connect to nature, connect to yourself outdoors and save each other.”

Here are tasting notes from the two wines we tasted and toasted to Richard Sanford:

2018 Alma Rosa Winery La Encantada Blanc is made withPinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes. These are the only Pinot Blanc grapes grown in the vast majority of Pinot Gris planted in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation. The whole-clusters were gently pressed after being night-harvested in September 2018. The two wine varietals (50% of each are in this delightful blend) were fermented separately in stainless steel and oak barrels before being blended and aged in a combination of stainless steel (75%) and new French oak (25%). The golden color offers a refreshing aroma of jasmine and honey. The nice acidity offers a hint of citrus and crisp pear with a minerality finish. Only 236 cases were made.

The pre-release of Alma Rosa’s 2018 El Jabali Pinot Noir is a delicious wine sourced from the famed La Encantada Vineyard.  “These grapes were planted in 1983,” said Sanford. “It’s a great label, depicting the Sta. Rita Hills.” His wife Thekla was honored while we drank this wine. “I have the best partner,” said Richard as he toasted to her sitting nearby. “Isn’t this a delicious wine? It’s going to sell out quickly and is a special wine from 37 year old grape vines.” The alluring garnet color delivers aromas of fig, rose petals and violets. On the palate the bright red cherry and cranberry flavors are balanced by smoky tannins offering a long and satisfying finish.

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