THE BLOG
05/30/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Sanford & Benedict: Historic Vineyard's Story Told for First Time by Co-Founder

Richard Jennings

Michael Benedict, speaking for the first time publicly since 1980 about the history of Sanford & Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford) Michael Benedict, speaking for the first time publicly since 1980 about the history of Sanford & Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Sanford & Benedict is one of California's most historically significant and renowned vineyards because it proved two things: Santa Barbara County is a superlative spot for growing Pinot Noir, and the portion of the Santa Ynez Valley where it is located, now known as the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, is a fabulous cool climate location for vines in general.

The two men responsible for the significant achievements of this vineyard are Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict. They were partners from 1970 to 1980, when Richard Sanford sold his interest in the vineyard and went on to found Sanford Winery. Michael remained in charge of the vineyard, which was, for a time, renamed the Benedict Vineyard, until he and his financial backers sold it on in 1990 to a British couple who, in turn, brought Sanford back in to manage the vineyard.

Richard Sanford has been justly celebrated as a California Pinot Noir pioneer and Sta. Rita Hills founder, becoming the first Santa Barbara vintner to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame at a ceremony I attended in February 2012. His former partner Michael Benedict has, however, kept a low profile in the wine world since his departure from his eponymous vineyard.

That changed last week, when a group of Santa Barbara County winemakers met in the old barn at Sanford & Benedict, which had served as the winery during Sanford and Benedict's tenure there, to hear Michael Benedict talk about the vineyard's first 20 years.

May 23 gathering to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford) May 23 gathering to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy of Baron Spafford)

The winemakers on hand were basically a who's who of Santa Barbara County vintners, including long time winemakers Greg Brewer, Ken Brown, Matt Dees, John Falcone, Richard Longoria, Chad Melville and Billy Wathen; and newer winemakers Gavin Chanin, Dieter Cronje, Ryan Devolet, Matt Murphy, Raj Parr and Justin Willet. 

Benedict began his recollections in the late 1960s, when he and Sanford became sailing buddies, making periodic trips off the coast of Santa Barbara County. At the time, Benedict was an academic, a botanist with U.C. Santa Barbara, and Richard Sanford, who had graduated with a degree in geography from U.C. Berkeley and served as a navigator on a U.S. Navy destroyer during the Vietnam War, was working in video production. 

According to Benedict, he and Sanford used to talk about the "looming" wine business. Mondavi and others in Napa had begun receiving a lot of attention in the late 1960s. Michael told us, "There was a lot of capital chasing vineyard ideas, and a lot more capital available than people willing to put it to use."

Together, Michael and Richard developed an idea for the Santa Barbara area that was attractive to investors. Originally the idea was just that Santa Barbara County was a really good place to grow grapes. Uriel Nielson's vineyard, planted in the Santa Maria Valley in 1964, had proven that. Nielson was growing grapes--Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling--and selling them to Napa producers at premium prices. 

Michael and Richard bought Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling cuttings from the Nielsons and propagated them as rooted stem cuttings in 1970 for a vineyard location that they hoped soon to find. As their search continued for an appropriate site, the two started getting excited about the possibility of planting Burgundian varieties too--Pinot Noir and Chardonnay--which typically do best in a cooler climate.

Karl L. Wente, third generation winemaker/owner at Livermore's Wente Brothers and a protégée of Martin Ray and Paul Masson, recommended they take some of the extra Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines Karl had started for his vineyard in Arroyo Seco. He insisted they were the best choices available for planting these varieties because Martin Ray had told Karl these clones or selections would make the greatest wines. So they went with Wente's advice and took 9,000 rooted vines from him.

Michael and Richard ultimately identified an area in the Santa Ynez Valley where the climate was really good, not just for Burgundian varieties, but simply similar to the weather in "maritime France."

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard looking north, toward Sea Smoke Sanford & Benedict Vineyard looking north, toward Sea Smoke Vineyards on opposite foothills

Finding the land in the particular location in the valley that became Sanford & Benedict was then, according to Michael, just a matter of luck. The particular real estate just happened to be available. Michael and Richard made an offer to lease with an option to buy in five years. They planted their vines on their own roots there in 1971. 

In 1975, they made their first wine, three barrels of Pinot Noir. Ken Brown, who founded Byron and who now runs Ken Brown Wines, told me he remembered tasting that first wine with Michael and Richard. It stuck in his mind as a revelation and inspiration.

