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Back to the Land: Richard Sanford and the Tao of Pinot Noir

March 22, 2018
by Maria Gaura

Richard Sanford graduated from Berkeley in 1965, served a combat tour in Vietnam, and by 1971 found himself working from a mossy old barn near Lompoc with no plumbing or electricity.

A geographer by training, the Navy veteran was engaged in an improbable quest—transforming the barn and adjoining bean fields into a classic, Burgundian-style vineyard.

The barn was Spartan, the work grueling, and the telephone mounted on a fence post far down a rutted farm road. The goal was quixotic—nobody had grown grapes in the neighborhood since the Mission days, when the harvest was mostly used for brandy. But for a young man returned from war, the toil and rustic setting were profoundly healing.

“You could say I was part of the ‘back to the land’ movement,” Sanford said. “I was working with Nature, reading the Whole Earth Catalog, being self-reliant. But a big part had to do with recovering from the war, and from the rejection service people received from society when we returned home after being sent to an unfair war.”

Viniculture was not on Sanford’s career radar when he began his college studies, and his family were not wine connoisseurs. His father was a career Navy officer, and when Sanford first entered the UC system as a freshman at Santa Barbara, his chosen major was geology. During breaks from his studies, a love of boats and sailing led to a berth in the Transpacific Yacht Race and to maritime journeys in Samoa and New Zealand.

“I remember sailing the coast of North Vietnam in an operation called Sea Dragon—it just brought tears to my eyes, looking at the beauty of the beaches and the coastline, and wondering how we could have destroyed this place.”

Gary Griggs, a Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, was Sanford’s roommate at UC Santa Barbara and remembers him from those more carefree prewar days. They both hung out with the “surfer, beach guy” crowd, and “Richard was a bigger-than-life figure with all his world travels,” Griggs said. “One time in college we flew down to Mexico to bring a sailboat back up to California. The weather was horrible, I almost died … it was a great adventure.”

Photo of the original Lompoc barn, around 1975.

Another time the two hopped a freight train from Santa Barbara to San Francisco to attend a weekend event at Cal. The ride north went well enough, but on the way back the roommates got sidetracked in Salinas and ended up riding the last leg of the trip in a refrigerated car stacked with sugar beets.

“We froze our rears, but made it to class Monday morning,” Griggs said. “It was a different time. It was the early ’60s, it was before Vietnam escalated. We weren’t worried about anything.”

Sanford soon transferred to UC Berkeley and switched his major to geography. Upon graduation, he entered the Navy at an officer’s rank. The years in Vietnam were a stark contrast to a sunny college career. Sanford was shaken by a loss of faith in American leadership and society.

“I remember sailing the coast of North Vietnam in an operation called Sea Dragon—it just brought tears to my eyes, looking at the beauty of the beaches and the coastline, and wondering how we could have destroyed this place,” Sanford said. “It didn’t feel right, on a deep, philosophical level. I completely understand why so many men came home with addictions, so many ended up homeless. It took years to really understand the impact it had on me.”

The life of an officer had its perks, however. One evening at dinner in La Jolla, a fellow officer ordered a bottle of Volnay—a traditional French wine from the Burgundy region, made primarily with pinot noir grapes. The texture of the wine was striking, and Sanford thought about the vineyard where the grapes were grown and the alchemy that transformed grape juice into this specific type of wine. The wine was unmistakably French, but could those grapes be grown in California?

The moment stayed with him, and the inspiration eventually gelled into a plan.

“I became interested in agriculture, drawn to it,” Sanford said. “I decided it would be much more rewarding to work in Nature than pushing papers around in an office. I thought about grapes, and I thought about that Volnay. And the thought of growing something that got better with age, and the magic of wine and the vineyard, it was very appealing to me.”

“There were the hippies who dropped out, and there were well-educated young professionals like ourselves who were searching for more meaning in life. We overlapped a bit, but not a lot. We were serious about pursuing our dreams with much more of a work ethic. Winemaking required total dedication—our entire lives revolved around it.”

Some time after his discharge, Sanford trained his research skills on searching out a California microclimate that would coddle the cool-loving wine grapes of Burgundy—primarily pinot noir and chardonnay. Sanford analyzed a century’s worth of climate records from Burgundy, comparing them with long-term weather data from farm communities throughout California.

The data pointed to a geographical anomaly—the Transverse Ranges just north of Santa Barbara, where the north-south alignment of California’s coastal mountains is intercepted by a massive landform with an east–west orientation. Cool ocean air and fog flow eastward up the valleys of the Transverse Ranges, threading their way deep into the tawny hills. The weather in these beautiful little valleys bears tantalizing similarities to the climate in Burgundy.

“It is commonly understood that the further south you go [in California], the closer to the equator, the warmer it becomes,” Sanford said. “But on the coast, the maritime influence is the defining factor. The marine influence brings cool air far up into the valleys, and it always cools off at night. You can almost set your watch by when the fog lifts and the breeze begins.”

