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Trampling on the Vineyard

TIMES WINE WRITER

This is the story of a little plot of land just west of Highway 101 at Buellton. During the past decade a few local winemakers have quietly made wonderful Pinot Noir from grapes grown there.

The name of the vineyard is Sanford & Benedict, and it has a checkered history.

In the early 1970s, Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted the 100-acre vineyard to a half-dozen grape varieties. In 1976, they began making wine under the name Sanford & Benedict. The first Pinot Noirs were shockingly good. The partners suddenly realized they had prize land.

But the partnership soured and in 1980 the partners split. Sanford went off to found his own winery. Benedict retained the vineyard, renamed it Benedict and sold grapes to a number of wineries (but not to Sanford, so acrimonious was their parting). The wineries that did get the Benedict Pinot Noir made superb, but limited amounts of wine from them.

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Benedict soon put the vineyard on the market, but the asking price was so high that no local buyer could afford it. After years on the market, the property was sold last year to Robert Atkin, a British manufacturing executive. Atkin and Sanford were well acquainted, and it was soon announced that the vineyard would be controlled by Sanford and renamed Sanford & Benedict.

The announcement was met with grumbling from wineries who had used the Benedict fruit--especially the Pinot Noir--as the backbone of their best wines. Sanford said he wouldn’t sell grapes to anyone. They were his now and he intended to make a Benedict Vineyard-designated Pinot Noir that would be the best in the region, maybe the state.

Discussions over the grapes became heated. Legal action was contemplated. Then last January, in a discussion about the bitterness that had arisen over the grapes, somebody pointed out to Sanford that while the vineyard was well known locally, it had no national reputation. Wouldn’t it be better for him, Sanford was asked, if he sold some grapes to other wineries who agreed to use the name of the vineyard on the label? Wouldn’t this give the vineyard some of the fame it deserved?

After long thought, Sanford agreed.

“I had been getting calls from all kinds of people asking for those grapes,” Sanford says. “I thought about the incredible potential. . . . I decided I would select five local wineries who already knew the vineyard and sell them some grapes.”

Sanford selected Foxen, Lane Tanner, Au Bon Climat, Babcock and Gainey. Each would get three tons of grapes, which makes about 200 cases of wine each. The rest would be made by Sanford.

Moreover, he adopted a marketing scheme developed by his winemaker, Bruno D’Alfonso.

“The other wineries will give me a barrel of the wine each year and Bruno will put together a blend of them, a composite wine from the Sanford & Benedict vineyard,” Sanford said. “Then we’ll make up 150 cases of wine that will contain one bottle from each of the six wineries that make the wine, and six bottles of the composite wine.”

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D’Alfonso added: “In the long term we’re going to be growing more Pinot Noir than we need anyway, so we figured, let’s get the top wineries in the area and have at it against each other. People will be arguing which wine is better, so it’ll be a test of the winemakers.”

Sanford said if the plan works as he hopes, he will increase the amount of Pinot Noir each winery can buy.

The first vintage of this project was 1991, which means the first of the wines won’t be ready for more than a year.

For now, Sanford is pleased the other wineries have agreed to participate in the project. But with fruit as good as this, you can do a lot of arm-twisting.

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