In 1976 Sanford and Benedict made their first commercial offering, the 1976 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, which was released in 1978.

This wine received unusually high acclaim. Robert Balzer wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times in an article entitled "American Grand Cru in a Lompoc Barn." Dan Berger, also writing for the Times, called the Pinot "a wine of cult proportions."

In 1980, Richard sold his interest in the vineyard to Michael and the other investors. He went on to found Sanford Wines with his wife Thekla in Buellton in 1981. Michael continued to operate Sanford & Benedict from that point, growing the grapes, selling off most of the production and making a small amount of wine.

Michael told us he found managing the vineyard in the late 1980s very challenging, so he and his investors took the opportunity to cash out in 1990. The buyers were British wine collectors Robert and Janice Atkin. According to Michael, the Atkinses asked Michael to stay on but Michael recommended that they work with Sanford instead. So in 1990 Richard Sanford began managing Sanford & Benedict, using most of the vineyard's fruit for his own Sanford Winery. 

Sanford planted La Rinconada Vineyard on adjacent property to the west in 1995. By then Sanford Winery was producing nearly 50,000 cases of wine annually, making it one of Santa Barbara County's biggest producers.

In the late 1990s the Sanfords started erecting Richard's dream winery on the La Rinconada Vineyard site. It was built with handmade adobe bricks, stone and recycled timbers. They ultimately finished in 2001, with the initial four million dollar cost estimate having ballooned to $10 million or so. 

Wine sales, unfortunately, dipped in 2001 and lenders needed to be paid. In 2002, the Sanfords received a cash infusion by entering into a marketing relationship with Paterno Wines International (now Terlato Wines International, based in Chicago). 

With sales continuing to remain slow over the next few years, capital calls reportedly allowed the Terlato Wine Group ultimately to gain a majority share in Sanford Winery. In 2006, Terlato--which also owns Alderbrook Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, and Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hill wineries in Napa, among other properties--bought out the Sanfords completely, taking over the Sanford name, winery and estate vineyards.

Steve Fennell (left) with Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford) Steve Fennell (left) with Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

Steve Fennell, who started as winemaker at Sanford in 2006, told us that in 2006 and 2007, the Terlato-owned Sanford Winery purchased fruit from Sanford & Benedict. In 2007, the Terlatos recognized the quality and potential of the vineyard and purchased it from the Atkinses, thereby reuniting Sanford Winery with its longtime fruit source.

At that time, the vineyard comprised 134 planted acres. The Terlato team surveyed the vineyard for virused and otherwise unhealthy plants.  After replanting and some new plantings, starting in 2008, there are 53 acres still remaining from the '70s; 22 more are plantings from the early '90s. Young vines comprise 70 acres. The vineyard is now planted to 11 different clones of Pinot Noir, along with 23 acres of Chardonnay and seven of Viognier. 

Michael echoed the sentiments of the assembled vintners currently making wine from the vineyard when he said, "This place has been tended from the beginning with lots of love and care, and continues to be." According to Michael, "the wines are getting better and better."

After Michael and Steve spoke, we tasted several wines based on Sanford & Benedict grapes made by some of the assembled winemakers.

Raj Parr told us he first started buying fruit from Sanford & Benedict for his Sandhi label in 2009. He explained that, over the years, he had mistaken Sanford & Benedict wines many times in blindtastings for Burgundy. What Raj says he finds interesting about the vineyard is the vine age, that the older vines are own rooted, and that the vines face north, "all of which seems to contribute to the wines' freshness and acidity."

Winemaker Gavin Chanin is intrigued by how deep the wines are from this site, "elegant, with fruit, structure and spice." According to Gavin, what distinguishes this vineyard is "perfect climate with amazing soil that's been farmed better and better every year since 2004. So that leaves us no excuses on the winemaking side."

The Sanford & Benedict Vineyard has already achieved a lot in proving that Santa Barbara can produce excellent Pinot Noir and that the Sta. Rita Hills appellation is one of the best cool climate vine growing locations in the state. Under its current management, the vineyard appears poised for continued success and achievement as the source of special fruit for potentially wonderful wines.

Santa Barbara County winemakers who gathered to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford) Santa Barbara County winemakers who gathered to hear from Michael Benedict (photo courtesy Baron Spafford)

For my tasting notes on the wonderful Sanford & Benedict designated wines we tasted on this memorable occasion, see the complete report on my website here.

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