Pierre Lafond, the Montreal-born entrepreneur who ushered in the region’s modern era of commercial winemaking by founding Santa Barbara Winery 60 years ago, died on Sunday morning. He was 92 years old.
“Pierre had a strong appetite for steady and true work,” said a statement released by his family on Tuesday, noting his role in Wendy Foster Clothing Stores, Pierre Lafond Montecito Market & Deli, and Montecito Wine Bistro as well as the Santa Barbara and Lafond wineries. “He invested whole-heartedly in his current ventures as well as creating ongoing opportunities. He was attentive, consistent, and caring, working right alongside his many employees throughout his entire career and was a leader to the very end. Pierre was a staple in our community, ever present at our many locations, where his steadfast presence will be sorely missed. With gratitude in our hearts for his influence and dedication, we look forward to carrying on his legacy and honoring his commitment to family, hard work, and service.”
Lafond moved to Santa Barbara in 1957 at the request of his father, who was running a liquor store on the Mesa. But when his father died soon after his arrival, Lafond, who’d been trained as an architect, dove into the retail business with a focus on wine, opening a new shop in downtown’s El Paseo complex in 1962. He eventually opened a number of bistros in Montecito and Santa Barbara alongside his wife, Wendy Foster, who’s also launched a number of clothing stores.
Though there wasn’t much popular interest in wine a half-century ago, Lafond realized that there was a growing thirst for locally grown wines, so he founded Santa Barbara Winery that same year, becoming the first commercial winemaking operation to open in the county since Prohibition. In 1964, he began making wine in the industrial beachfront neighborhood that would become widely known as the Funk Zone many decades later.
“It was not a good time to start a winery,” Lafond told the Independent a decade ago, as many Napa Valley operations were closing or being sold off. 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,” explained Lafond. “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.
Lafond hired an upstart winemaker named Bruce McGuire, who was interested in the potential for pinot noir, thanks to the 1976 release from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. “That had a lot of people talking,” recalled McGuire. “I knew Pierre’s vineyard was two miles away, and that in itself was very compelling.” He advised Lafond to plant some of that Burgundian grape. “When he suggested pinot noir,” said Lafond, “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.
Today, the business is split between two brands. The majority is sold under the Santa Barbara Winery label, which was based on Anacapa Street in the Funk Zone until a couple vintages ago. Lafond credited 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.
Lafond’s business also became a family affair: Pierre’s daughter Michelle signed on in 2011 as the marketing director and his son David is general manager of the Lafond Winery.
Altogether, a half-century later, Santa Barbara of 2012 wouldn’t be the Santa Barbara we know if it weren’t for Lafond.
“We were the only winery here for at least 30 years,” Lafond once said of calling the Funk Zone home before anyone even thought of the name. “In those days, it was always considered the slum zone of Santa Barbara, if you can imagine that.”