A recent image of Richard and his wife Thekla.

Sanford outfitted his 1959 Mercedes diesel sedan with a wand-like agricultural thermometer, and plied the country roads between Lompoc and Solvang, documenting temperature variations by season and time of day, finally narrowing his search to an area of bean fields and rangeland in the Santa Rita Hills.

“We were living together at the time, camping out in a house we were in the process of renovating,” said Willard Bronson, a college friend and fraternity brother. “One day I came home to find a pile of sand in the yard. Richard pulled out a little stick and told me they were vine cuttings—they would be grapevines someday.

“I said, ‘Rich, you don’t know anything about the business, you don’t have money, and the Gallos make as much wine as anyone needs,’” Bronson said. “My idea was that we would make money building houses in Santa Barbara. But Rich said, ‘I’ve dreamed of this venture, I’ve got an idea. I know what I’ve got to do here.’”

Sanford teamed up with botanist friend Michael Benedict and leased a derelict garbanzo-bean farm in what appeared to be a promising location. The 674 acres came with a mossy barn, blacksmith’s shop, and a handful of rickety outbuildings, as well as a year-round spring.

The young partners planted 24,000 vines in the rocky soil, painstakingly watering them with a jerry-rigged truck they named La Mariposa. Nearby ranchers were amused by their neighbors’ long hair and bell-bottom jeans, but the aspiring vintners earned respect with their hard work and dedication.

“I wouldn’t call them hippies,” said Susan Sokol Blosser, an Oregon winemaker and longtime friend who founded her vineyard around the same time. “There were the hippies who dropped out, and there were well-educated young professionals like ourselves who were searching for more meaning in life. We overlapped a bit, but not a lot. We were serious about pursuing our dreams with much more of a work ethic. Winemaking required total dedication—our entire lives revolved around it.”

To general amazement, the vines thrived, harvests progressed from vine to vat to barrel, and in 1978 Sanford and Benedict’s first commercial vintage (bottled in 1976) was released to ecstatic reviews.

Influential wine critic Robert Lawrence Balzer wrote a piece titled “California Grand Cru in a Lompoc Barn,” identifying the Sanford and Benedict vineyard as “a treasured place where fine wines exist,” and introducing Sanford’s California version of Burgundy wines to an international audience.

From the first vintage, Sanford pursued a lighter, lower-alcohol, European style of pinot noir. The wine was lively and balanced, intended to pair with meals and built to last for years in the cellar. Sanford’s style has stayed consistent over the years, staying true to his vision despite the industry’s shifts.

“In 1976, Richard created one of the greatest pinot noirs ever created in California, period, under the Sanford and Benedict label,” said Archie McLaren, a rare wines expert and journalist who first met Sanford upon moving to Santa Barbara in 1974. “He planted grapes at a time when nobody else had a clue what would work there and created something remarkable and world-class.

“His method was embracing the land and embracing the relationship between wine and food,” McLaren said. “He was a quintessential Berkeley graduate,” he added, not necessarily the sort to “disappear into the corporate structure.”

Among his enduring ties to Berkeley, Sanford credits the late Professor Huston Smith and his book The Religions of Man for introducing him to Eastern religious thought and inspiring a lifelong pursuit of the ideal of nonattachment. After returning from Vietnam, Sanford found solace in Tai Chi and Taoism, disciplines that provided an oasis of serenity within the roller-coaster world of winemaking.

Richard and his wife Thekla with a nephew in 1975.

“Tai Chi really resonated with me for some reason, and it led me to spiritual meditation and interest in Taoist principles,” Sanford said. “Nonattachment allows you to move forward with a clean slate, it’s remarkably freeing.”

Rave reviews for Sanford and Benedict wine were a powerful vindication, though what appeared to be an overnight success was the product of nearly a decade’s work. But acclaim set a high bar for future efforts, and the partnership quickly broke apart.

Sanford concedes that dedication to his personal vision made partnership difficult. “Michael and I made a pretty good team,” Sanford said. “But it is difficult to make wine by committee.”

In 1980, Sanford and his wife, Thekla, sold their share of the Sanford and Benedict vineyard—mossy barn and all—and headed to Europe to study continental winemaking. After extensive travel, and a brief flirtation with sparkling wine, the couple reaffirmed their commitment to Santa Barbara County—returning to the fray with a sharpened focus.

The Sanfords founded Sanford Winery in 1981, planted new vineyards, and developed a reputation for legendary pinot noir. Other winemakers streamed into the area, and in 1983 the Santa Ynez Valley was recognized as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA). (Four sub-AVAs, including Sanford’s beloved Sta. Rita Hills AVA, were later carved out of the original Santa Ynez AVA.)

