Interview with Richard Sanford – Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

Alma Rosa

Legend. Pioneer. Vintner’s Hall of Fame inductee. Heady labels indeed, but Richard Sanford embodies every one of them, even if he hasn’t always been comfortable with the connotations that come with the labels. “I always think of a pioneer as having a long white beard, so I always sort of poo-poo’d that, but the reality of it is that I am a pioneer, so I’m recognizing that now.”

Through the course of a morning interview with Richard at the creekside offices of Alma Rosa Winery, I was struck by the humbleness of this giant in the wine industry. Here’s a man who has been through it all – the tough early days when all the attention in California wine was focused on Napa Valley, the success of establishing Sanford & Benedict vineyard and Sanford winery as top tier California institutions, the conflict and ultimate divorce from his namesake winery after entering into an ill-fated partnership, and the resurrection of his own wines through Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. And through all of this, Richard Sanford remains as he began – a steward of this blessed piece of wine country, steadfast in the principles he believes in, unfazed by the disappointments of his past, and optimistic about the future of the Santa Rita Hills appellation and Santa Barbara County wines.

El Jabali Vineyard - Alma Rosa Winery

When Sanford planted the first vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills in 1970, he was not only pioneering what has now become the most widely acclaimed AVA in all of Santa Barbara County, he was doing it without a whole lot of support from folks in his home base of Southern California. “I’ll always remember that so many people that I spoke with said ‘it’s a dumb idea’. But there was a gentleman named Ben Huey that I did some sailing with, and he was the only person who said, ‘Hey that’s a great idea, Richard. That’s something you should do.’ I think the importance of having support from people who you respect is so important. To branch out and do something a little bit outrageous – not everybody accepts (that). So it was great to have the support of at least one person, and I always feel very good about his support, because it was true that he saw my enthusiasm… so that was very important.”

Although born in Hawaii, Sanford grew up in the coastal Portugese Bend neighborhood of Rancho Palos Verdes in Southern California in the 1950’s. Now the land of multi-million dollar homes and the Trump National Golf Course, Sanford enjoyed a much more pastoral setting in his youth, working with a farmer growing garbanzo beans in the nearby hillsides.  “I was working on the tractor, and I’d go surfing in the afternoon when I finished. It was really a wonderful life. There was still lobster there at Portugese Bend, and red abalone. We’d just wade into the water and get red abalone right off the rocks.”

This connection with nature would draw him back in unexpected ways following a tour of duty in Vietnam in the 1960s. “For me personally, it was a very exciting time. It was almost a spiritual journey. I got into this after having come back from the Vietnam war, and I faced the rejection that all the other soldiers faced coming back from that, and so I in turn rejected the culture that had sent me to war and decided to do something a little counter-culture. To be out here, being involved in agriculture was a great healing experience. I had an opportunity to start off with a clean slate, to start all over again from a philosophical perspective, and I developed a very important connection with nature. There was no electricity out there, so I lived with gas lights for about six years – running the tractor and getting the vineyard established.”

Spirituality and respect for nature comes alive through his viticulture and winemaking practices, most notably in his adherence to organic farming practices for more than 30 years, long before it was fashionable to do so. “Organic is a matter of the convention of the time. I was using chemicals when I started out, but then I started wondering, what’s happening to all these tons of chemicals that we are spraying into the environment? I felt that the reality was that these chemicals were getting into our groundwater system, and poisoning us. We were eating out of an organic garden at the time, and one day Thekla said ‘Well Richard, why don’t you just start growing the grapes organically?’ and I thought, well that might be a big challenge. So finally we decided to pursue it, and within two years we had weaned ourselves off of all chemicals, and we’ve been organic ever since.”

 

Future Wine Greatness at Alma Rosa

And what’s the secret to being a successful organic grape grower? “I think the thing I’ve recognized in organic farming is that the farmer has to believe that it’s possible. So it’s really largely mental. People become fearful about it, because they’re not able to use all these fancy chemicals. In organic wine growing, we can use elemental sulfur, …beneficial insects depending upon what the circumstances are, flower beds for “good bugs” to nest, because if you have a large good bug population they can overcome the bad bugs. So, again it’s a matter of being in balance, and that’s the critical thing.”

At first, this was not something he was broadcasting very loudly to the wine community due to apprehensions about organically grown grapes and organic wines from oenophiles and the wine press. “I was very shy about saying anything about organic, because wine connoisseurs didn’t like organic wine.” To be clear, the Alma Rosa wines Sanford is currently producing can’t be labeled organic due to the odd law that prevents any winemaker from labeling their wines as organic if they add sulfur dioxide to the wines in order to prevent premature oxidation, even if the grapes themselves come from certified organic vineyards like those from Alma Rosa.

Richard Sanford

But he’s no longer bashful about proclaiming his faith in organic farming. Sanford became such a strong believer in the importance of organic viticulture that after forming a partnership with the Terlato Wine Group under his namesake Sanford Winery in 2002, he essentially walked away from the business over it three years later. “We got involved with some partners who we felt had a different value system. We were always committed to farming organically, and some of the partners weren’t. They were more bottom line oriented. It costs about 10% more to farm organically, and I think its an important investment in the future. Some people were thinking that you shouldn’t give that 10% away.”

After that difficult separation from Sanford Winery, Richard was once again faced with starting anew. His latest creation, Alma Rosa winery, was started soon after leaving Sanford in 2005, and is now in full swing and producing some fantastic wines. “When I chose to start Alma Rosa, I thought to myself, ‘We’re in this wonderful region, this cool growing climate, we have very bright acids and beautiful fruit. Let’s create these new wines which are a reflection of the quality of fruit from the place.’ And so that’s why these new wines of Alma Rosa recognize the acid of the cool climate, and the fruit of the cool climate.”

