It all started with a liquor store on the Mesa.
The year was 1957, and Montreal-born Pierre Lafond inherited the shop from his father, who had lured his son to sunny Santa Barbara but died soon after his arrival. Though trained as an architect, the younger Lafond jumped into the retail business and started to focus on selling wine, eventually opening a new shop in downtown’s El Paseo complex in 1962. Though there wasn’t much popular interest in wine back then, Lafond realized that there was a growing thirst for locally grown wines, so he founded Santa Barbara Winery that same year.
“It was not a good time to start a winery,” explained Lafond, as many Napa Valley operations were closing or being sold off. But he started buying zinfandel fruit from the Templeton Gap area near Paso Robles — “It was the only thing that was available,” recalled Lafond, though he’d soon start producing fruit-based wines like olallieberry, as well — and enlisted an optometrist friend to start making the wine. “It was very primitive,” said Lafond one recent morning outside of the winery’s tasting room in the Funk Zone, where everything has been headquartered since 1964. “We weren’t doing anything that I was really proud of.”
In 1972, Lafond bought 105 acres in what would become the Sta. Rita Hills and planted most of the land with cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, riesling, and zinfandel, becoming one of the Santa Ynez Valley’s vineyard visionaries. Business grew slowly, as did Santa Barbara County’s wine industry, but then came an upstart winemaker named Bruce McGuire, who’d been making wine since his parents gave him a kit to make rosé at home as a 10th grader. (“It turned out pretty bad,” admits McGuire today.) With an ag degree from the University of New Hampshire and work experience in both Boston wine shops and Sonoma County wineries, McGuire became Santa Barbara Winery’s full-time winemaker in 1982, giving up a job in a Clarksburg vineyard near Lodi to do so.
“It was really tough deciding whether to move to downtown Santa Barbara by the beach or work in the delta 25 miles south of Sacramento,” deadpanned McGuire, who was especially intrigued by the region due to the 1976 release of Sanford & Benedict’s first pinot noir. “That had a lot of people talking,” recalled McGuire, who advised Lafond to plant some of that Burgundian grape. Recalled Lafond of the idea, “When he suggested pinot noir, it was not a household item.”
Today, pinot noir is one of the most preferred grapes on the planet, and Santa Barbara County — specifically the Sta. Rita Hills, where Lafond now has nearly 90 acres of pinot planted — is considered one of the world’s best regions for that finicky fruit. McGuire also encouraged a chardonnay program, which is now Santa Barbara Winery’s workhorse grape, although he makes about 15 different wines per year, including slightly obscure varietals, such as primitivo and lagrein, and blends from outside the region, like the ZCS, a zin-carignane-sangiovese concoction from Lodi. “It keeps me entertained,” he said of making so many wines. “And it gives the winery something to offer that’s different from what you can buy out in the supermarket.”
Today, the business is split between two brands and facilities. The majority is sold under the Santa Barbara Winery label, and that facility still thrives on lower Anacapa Street, where Lafond credits the Castagnola family for being “very helpful landlords” over the past half century. Then there is the Lafond Winery, which was built by the Sta. Rita Hills vineyard in the late 1990s, opened a tasting room in 2001, and makes mostly estate-grown pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah. Altogether, the two facilities produce about 35,000 cases of wine per year — the downtown winery handles most of the whites, with the Sta. Rita Hills facility making the reds — but have the ability to do 50,000 at full capacity and now sell wine throughout the United States as well as in Europe, Canada, and China. In the imitation-as-flattery department, the company has had to legally swipe away a number of copycats in recent years that tried to cash in on both the well-known name and popular label designs.
Along the way, it’s become a family affair, with Pierre’s daughter Michelle signing on in 2011 as the marketing director and his son David leading the construction of the Lafond Winery and becoming a general manager of that property. “He’s become quite the farm boy,” Michelle said of her brother, who now lives up near the vineyard, which overlooks the Santa Ynez River and features a private little campground the family calls “Camp Dirt” and a nice swimming hole. She explained, “It’s very Norman Rockwell.”
Altogether, a half-century later, Santa Barbara of 2012 wouldn’t be the Santa Barbara we know if it weren’t for Pierre Lafond and his wife, Wendy Foster, as they also own a number of bistros around town as well as clothing stores. And Santa Barbara’s wine country might look a lot different if it weren’t for Bruce McGuire, who’s mentored some of the region’s biggest players, both established and emerging, in his 30 years of work, from Craig Jaffurs, Brett Escalera, and Greg Brewer to Graham Tatomer, Joey Gummere, and Chris King.
As to why he’s stuck around so long in an industry where people often jump from project to project, McGuire had a pretty easy answer. “Working two blocks from the beach in downtown Santa Barbara is not too bad,” he said with a smile. Plus, there’s still much more to learn. Explained McGuire, “My protocols are evolving constantly.”
Santa Barbara Winery will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a wine-club members party on Saturday, July 21, 6-9 p.m. at the tasting room on 202 Anacapa Street. See sbwinery.com. Additionally, the an Urban Wine Trail Passport Weekend is July 27-29, and Santa Barbara Winery is participating; see urbanwinetrailsb.com.