As the area’s wine industry grew, hordes of weekend wine lovers began streaming into Santa Barbara from Los Angeles and San Diego, a trend immortalized in the 2004 movie Sideways, in which two hapless college friends begin a week-long wine tour with a visit to the Sanford Winery tasting room. The movie’s main character, played by Paul Giamatti, holds forth on the climate particularities of the Transverse Ranges, on the glories of Santa Barbara County wines, and on Richard Sanford’s sublime pinot noir in particular.

“The tasting room in the movie was Richard’s tasting room, and the guy behind the bar with the ponytail and cowboy hat was his bartender Chris Burroughs,” Bronson said with a laugh. “It put the Sanford name on the map.”

Sustainability remained a key goal for Sanford, who placed scores of acres of land into wildlife-sustaining conservation easements and insisted on farming organically. In the mid-’90s, Sanford embarked on the project of a lifetime—the construction of a custom-designed, sustainable winery building on land adjacent to the original Sanford and Benedict vineyard.

More than 100,000 adobe bricks were crafted on-site, and a mountain of red ceramic roof tiles were imported from Tecate, Mexico. Cool stone floors were installed throughout, and a vintage sawmill was relocated from Klickitat, Washington, and its old-growth timbers reclaimed. Powerful elevators were designed to hoist 3,650-gallon vats aloft, allowing wine to be gently gravity-drained instead of pumped. Vast wooden doors were balanced to swing smoothly at the touch of a finger.

Richard Sanford and his daughter, Blakeney.

“The design was beautiful, very cathedral-like,” Sanford said. “The focus was for pinot noir, recognizing that pinot tends to bruise easily.

No detail was overlooked, and the cost spiraled from an estimated $4 million to somewhere near the $10 million range. Sanford’s investors were getting restive, but in the end, it was bad timing that derailed the project. The terror attacks of 9/11 sparked a lingering recession in the fine wine industry, and the costly new building shifted power into the hands of investors. Details of the financial dustup that followed are subject to nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements. But in 2005 Sanford ended up ceding ownership of the winery, including the rights to his name, to the Terlato Wine Group of Chicago.

“High-quality pinot has always been Richard’s claim to fame, and correctly so,” said Matt Kettmann, senior editor at the Santa Barbara Independent and a contributing editor to Wine Enthusiast magazine. “But winemaking is not a particularly profitable enterprise, especially at the level that Richard mostly does it at. He had to take on a lot of investors and made a partnership with some people whose interests were not exactly aligned with his.”

The deal caused a scandal in the tight-knit Santa Barbara wine community, though even Sanford’s biggest boosters concede that he is a visionary and not a bookkeeper.

“From the very beginning, starting with Sanford and Benedict, the focus was on the quality,” Griggs said. “Everything was done first-class, including the labels on the bottles. But the business end just wasn’t as interesting.”

Sanford says separating from his winery was wrenching and a test of his spiritual principles.

“A lot of my soul was in that winery, it was very hard to give it up,” he said. “My personal philosophy is based on nonattachment, and yet I found myself getting very attached.”

Instead of retreating into regret, the Sanfords promptly founded a new winery, Alma Rosa, in nearby Buellton. “Many times over the course of my career I’ve had to let things go, move forward. It’s not always easy, but I truly believe our accomplishments endure, ownership is temporary.”

Refusing to become mired in the past requires discipline. But fortunately for Sanford, the present is a good place to be. In 2012, Sanford was named to the California Vintners’ Hall of Fame—the first Santa Barbara winemaker to earn the honor. He and Thekla live in a beautiful home in an organic vineyard with a breathtakingly scenic area. In 2014, the Sanfords sold Alma Rosa to investor Robert Zorich, leaving them debt-free while allowing Richard to focus on the part of the business he cares about—grape-growing and winemaking. Alma Rosa continues to rack up awards.

Recent plantings have expanded Alma Rosa’s estate vineyard to 50 acres, and the label just unveiled a new winemaking facility in Lompoc—an interim space for winemaker Nick de Luca—while plans for an estate winery building work their way through permitting and construction. Vineyard manager Martin Hernandez, who oversaw the original Sanford and Benedict vineyard in 1975, was lured back to nurture the new all-organic plantings.

While long hours are dedicated to building up Alma Rosa, Sanford and daughter Blakeney have carved out time for a father-daughter home-distilling hobby with ties to the Mission era, and the first wine grapes grown in California.

“It’s a little project with my daughter, our neighbor Jim Poett, and his daughter Elizabeth,” Sanford said. Genetic testing of very old vines found on the Poetts’ Rancho San Julian property confirmed they are Mission grapes—original vines planted by the Franciscan padres or direct descendants of those vines. The father-daughter group successfully propagated cuttings from the mother vines and grew them to fruition.

He’s circled back to the beginning, but this time embracing what he first ignored.

“We’ve planted a little vineyard and are making brandy from the grapes,” Sanford said. “The historical aspect,” he adds, “is very interesting.” 

Maria Gaura was raised in Silicon Valley and now lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, daughter, and various dogs and cats.

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