2007 Alma Rosa Chardonnay - El Jabali Vineyard

The Alma Rosa wines we’ve had the pleasure to enjoy are right on target with Richard’s description. The flagship Pinot Noirs from La Encantada vineyard carry a bright, fruit forward profile that’s balanced very nicely with the crisp backbone supplied by the acidity of the wine. This balance of gorgeous fruit and well defined structure results in a very enjoyable Pinot Noir.

And as good as the Pinot Noir is for showing off the terroir of Santa Rita Hills, Sanford’s white wines of Alma Rosa are where this “bright acids and beautiful fruit” approach to winemaking shines through most clearly. Across the board, Alma Rosa’s white wines do not go through malolactic fermentation, so you’ll find delightfully crisp wines with sharp acidity. We enjoyed a 2007 El Jabali Chardonnay while finishing this article – a wine with a zesty, citrusy nose; lemon and green apple flavors which framed a light and crisp texture, while a slightly yeasty background provided just enough roundness to balance things out; followed by a surprisingly long finish. To make a Chardonnay with this lean of a profile – no malolactic fermentation, and clearly a very light touch with oak barrel treatments – and to pull it off with such grace and complexity, you’ve got to have confidence in the fruit. Wines this chiseled and defined, while retaining a rich depth of fruit character are what reminds me that Santa Rita Hills remains the best example of a premium cool climate region in Santa Barbara County, and I dare say one of the best in California. Clearly, Richard Sanford and his winemaking team at Alma Rosa have become masters at bringing out the character of this unique slice of California wine heaven.

Besides being a pioneer in the viticulture of Santa Rita Hills, Sanford has also been a long-time ambassador for the region as it gained notoriety in the global wine scene. “Even though we made really fine wine right off the bat, there wasn’t the knowledge in the country about this area as a quality wine growing region. By differentiating ourselves as the Santa Rita Hills, we’ve established the appellation as the cooler growing area of the Santa Ynez valley. And the focus of course has been on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – these cooler coastal varieties with high acids. So I spent a lot of time proselytizing for the area, spending time in New York and Chicago, and saying ‘Hey, this is what’s happening out in the west’.

As the unofficial mission of SBC Wine to connect Angelenos with their local wine culture, we were curious how Sanford viewed the relationship of Los Angeles wine drinkers with Santa Barbara County. “Well, unlike Napa Valley, which already had a pedigree (when I started), this area didn’t, and so it took a long time to develop. I’ve been talking about the area for forty years, and finally I’m pleased that people from the Los Angeles area recognize the quality of wines coming from this region as the people in the Bay area recognize Napa Valley. So it used to be that people were going to ‘the wine country’ and they’d fly right over us. So I’d say ‘Oh, you’re going to the other wine country’.” Well here’s just one more great reason for wine lovers of Los Angeles to stay close to home.

Richard’s induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone in February was a formal recognition of what everyone in the business already knew. Richard Sanford is a pioneer of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, and is largely responsible for the recognition of the region as a source of top tier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Here stands a man who had a daring vision to produce premium quality Burgundian variety wines in California; who did the research to find the best area to carry out that vision; who was steadfast in his belief of that vision despite long odds;  who carried it through to fruition; and who came to believe that being a good steward of the land was essential to sustaining the very thing that he had helped create.  Richard’s way may be becoming lost in the big business shuffle as the wine industry matures. But here’s one writer who is glad to have met this true legend of the Santa Barbara County wine world, and who’s hoping that future generations of winemakers will emulate this elegant and nuanced approach to wine.

 

More Q&A with Richard Sanford:

Q: Besides being good stewards of the land with organic farming, do you think it brings elements to the wine that wouldn’t otherwise be there?

A: “I think organic grapes speak to place, more than anything. And Pinot Noir particularly is expressive of place, so what you’re tasting in Pinot Noir is really the place that it comes from.”

 

Q: Winemaking is sometimes described at one extreme as just getting out of the way of the grapes expressing themselves, or at the other extreme as master craftsmanship. Where do you lie on the continuum?

A: “I think the important thing is to focus on the quality of the grapes. It’s hard to make fine wine out of a less than fine grape. Now, you can screw up a good grape, too. I think that typically winemakers tend to over process.  The most important thing in winemaking is patience, and not processing. Particularly in the case of Pinot Noir, because it tends to bruise rather easily – it becomes oxidized. There are some varieties that are more tolerant of processing.

 

Q; We heard you just sold the famed La Encantada vineyard to Hillside Road. What brought that about?

A: “My wife and I planted La Encantada – we planted close to 500 acres over the course of time – and the La Encantada vineyard was over 100 acres of Pinot Noir. And when we left Sanford winery we kept that vineyard because we had planted it ourselves. We had planted it to provide grapes to Sanford Winery, but Alma Rosa didn’t need 100 acres of Pinot Noir. It turns out there were some young people who were interested in being in the wine business, and it made more sense to sell the vineyard and identify the rows and blocks that we wanted our grapes to come from and commit to purchasing those back. And so it was purely a business decision to be able to enjoy the grapes, and not have the responsibility of farming.”

 

Q: Are the new owners going to continue organic farming practices?

A: “Yes. It was a critical element (of the sale) that these people are committed to organic farming.“

El Jabali Vineyard - Alma Rosa