What follows is an edited excerpt from Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County, published in 2020 by Matt Kettmann and Macduff Everton.
You might expect romantic tales of viticultural conquest and testaments to age-old traditions when talking to wine industry veterans Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran.
But when sipping on crisp white wines made from grapes you’ve never heard of next to a walnut orchard outside of their winery on Santa Rosa Road in the Sta. Rita Hills, the conversation instead revolves around electrostatic sprayers, protein adherents, and protease enzymes. After nearly 65 combined vintages in the Santa Ynez Valley — during which they built up the reputations of legendary estates such as Sanford and Sea Smoke while developing their own brands — this power couple is firmly, even defiantly, focused on the molecular side of winemaking rather than the charming methods of yesteryear.
“The science, the technology, the chemistry, the physics — we apply those to our winemaking,” says D’Alfonso. “I wasn’t that smart back in the day. I was more of a traditionalist. Now it’s different. Winemaking is totally an interventionist exercise for me.”
For D’Alfonso, back in the day means 1980, when he got his first job as an assistant winemaker at Edna Valley Vineyards. He’d grown up in Glendale, the first generation American of an Italian family that toiled as stonemasons, shoemakers, mechanics, and carpenters. “They were people who worked with their hands,” he said.
But mom wanted Bruno to go to college, so he studied soil science at Cal Poly, where he learned that you could get a degree in winemaking, which he then did at UC-Davis. Upon graduation, D’Alfonso itched to get back to his friends on the Central Coast, and noticed a job posting for the new Edna Valley Vineyards. He was hired by renowned vintner Richard Graff, who’d founded Chalone Vineyard in Monterey County in 1966, and got to know then-owners Jack and Katherine Niven quite well.
“They were the old guard, the greatest human beings — I just fell in with a very excellent group of people,” explains D’Alfonso of the Nivens and Graff, who died tragically in 1998 at age 60 upon crashing his plane near Salinas. “As far as I am concerned, the 1980s was the finest decade of California winemaking. I was right in the thick of it.”
In 1981, D’Alfonso met Richard Sanford, who’d left Sanford & Benedict Vineyard to start Sanford Winery, which was being made at the Edna Valley facility. D’Alfonso was assigned to work for Sanford every Friday, which he did for two vintages.
In 1983, Sanford asked D’Alfonso to become his full-time winemaker. He took the job, and stayed for nearly a quarter-century, developing a world-class reputation for the wines of Sanford Winery along the way. In 2005, Sanford Winery was taken over by the Terlato family, prompting both Sanford and D’Alfonso to leave as part of the transition.
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“I continually get asked about how my life was at that particular time, working with Richard Sanford and Richard Graff during the best decades in California winemaking,” said D’Alfonso. “I’ve tried to distill it down to a word: It was an adventure. Like any adventure, the good, the bad, and the ugly were all involved. It was just a fantastic time to be alive.”
The next move for D’Alfonso was obvious. A decade earlier, in 1995, he started his own line of Italian varietal wines called Di Bruno. Then the family that owns Rancho La Viña, where he and Curran began living in 2000, offered to build them a winery on-site, completing that project in 2007.
Curran, meanwhile, was charting her own course. Born in Los Angeles but raised in the Santa Ynez Valley, she grew up familiar with wine culture, playing polo with Brooks Firestone and his original winemaker Alison Green, working in Mattei’s Tavern and other wine country restaurants as a teenager, and particularly loving the 1988 Sanford chardonnay.
After a year in Hawaii trying to become a merchant marine, she returned to the valley and met D’Alfonso in 1990. She assumed that winemakers were only hired through family ties but he explained that you could get a degree in the trade and be hired as a winemaker. They’ve been together ever since.
In 1997, with an enology degree from Fresno State, Curran was hired at Cambria Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. In 1999, she turned a horse barn into Koehler Winery, and then was hired by Bob Davids in 2000 to help develop Sea Smoke Cellars. The brand quickly became a pinot noir sensation, putting the Sta. Rita Hills firmly on the global map of cult wine collectors.
“Bruno and I knew it was a great property, but we didn’t expect such a whirlwind situation,” said Curran. “There are big, long stories about Sea Smoke, but ultimately, it boiled down to the fact that people were really up for a very nice pinot noir from this area. It was the right time, and was a real surprise for all of us. It was just a kismet of timing.”
She left Sea Smoke in 2008 to work for Foley Estate, where she stayed until 2010. Curran had started her own brand back in 1997, so, like D’Alfonso, her next move was clear as day. “Let’s just focus on what we’re doing here at Rancho La Viña,” she said.
The couple now makes a wide range of wines under the umbrella of D’Alfonso-Curran, which they launched in 2006. That label includes single-vineyard expressions of pinot noir and chardonnay, but also a zesty series of more obscure, aromatic white wines including loureiro, verdelho, arneis, vermentino, and grüner veltliner. Their other brands continue to thrive, including the original Di Bruno (Italian varieties), Curran (pinot plus Spanish and more), and Badge, which is a more affordable line.
D’Alfonso bristles a bit when asked about what sets their wines apart in today’s crowded scene. “People are trying to differentiate their wines through marketing rather than making better wine,” he said. “But we don’t really have a schtick. We are here to be extremely serious about what actually makes wine and how it develops. It’s not anything else but that. If you don’t know science, you’re not gonna get there.”