Sanford & Benedict: Historic Vineyard’s Story Told for First Time by Co-Founder
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, Sta. Rita Hills founder and organic wine producer, 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, refusing even to comment for articles about the history of the vineyard and his and Sanford’s pioneering accomplishments.
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. I was fortunate to be included in this august gathering, and to join with the assembled winemakers in tasting and hearing about some of the wines made from this special vineyard, including a couple of older examples. The co-host for this event with Michael Benedict was current Sanford winemaker Steve Fennell.
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 Deovlet, 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.”
Michael had worked as a botanist on Santa Cruz Island where a vineyard—the Justinian Caire Co. Vineyard–was planted in the 1880s that had been very successful. Unfortunately, when Prohibition came, all the vines there were ripped out, on the theory that vines in this remote location would be particularly attractive to bootleggers.
Michael became fascinated by trying to work out why they had planted the vineyard on the island in the first place instead of in a more convenient location on the mainland. He knew the climate there well. He then started thinking about the effect of sunshine and cool weather on grape vines. He started compiling data on that from various regions in France and the West Coast of the U.S.
What he found was that the existing “California vineyard” was generally too hot to grow French wine varieties well. He thought about areas in California with cooler climates and longer growing seasons, and ultimately saw the opportunity in Santa Barbara County to try something new.
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. That year, Michael told us he spent a lot of time on the road checking out the climate and plantings up and down the West Coast, including the Willamette Valley, Okanagan Valley and Sonoma. He told us he ended up publishing a piece on potential areas for vineyards with lots of sunshine where the temperature did not get very hot.
Michael and Richard 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.” Michael (presumably alongside Richard—-Michael told the story in the first person, but it tracks with Richard’s published recollections of driving around the area with a thermometer sticking out of the windshield of his 1950 Mercedes) drove around looking to find a place in the area that stayed below 80 degrees during the hottest times, ideally in the high 70s.
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. Its owner had bought the 473-acre parcel south of the Santa Ynez River–which had once been dry farmed for beans and barley–after the announcement that a dam was going in nearby, thinking the land could be developed as lake front property and a resort. When the dam project got cancelled, the land prices in the area plummeted.
Michael and Richard made an offer to lease with an option to buy in five years, allowing them to get in with relatively little cash outlay. They planted their Cabernet and Riesling vines on their own roots there in 1971.
Over the preceding year, after obtaining the cuttings from the Nielsons, Michael told us he’d come across information on work done by Louis Martini, Martin Ray and others who had experience trying to grow Burgundian varieties in California. As a result, he and Richard both started getting more excited about the possibilities of growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in cooler parts of the Santa Barbara area.
Karl L. Wente, third generation winemaker/owner at Livermore’s Wente Brothers and a protégée of Martin Ray and Paul Masson, recommended that Michael and Richard 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 made it clear to us that the Pinot Noir they received from Wente and planted at Sanford & Benedict was not technically Mount Eden clone. That particular, cleaned up, virus-free clone was not released until 1980. What they planted is simply what Karl Wente had obtained from Martin Ray’s Mount Eden Vineyard. Michael described them as suitcase clones “from Chambertin via Paul Masson, via Martin Ray, via Wente.” So they are properly referred to as a selection from Mount Eden.
They planted the vineyard basically without irrigation and it grew for 20 years without irrigation. They did water the young vines for the first year only by digging a basin around them and using a contraption on a truck to give each new vine about one and a half gallons at a time. The second year they relied on natural rainfall. The roots went deep, according to Michael, “because the vines had no choice.”
In 1975, they made their first wine, three barrels of Pinot Noir, in a spot near Michael’s house at the back of Sanford & Benedict. The extract levels and balance of that wine suggested they were really onto something. 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 release, the 1976 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, which was released in 1978. Firestone had built a big winery but had no grapes yet, so they made their first wines there.
This initial commercial vintage 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 1976, Michael told us they refurbished the old barn on the property –- the one with a layer of yellow lichen on the front in which we were assembled for this event –making it into what it looks like today. They had to reinforce and insulate it. They left the doors open to let the cold air blow through. At night, according to Michael, it was generally always in the low 50s. On the roof, they installed a row of misters. Michael explained that if they kept the roof slightly moist the barn “acted like a swamp cooler refrigerator.” Their first open top fermenters were made from white oak by a friend, Gary Gordon, who owned a hot tub factory.
Michael told us that the Cabernet they had planted was often green and had the usual problems of cold climate Cabernet. They also planted Merlot. Michael claimed that from 1976 to 1979 they made great Cabernet and Merlot. The wine was labeled Cabernet, the bottles had red capsules, but the wine was really a blend. Bill Wathen and Rick Longoria also both made Merlot from the vineyard. Michael said the Riesling also did well there. He opined that the vineyard is simply, “a great site for vinifera.” Nonetheless, due to the increasing demand for Pinot Noir, the Cabernet, Merlot and Riesling were eventually grafted over to Pinot Noir.
