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Pinot king’s ouster shocks wine realm

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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.

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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

BY 1976, Sanford and Benedict had proved the doubters wrong, producing some of the finest Pinot Noirs (as well as Chardonnays and Rieslings) in California. But in 1980, the partnership broke up, for reasons Sanford declines to detail, commenting only, “It’s hard to make wine by committee.”

He will also say losing the Sanford and Benedict vineyard broke his heart. “I really thought I had left part of my soul there.”

But he says it taught him an important lesson when, less than two years later, Benedict sold the property to Robert Atkin, a British businessman, who turned around and hired Sanford to manage it. Atkin also became a partner in Sanford Winery. “It was amazing, but after giving up the vineyard, it came back to me,” Sanford says. “That taught me something about the importance of letting go.”

The Sanford and Benedict vineyard is still regarded as one of the best on the Central Coast. Some of the area’s top wineries make vineyard-designated wines from it, including Au Bon Climat, Testarossa, Cold Heaven and Hitching Post, as well as Sanford Winery and Vineyards.

After the partnership with Benedict ended, Sanford had begun making his own wine under the Sanford Winery label. In 1983, Bruno d'Alfonso joined Sanford as winemaker and the winery took off with a string of heralded vintages and ever-increasing sales. In 1987, the winery’s production hit 25,000 cases -- a big small winery. In 1993, it made 30,000.

Building on success, in 1997, Sanford planted a 130-acre vineyard called Rancho La Rinconada just west of Sanford and Benedict. Like the first vineyard, this one was to be farmed organically, a philosophy the Sanfords had come to believe in passionately.

The plan was to acquire enough vineyard land to ensure that the winery could always supply its own grapes -- no small feat as production grew to more than 40,000 cases, with plans to top 70,000. To help pay for the expansion, Sanford brought in another investor, Robert Kidder, former chief executive of Duracell International Inc. and Borden Inc.

Sanford also started sketching out his dream winery, which after six years of wrangling plans through assorted commissions and inspectors was unveiled in 2001. It is an astonishing structure, environmentally sustainable and architecturally beautiful in a modern California mission style, and it incorporates cutting-edge winemaking facilities.

The walls are made of adobe bricks mined and formed on site. The roof tiles are Mexican terra cotta. The gracefully curving “fermentation gallery” is made of old-growth redwood lumber -- to get it, Sanford had to buy a turn-of-the-century sawmill in Washington state, disassemble it and ship it down. The winery is centered on a pair of elevators that can lift tanks to a second story to allow wine to be transferred by gravity only, without mechanical pumps that might damage it.

All of this did not come cheap. Sanford won’t talk numbers, but in separate conversations Terlato and d'Alfonso put the cost at about $9 million -- more than twice what a bare-bones structure with similar functions would have run.

Perhaps if everything had proceeded smoothly after that, things still could have worked out. But Sanford’s string of good fortune came to a crashing end starting with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The restaurant industry went into a yearlong tailspin, taking the wine business with it. On top of it all, there was a huge surplus of grapes that allowed wineries that bought fruit to dramatically reduce prices, leaving those that owned their vineyards at a disadvantage.

So in 2002, Sanford brought in the Terlato Wine Group as an investor to help offset the cost of the winery and also because he thought he needed Paterno’s national distribution system. Terlato, a wine powerhouse known for importing Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, says it represents 1 of every 8 bottles of wine sold for more than $14.

Even after recovery began, the Central Coast experienced three straight short harvests, cutting revenue. So Sanford kept going back to the well for more capital. In all, Bill Terlato, president of the Terlato Wine Group, says he invested more than $6 million in Sanford. And having become the majority partner, he wanted to exert more control over practices in the vineyards and winery.

That’s when things got sticky. Sanford says the breaking point came when Terlato ordered that La Rinconada should be farmed conventionally rather than organically.

Terlato states flatly “the facts don’t support that position at all.” He says conventional farming didn’t begin until Sanford had already announced his exit. Plus, he says, it began only in certain areas and only because the vineyards had been so neglected in those spots. Other areas are still being farmed organically today.

Furthermore, Terlato says vineyard conditions had gotten so bad that he had to declassify the entire 2003 Pinot Noir harvest, selling it all off in bulk.

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‘A tragic tale’

SANFORD acknowledges that there were problems with the 2003 vintage, but says they were restricted to that year alone. And he points to a long string of consistently favorable reviews from important critics to back him up.

Sanford and winemaker d'Alfonso say Paterno fell way short of promised sales; Terlato says his company actually did better than expected.

Wherever the truth lies, in the end, the Sanfords left to start Alma Rosa. The wines will come from a combination of purchased grapes and those harvested from the Sanford’s 15-acre El Jabali home vineyard, which they were able to keep, and a new 100-acre vineyard they lease just west of La Rinconada called La Encantada. Longtime winemaker d'Alfonso, still a minority partner in Sanford Winery, sounds like he’s exhausted by the ordeal and is ready to wish a pox on both houses.

He complains that the new management is interfering with his winemaking when it promised it wouldn’t. And he says they’re letting the vineyards carry way too much fruit -- he says this year’s Pinot Noir crop is averaging 5 tons to the acre and the Chardonnay is 9 tons to the acre, when the ideal would be more like 3 tons. “Those are Central Valley numbers, Gallo numbers,” he says. “I don’t know if I can make good wine from that, the flavors are too diluted.”

On the other hand, things weren’t all that much better under Sanford. “It was almost like, ‘Let’s be organic and just leave it alone and see what happens,’ ” he says. “If you’re going to farm organic, you have to be on top of everything much more diligently than if you’re farming conventionally. Richard was very firm about the organic philosophy, but the money wasn’t there to support it.”

Finally, he says, the whole thing is just a shame.

“This is really a tragic tale. It’s like he was running down the field with the ball in his hand and he either fumbled it on the 6-inch line or spiked it before he got into the end zone.

“We almost had it. We were almost there.”

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Celebration of Santa Rita Hills, Oct. 28 and 29, features panels, tastings, an auction and the Richard Sanford dinner. Go to www.celebrationsrh.com.


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