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Sanford Winery: Evolution Of Growing Up

December 26, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

In the 1960s, two friends, Michael Benedict and Richard Sanford were looking for a good cool-climate site in California where they would be able to make wine rivaling in quality the best European wines.

In 1971, after successfully completing very extensive research, they decided on the location in the Sta. Rita Hills area, a part of the Santa Ynez Valley about 15 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. They first planted the vineyard to Chardonnay and Riesling, but in 1972 they were the first in the region to plant Pinot Noir (and now these are the oldest Pinot Noir plantings in the country).

In 1997, an adjacent hillside vineyard was planted next to Sanford and Benedict, named La Rinconada, which also became a home to the winery building and the tasting room. In 2001, Sta. Rita Hills area was officially certified as an AVA (American Viticultural Area). In 2002, the Terlato family became involved with the Sanford winery (the winery was only carrying the Sanford name as Michael Benedict part his ways with Richard Sanford in 1980), and in 2005 Terlato family became majority owners and partners at the winery. In 2006, John Terlato got closely involved with the winery operations, and that really opened a new chapter for Sanford winery.

In June of 2019, I got invited to the Sanford winery tasting dinner with John Terlato and Michael Benedict at the Wild Ink restaurant in New York, in one of the hottest neighborhoods – Hudson Yards. I was, obviously, very excited. Which helped me to fail as a wine writer – read on, I will explain.

As we situated at the table, the wines started to appear in rapid succession – 2011 Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir, 2012 Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir, then 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016… I didn’t check the press packet in advance of the dinner, and was unprepared for the sheer number of wines presented – also the wines were just brought up one after another, without much of the pause, much of presentation, and too cold – I remember complaining about the wines being too cold and thus really not allowing for a proper evaluation. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the wines, but I had no opportunity to actually compare the vintages and understand the differences. We also tasted 2016 La Rinconada Chardonnay, 2015 Founders’ Vines Chardonnay, 2015 La Rinconada Pinot Noir and 2014 Founders’ Vines Pinot Noir – for which again I didn’t capture a single tasting note, carried away with a conversation, food, delicious wines, and amazing views of the sunset over Hudson.

Or maybe the tasting notes were not that important? In 2006, when John Terlato got involved in Sanford winery operations, he started learning about the best Pinot Noirs in the world. He went to Burgundy, met with winemakers, and tasted lots and lots of wines to understand what can be done differently at Sanford, what is next. He started the vineyard block program at Sanford, identifying unique vineyard blocks at both Sanford and Benedict and La Rinconada, with unique soil, microclimate and terroir, to let literally every bunch of grapes be the best they can be. John brought his notebooks to the dinner, and he was showing us pages and pages of copious notes, both about the wines he tasted in Burgundy and all the experiments and work done at the Sanford vineyards.

Both John and Michael were obviously proud of what they achieved, but what is important, they were both optimistic about their work at the winery and the best yet to come as the learning process doesn’t stop. “I want you to come to the winery and taste 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021… I want you to see how they [wines] change. I want you to see how much better they will become” said Michael Benedict in his quiet voice sitting next to me.

If I would’ve done my homework before coming to the dinner, I would’ve come armed with some incredible facts summarizing 13 years of hard work at the Sanford vineyards. Here are some numbers for you. 30% of the Sanford and Benedict vineyard are still planted on its original vines, which is very rare in California considering the spread of Phylloxera. The vineyard is home to the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Santa Barbara County, planted in 1971. Sanford and Benedict Vineyard has a total of 144 acres under vines – 109 acres of Pinot Noir, 33 of Chardonnay, and 2 of Viognier. There are more than 20 vineyard blocks identified, and there are more than 11 clones growing there.

La Rinconada, which was planted in 1997, is 117 acres in size, 63 acres of Pinot Noir, and 54 acres of Chardonnay. It also has 20 vineyard blocks and 12 clones. Between 2 vineyards, there are 261 total vine acres, 50+ Vineyard Blocks, 20+ clones, 6+ soil blends.

Taking all of this into perspective, it is amazing how Pinot Noir is becoming an obsession of the winemakers – I see this through all of the Stories of Passion and Pinot, through the deep research of soil done by Alit in Oregon. Identifying vineyard blocks, vinifying blocks separately, using multiple clones, blending, trying, and trying again. Passion and Pinot, truly.

Not writing about that memorable dinner was one of my biggest disappointments – to my disdain, I have a good memory for disappointments, so it was really hunting me down. But sometimes, life offers us second chances.

Trey Fletcher got schooled in world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay during his tenure at Littorai Winery, also learning biodynamic, organic, and sustainable viticulture at the same time. In 2011, Trey moved to Santa Barbara to become Winemaker and GM at Bien Nacido Vineyards. A few years back, Trey joined the Sanford team as Senior Winemaker, and 2019 became the first vintage where he was responsible for all the winemaking and blending decisions. I had an opportunity to taste Trey’s wines and here are my impressions:

2019 Sanford Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills (13.5% ABV, $40, aged 11 months in French oak, 25% new)
Light golden
A hint of minerality, vanilla, apple, elegant, inviting
Similar profile on the palate – vanilla, apple, a distant touch of honey, perfect acidity, clean, fresh, delicious
8, an outstanding example of California Chardonnay

2020 Sanford Rosé of Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills (13% ABV, $20, aged 6 months in stainless steel and neutral barrels)
Salmon pink
Strawberries, nice mineral component
Tart strawberries, lemon, crisp, fresh, bigger body than a typical Provence, but still light and perfectly balanced. Nice medium-long finish.
8/8+

2019 Sanford Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills (13.5% ABV, $45, aged 11 months in French oak, 25% new)
Dark ruby
Plums, cherries, smoke. Classic Pinot nose
Sweet plums, tart cherries, probably a whole cluster fermentation based on a tiny hint of a green bite. Restrained, elegant, the sweetness is just hinted, and overall wine is well structured.
8, Should age well. A California Pinot with a lot of restraint

Pinot and Passion. There is truly something magical about the grape which becomes an obsession and an object of desire. The best proof, however, is always in the glass.

May you never stop growing.

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  1. December 27, 2021 at 11:34 pm

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