In 1980, Richard sold his interest in the vineyard to Michael and the other investors. In interviews, Richard’s repeated explanation for his departure at that time has been that it was “hard to make wine by committee.” He went on to found Sanford Wines with his wife Thekla in Buellton in 1981. In 1982 they planted the small Rancho El Jabali Vineyard on their own home property to the east of Sanford & Benedict. 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.
For a time in the mid- and late ‘80s, the vineyard became known as the Benedict Vineyard. Toward the end of our session, Richard Longoria poured us a fabulous 1987 Pinot Noir he had made, that smelled just like a great old Barolo and still possessed amazing power and structure, that was designated “Benedict Vineyard.”
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. According to published accounts based on Sanford’s side of the story, the Sanfords were silent partners in the deal with the Atkins.
At any rate, in 1990 Richard Sanford began managing Sanford & Benedict, using most of the vineyard’s fruit for his own Sanford Winery.
In 1991 irrigation was installed. This initially led to a huge increase in yields—going from about three quarters of a ton to the acre to nearly five tons an acre. John Winthrop Haeger in his 2004 book North American Pinot Noir records the opinion of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen that the irrigation had a “negative impact on quality” for about five years, until 1996. Yields have since stabilized at about two to two and a half tons per acre.
Sanford planted La Rinconada Vineyard on adjacent property to the west in 1995. In 2000, he planted La Encantada Vineyard also in Santa Rita Hills. 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, who started as winemaker at Sanford in 2006, brought the gathering up to date on what had transpired at Sanford in connection with Sanford & Benedict since that time. Steve told us he had gotten to know Michael over the last year. Almost three years previously, Michael had first called him looking for cuttings from Sanford & Benedict.
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 then surveyed the vineyard for virused and otherwise unhealthy plants. In 2008 they replanted 35 acres. In 2010 they planted an additional 11 acres, so there are now a total of 145. In 2011 they replanted 26 acres, along with implementing a major retrofit of the old, healthy vines, changing them from California sprawl to a parallel, divided canopy with four canes on the healthy vines. The lead viticulturalist on this was Erik Mallea, who was then employed by Coastal Management Services. The Terlatos brought Erik and the farming in house in 2013.
After the replanting and new plantings, there are 53 acres still remaining from the ‘70s; 22 more are plantings from the early ‘90s. The original plantings are on their own roots (or vinifera roots anyway, in the case of some original plantings of Cabernet and Riesling that were grafted over to Pinot Noir). 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.
The rows of the original plantings are spaced 12 feet apart. The intermediate plantings, from the early ‘90s, are 10 feet apart. The newest plantings are only six feet apart.
It’s actually a 500-acre ranch. The elevation from the lowest to highest point of the ranch varies by about 1,000 feet. Steve estimates they could plant another 50 to 60 acres. Areas near and along the ridge would get too much wind, so vines there would not ripen—the wind at a certain point causes the plant to simply shut down. The existing vineyard has a gentle northern slope and forms a large bowl, which helps protect the vines to some degree from the constant wind that blows through the area from the ocean. Another challenge is getting sufficient water to some parts of the potential new planting areas.
For Steve it’s been fascinating working with both Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada next door, as he finds the wines from the two neighboring vineyards always distinctly different. They currently retain about 70% of the Sanford & Benedict fruit for Sanford Winery, selling the remaining 30% to other producers, with the largest amount going to Au Bon Climat. For the Sanford wines designated as Sanford & Benedict, they usually blend at least two or three blocks. Which ones they ultimately use depend on the vintage.
“The remarkable thing,” Michael Benedict told us, “is the dirt out there. It’s probably one of the two or three greatest locations in the Santa Rita Hills.”
Michael did not go into the significance of the soils in any detail, but Matt Kramer, in his 2004 volume entitled New California Wine: Making Sense of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Central Coast, and Beyond, opines that what the Santa Rita Hills location offers is not just a cool climate, very similar to that in Santa Maria Valley, but its special soils. He explains these include, “Botella clay loam or Montery shale. It’s a blackish loam soil capable of imparting a distinctive, appealing earthiness to Pinot Noir. Botella clay is what makes Sanford & Benedict Vineyard so distinctive.”
Michael did, however, echo 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.” He told us he made some wine in 2012 from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there, and finds it extraordinary how good the raw material is. 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. At the end of the program, we adjourned for lunch outside in front of the old barn, and sampled a few more wines, mostly from Sanford & Benedict grapes. My tasting notes for all of the wines from Sanford & Benedict fruit appear at the end of this post, below.
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.”
Ryan Deovlet began buying fruit from Sanford & Benedict three years ago; 2010 was his first vintage from the vineyard for his relatively new Deovlet label. Now he’s getting three tons of fruit. He gets his fruit from block T15, a block of old vine Chardonnay.
Jonata winemaker Matt Dees explained to me that Jonata doesn’t grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and that they looked for old vines for their Burgundian varietal project called The Hilt. They get some Chardonnay from Sanford & Benedict, from block T3, and also some fruit from the Solomon Hills. Matt finds the extract on the Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir, which they get from old vine blocks T1, T2 and T3, very high. Tyler owner/winemaker Justin Willett thinks the high extract levels are probably due to their own rootedness, which give them lots of structure.
