Fear hit Thekla Sanford early on a Saturday morning.
The U.S. Justice Department was calling her husband, Richard Sanford, and her first thought was, “Great, what did he do now?”
The call actually stemmed from the pioneering moves made by the Santa Rita Hills Wine Alliance 2020 Vintner of the Year and was a story retold with fanfare in a virtual tasting Aug. 11 with Sanford, featuring wines from Alma Rosa and a slew of colleagues who toasted his celebrated career.
As Sanford led the charge to designate the Sta. Rita Hills an American Viticultural Area, the SRHWA filed the necessary paperwork with the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms) and received approval. About a year later, the Justice Department called to tell Sanford the ATF was being sued by Santa Rita Hills – in Chile.
Sanford met the challenge head on.
“It was at a trade fair when I introduced myself to the head of their organization,” Sanford said. “They were probably surprised I would talk to them since we were being sued, but I agreed to go to Santa Rita, Chile, and meet with the owner who was a great, great, great grandson of a conquistador, and we had a lot of back-and-forth discussion. His issue was that the script in the label was too similar. So, we finally reached an agreement; if we abbreviated Santa to Sta., they’d have the right to Santa Rita and that would be OK.”
In 1971, he’d planted the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills’ unique transverse range, where the mountains’ east-west orientation allows for cold air and fog to roll in from the Pacific Ocean – ideal conditions for pinot noir and chardonnay.
“Fifty years ago, viticulture really wasn’t of any interest in the western Santa Ynez Valley,” Sanford said. “There was a developing interest – mainly vineyards that were planted for tax incentives. A lot of early development was commercial vineyard sites. But interest in high quality sites seemed to come later into the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. We were all inspired, at least I was, by the climate. I came to know the region, when I recognized the transverse mountains and the cooling air from the Pacific that they let in. I call it refrigerated sunshine.”
The climate has produced stunning wines. After Sanford sold his eponymous winery, he founded Alma Rosa in 2005. He would sell Alma Rosa to Bob and Barb Zorich in 2015. Today, he serves as an ambassador for Alma Rosa and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
While my last visit to my favorite AVA was too long ago in 2012, the Alma Rosa wines are as excellent or even better today, as the Alma Rosa Blanc White Wine La Encantada Vineyard 2018 ($35) Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris had pear, lemon … nectarine flavors and the mineral note of a wet rock in a creek on a perfect spring day. A flinty masterpiece that needed raw oysters, garlic and butter shrimp or a creamy white cheese.
The Alma Rosa El Jabali Pinot Noir 2018 ($62) has black cherry, cranberry, loamy earth, sweet tobacco spice and the unmistakable spice rack notes that Sta. Rita Hills shows off so well. Get it while you can though, there’s a changing of the guard coming to El Jabali vineyard. Disease started to make its way through the vineyard and, after 37 years, future bottlings will feature more fruit from the new vines planted in 2015.
“Planted from the original Sanford & Benedict budwood to the Mount Eden Clone, from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, this wine reflects the long structure that only mature grape vines can give,” Sanford said.
With the Alma Rosa Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2017 ($38), there are green apple and pear flowers; and the judicious usage of oak allowed for some tropical flavors to peek through. The Alma Rosa Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2017 ($45) is more brooding with black cherry, rosemary, thyme, sage and other herbal notes.
The guest list was loaded with Sta. Rita Hills originals.
Rick Longoria has known Sanford for 44 years; he said they “grew up together in the wine industry.” Longoria’s Fe Ciega vineyard, which translates as Blind Faith, an ode to the winemaker’s penchant for classic rock music, was established in 1998. There are a few notable producers that purchase fruit from Longoria, and while his wines are harder to find, they are defined by restraint and finesse. He noted Sanford’s focus spurred the creation, growth and formation of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance.
“Without (Richard’s) vision and leadership, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and Alliance would not exist, and that’s the truth,” Longoria said. “He led gracious, productive meetings and moved everything along as it should have, we are indebted to his leadership.”
Always evolving with his Revolutionary Farming practice, Bryan Babcock marveled how Sanford welcomed competitors with open arms.
“He was always engaging,” said Babcock, whose eponymous winery makes pinot noir that is whole-cluster fermented, and has a plethora of other exciting wines. “His attitude was if you think you can make it in this crazy business, go right ahead. When you get into the wine business, you ask yourself, am I being really brave or being really stupid? Richard and Pierre Lafond were the first guys to get a vine, dig a hole with a shovel and plant pinot noir and chardonnay in the Sta. Rita Hills.”
From the barrel room of his Brewer-Clifton winery, Greg Brewer said Sanford was “like an anchor, the core and nucleus of the entire ecosystem we have here.” The Brewer-Clifton wines are well distributed, and the soil samples in the very modern tasting room help define the vineyards where the wines are sourced.
“What you mean to the Sta. Rita Hills goes well beyond the earth and transverse range,” said Brewer, who got choked up when he spoke about Sanford. “I want to keep hearing these stories, I want to be at your knee. That to me is an icon and a leader.”
While Frank Ostini joined for the entire conference, the affable owner of The Hitching Post II restaurant specializing in oak-grilled steaks, ostrich and on Monday and Tuesday the best burger in the Santa Ynez Valley, had technical difficulties. Ostini’s Hitching Post wines are also available locally; the Highliner and Cork Dancer are two that stand out. When the restaurateur and winemaker couldn’t get his mic to work, he touched both of his thumbs and pointer fingers together in the shape of a heart.
Without saying a word, he’d summed up the love that everyone else on the panel had spoken about.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.