An intimate, invite-only summit of Santa Barbara’s most celebrated winemakers of the past, present, and future took over the lichen-covered barn that overlooks the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard last Thursday, with the sole goal of reflecting on how that historic property exalted the Sta. Rita Hills into a prime pinot noir and chardonnay growing region, as well as what to expect in the future. Hosted by Sanford Winery, whose winemaker Steve Fennell started the event by calling Sanford & Benedict “the spark for so much that followed,” the roundtable tasting was presided over by Michael Benedict himself, the botanical brain who teamed with his sailing buddy Richard Sanford in the early 1970s to acquire wine-minded investors and discover how well grapes grow in the cool but sunny hills between Lompoc and Buellton.
Thanks to the Santa Maria Valley’s Nielson Vineyard, which was already fetching a great price for its grapes from producers in the Napa Valley, the duo had a notion that grapes could grow here, and they felt that most of California was simply too hot to do wine as they did traditionally in France, where most of the popular clones evolved. “Here was Santa Barbara County sitting with all these cool climates and long sunny days that didn’t get very hot,” said Benedict, who got inspiration, guidance, and cuttings from such Golden State luminaries as Louis Martini, Martin Ray, and Karl Wente.
Benedict and Sanford cobbled together a winery of sorts in the very same barn where last week’s group was sitting, bringing in misters, letting the cool air in at night and trapping it in during the day, and having hot-tub-making friends in Santa Barbara craft redwood fermenters. “It was very medieval,” admitted Benedict, who first planted cabernet sauvignon, riesling, and chardonnay, but added pinot noir by the late 1970s. “It worked well enough to get us going.” In 1980, Sanford left to pursue his own Sanford Winery (which he left in 2005 to start Alma Rosa Winery), but Benedict stayed on until 1990, when he “cashed out” against his own emotions.
Though opining that there was “still unevenness” in the wines coming out of his namesake vineyard, Benedict was happy to say that “the arrows are pointing upward” with improving quality. He explained, “The most important thing is that dirt out there and this climate.”