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Wine & Spirits

Pinot king's ouster shocks wine realm

October 19, 2005|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

WHEN his fellow Santa Rita Hills winegrowers gather later this month to honor Richard Sanford with a big tribute dinner, the question on everyone's lips will almost surely be: "What the heck happened?"

Sanford is a seminal figure in California wine. He pioneered the red-hot Santa Rita Hills growing area just north of Santa Barbara 35 years ago, planting the legendary Sanford and Benedict vineyard when it was surrounded by nothing but cattle and cabbage.

Sanford Winery and Vineyards, which he founded in 1982, has a long-standing reputation as one of the nation's premium producers of Pinot Noir. Its high-end single-vineyard bottlings consistently score in the 90s from important wine critics. The new winery building, which Sanford finished in 2001, is a local landmark.

But late last month, Sanford suddenly announced he was leaving it all behind. He and his wife, Thekla, were moving on to start a new enterprise, Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards.

Rumors of problems at Sanford Winery have been floating since 2002, when Sanford and his partners sold a piece of the business to the Terlato Wine Group, a Chicago-based operation that owns several wineries as well as Paterno Distributing.

Still, the news came as a shock. From early pioneer to visionary builder to elder statesman to out on the street, at least figuratively speaking. How had this come to pass?

The answer is a tangled tale that involves much finger-pointing and an awful lot of he-said, she-said. One side cites the turning away from organic farming. The other brings up the miserable 2003 vintage. It's all about poor sales, one side slams. No, sales have improved remarkably, comes the return volley.

Because the business is a privately held partnership, there are few hard facts to rely on, other than the central one: Sanford no longer has anything to do with the winery or the vineyard that bear his name.

As if to emphasize the nastiness of the divorce, the Sanford Winery website no longer even mentions him.

In person, Sanford is hard to overlook. Tall and somehow still boyish looking at 64, most of the time he has an open, straightforward manner. But every once in a while his mood shifts and he takes on the focused but slightly distracted air of a philosopher or dreamer. Despite having been in the public eye for much of the last 30 years, he is finding the shift from being the object of praise to pity uncomfortable.

At Trattoria Grappolo, which is like a very good Umbrian pizza place somehow transplanted onto the Olde West main street of downtown Santa Ynez, he is repeatedly interrupted by well-wishers and those wishing to commiserate.

Before Sanford even has a chance to sit down, an older fellow in denim comes by to pat him on the back and offer condolences. Santa Ynez being what it is, it's no surprise it's Doc Severinsen, the former "Tonight Show" bandleader and a longtime resident of the valley. Not 20 minutes later, a local magazine writer comes by. And as Sanford leaves after lunch, he stops to say hello to some wine people at another table.

"This is the thing that is so damned awful about this," Sanford says. "People here have wondered for a while what was going on, but I think out of courtesy they didn't ask. People have been very supportive, but it is kind of wearing."

He's clearly still struggling to explain to people what has happened, and as he sorts through his re-telling of the events, he often falls back on New Age speak, talking about having been "dealing with a lot of negative stuff" and reminding himself of the Taoist philosophy of detachment (or un-attachment, he debates over and over which is the more appropriate word).

Sanford came to Santa Ynez in 1970, just back from Navy service in Vietnam and looking for a quiet place where he could grow things rather than blow them up. A geographer, he was interested in wine and climate and had a theory (since conclusively proved) that the transverse break in the coastal mountains at Lompoc could create a perfect grape-growing area, as it sucked cool air inland from the Pacific.

A year later, with partner Michael Benedict, Sanford cleared and planted 110 acres between Lompoc and Buellton, nestled in the hills just off Santa Rosa Road. At the time, it was one of the southernmost vineyards in California. "Everyone said we were crazy planting so close to the equator," Sanford says.

The winery building the pair retrofitted out of an abandoned hay barn is still on the property and so are the old galvanized dairy tanks they used as fermenters. Because there was no electricity, they had gas lamps. The first splurge was buying generators so they could run a mechanical wine press. In 1975, they built new fermenting tanks, buying white oak staves and hiring a Santa Barbara hot tub maker to cooper them. In an oak grove up the hill, Richard and Thekla celebrated their wedding.

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Going solo

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