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Difficult Start Pays Off for the Sanford Winery : A Couple of Excellent Chardonnays Display the Achievement of the Vintner

June 11, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Thanks to a decade of hands-on wine making, vintner Richard Sanford of Sanford Winery is producing the finest wines of his career. After a difficult start at Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez Valley, he is now confident that both he and the region are capable of competing with California's best, especially in a style characteristic of French red and white Burgundy.

In earlier years it was not always so. Some of the wines were out of balance, poorly made from overripe grapes, with unappealing flavors and styles. What has turned things around is a combination of factors, notably finer grapes, improved harvest procedures and, in the final analysis, the education of Sanford's palate and technical skills. He has become a well-rounded vintner and wine lover.

The achievement is best revealed by two Chardonnays from the vintage of 1985, which abound with style and character. The '85 (non-reserve) is unequivocally recommended as his best to date with rich, luscious, lovely, not overpowering flavors. A subtle apple-like nose and a lovely sweetish (not sugary) taste make a virtually perfect finish, syrupy and memorably long.

An exciting aspect is its lush taste and chewy texture, a result of barrel and malolactic fermentation of ripe fruit, which has eliminated any possibility of sharp taste. Judicious oak aging and a most acceptable, gentle, 12.7% alcohol make the wine extremely generous for today's consumption, although two to three years of aging will add even more complexity. It is a good value at $13.

Good Characteristics Noted

The 1985, Reserve, Chardonnay, is also of superclass status, representing a special selection of grapes. There is more oak here, and it shows both in nose and taste but not unattractively. Good characteristics are plentiful, such as elegance, balance, intensity of fruit and high extract. The malolactic fermentation here was just as effective in eliminating any sharpness of taste, but note the need for additional bottle aging. It is a remarkable Chardonnay at $18.

Also remarkable is Sanford's complex blush wine, Pinot Noir--Vin Gris, 1985, which is light years different from today's sugary Zinfandel Blancs. Not a cash-flow wine, this is made from ripe Pinot Noir grapes showing clean, rich flavors. Exquisitely dry, the wine shows delicate, subtle flavors of jammy fruit with a slight accent of spicy-vanilla from wood. Easily one of the best of its genre, this is an excellent table wine, ready to drink and a good buy at $6.

Sauvignon Blanc, 1985, compares favorably as a Sanford personal-style statement. Fermented in 20% French and 80% American oak barrels, this wine, unlike most, underwent malolactic fermentation and provides a rich, creamy kind of texture and pleasant, earthy, rather than heavy, grassy, taste. At a gentle 12.4% alcohol, there is complexity and appealing viscosity here in a style that may well be a Sanford original. It is nicely priced at $8.

The winery's Pinot Noir, 1985, made from Santa Barbara grapes, is a much improved wine showing a light, elegant style and ample, jammy fruit taste. Made in open top fermenters and utilizing whole berry fermentation with the addition of stems, it also enjoyed a softening malolactic fermentation. Aged in small French oak barrels for up to 16 months, it has no negative raisin-like taste as evident in many Pinot Noirs. It is hard to predict aging ability, but its soft, delicious, spicy accented flavors make it good drinking now.

Ocean's Winds Beneficial

Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are special Sanford favorites. "Personally, I prefer them," he said, "but also I am very high on the direct cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean's westerly winds here. These have access to my vineyards via the east-west running valleys (unique in California), providing the long, cool growing season essential for the varietals."

Sanford is not an academically trained wine maker. But "the lure of the grape was really too much for me to reject," he said, "because I feel that I am an embodiment of the values of the '60s generation where many of us found we loved the land and wanted to grow things but did not have the opportunity to put that into practice. There was no better way for me to blend geography and geology than to get into the vineyards."

Sanford's growing penchant spilled over to his unique label design, which is among the most beautiful in the state. Longtime friend and artist, Sebastian Titus, conceived the idea of painting a series of native wild flowers for the labels. The artwork labels have become so successful that they are now offered at the winery in poster sets and are featured at popular exhibitions in major galleries across the country, as well as with the Chateau Mouton Rothschild label collection at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Joining Sanford in the wine-making process is U.C. Davis-trained Bruno D'Alfonso, who from 1980 to 1983 was the assistant wine maker at Edna Valley Winery. That's where he met Sanford, who was using its facility until completion of his winery. The two complement each other's talents, but considering Sanford's overall improvement, it appears a university-trained enologist is benefiting from his boss's hard-earned, hands-on experience.

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