In 2008, Jonata took over farming of blocks T1, T2 and T3. They decided to change the trellising to vertical shoot positioning and as soon as they did, were rewarded by two severe frosts that left them only one quarter ton per acre. They ultimately switched to quadrilateral cordons, which have worked well according to Matt. Matt also told us that Esca disease had shown up on some of the vines in 2011, adding a black pepper spice note to the fruit.
Gavin Chanin gets fruit for his new Lutum project, a joint venture with Sonoma based winemaker Bill Price, from blocks T5, 6 and 10. This includes some of the new plantings. He first visited the vineyard in 2004, which was his first year working harvest at Au Bon Climat.
Gavin 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.”
Interestingly, despite the huge acclaim for the early wines from Sanford & Benedict, few initially followed the pioneers into this section of the Santa Ynez Valley. Lafond had planted there the same year as Sanford and Benedict. Babcock followed in 1978. Plantings there only really took off beginning at the end of the 1990s. Vineyards were planted at Clos Pepe and Melville as well as Sea Smoke and Fiddlestix. The petition to establish the Santa Rita Hills AVA was submitted in 1998 and ultimately approved in 2001.
In sum, it appears evident that Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict’s instincts regarding planting in a cooler site like this portion of the Santa Ynez Valley certainly paid off. They also appear to have been fortunate in getting a good selection of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Karl Wente as the base for their vineyard. They also lucked into benefiting from the Santa Rita Hills’s soils, which seem to have a special affinity for Pinot Noir.
It appears to be quite fortunate that the vineyard is now in the hands of well funded, solid stewards who respect the legacy they have acquired—the Terlatos—and that, as a result, the vineyard is probably the healthiest it has ever been.
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.
Here are my notes on the wonderful Sanford & Benedict designated wines we tasted on this memorable occasion.
- 1987 Longoria Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Bricked medium red color; appealing, mature, incense, dried cherry, old-Barolo-like nose; mature, silky textured, very spicy, dried berry with prodigious extract; long finish (13.4% alcohol; smelled and tasted like a mature Barolo, I’ve never tasted a California Pinot like it, truly memorable) 95 points
- 1979 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Bricked medium red color; mature, tobacco, dried cranberry nose; firmly structured yet, tobacco, dried cranberry, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (past its prime, but reminiscent of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir from a similar vintage) 90 points
- 2008 Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
Light lemon yellow color; reduction, tart lemon, saffron nose; tasty, almond, ripe lemon, saffron, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
- 2011 Deovlet Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
Light yellow color; a little reduction, almond, tart pear nose; poised, rich, almond, tart pear, tart lemon, mineral palate; could use 2 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (an exciting Cali Chard; 13.4% alcohol; picked at about 22.5 brix; 1/2 malo) 93+ points
- 2011 Sandhi Wines Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
Light medium lemon yellow color; tart lemon, tart pear, lemon oil, white jasmine, almond nose; rich, tasty, firmly textured, ripe lemon, tart pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; should age very well; medium-plus finish (13.2% alcohol per Raj; picked at about 21 brix; 25% new oak; full malolactic; from vines planted in early ’70s) 93 points
- 2011 Tyler Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict
Light yellow color; very appealing, almond, hazelnut, pear, butter nose; tasty, poised, creamy textured, tart pear palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points
Younger Pinot Noirs
- 2012 Lutum Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Barrel sample – very dark ruby color; appealing, tart berry, tart cherry, pepper nose; tight, tart cherry, tart pepper, mineral palate with a sense of dried herbs; will need 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 92-93 points
- 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Old Block Sanford & Benedict
Pre-release – medium dark ruby color; very appealing, roses, tart cherry, rosehips nose; tight, tart cherry, cranberry, tart raspberry, mineral palate; could use 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (not yet labeled) 93+ points
- 2011 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Dark ruby color; appealing, bright red fruit, tart cherry, ripe raspberry nose; tasty, poised, light-medium bodied, silky textured, tart cranberry, very tart cherry, mineral, sous bois palate; medium-plus finish 93 points
- 2010 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Opaque red violet color; very appealing, ripe raspberry, tart cherry, raspberry jam nose; tasty, creamy textured, ripe raspberry, raspberry jam palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 92 points
- 2009 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Very dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cherry, black raspberry, baked raspberry nose; tasty, tightish, tart raspberry, black raspberry, baked raspberry, baked strawberry, ripe cranberry palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points
- 2011 The Hilt Pinot Noir Old Guard
Dark ruby color; very appealing, aromatic, tart cherry, tart berry, green herbs nose; tight, rich, tart cherry, cranberry, mineral palate with medium acidity; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (picked at 21.5 brix; 100% destemmed) 92+ points
- 2011 Tyler Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict
Very dark cherry red color; very appealing, tart cherry, forest floor, savory, light green peppercorn nose; tight, silky textured, tart cranberry, mineral, green peppercorn palate with lots of extract; could use 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (from top 4 rows of block T13) 92+ points