Michael Benedict at the original Sanford and Benedict Vineyard and Winery, a converted dairy barn | Credit: Macduff Everton

Michael Benedict, the botanist who co-founded Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1971 and forever changed Santa Barbara County’s wine industry, died this week. He was 83 years old, and the cause was melanoma. 

Benedict and Richard Sanford planted their vineyard in the early 1970s, eventually proving that pinot noir could thrive in the valleys between Buellton and Lompoc. Their discovery drew global attention and energized the region. In 2001, the surrounding area became federally designated as the Sta. Rita Hills, which is now considered one of the best places for pinot noir on the planet. Sanford & Benedict Vineyard still exists, and many of the original vines continue to produce highly coveted grapes every vintage. 

Michael Benedict, Sanford Winery and Vineyard | Credit: Macduff Everton

“The wine industry sort of found me rather than the other way around,” said Benedict in 2020. He started his professional life as an academic, living and studying the botany of Santa Cruz Island, where he learned that the island’s main valley was once home to a substantial vineyard and winery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

“I was interested in how this could happen so close to the ocean,” he explained. “Everyone knew that wine requires lots of sunshine and lots of warmth.”

He realized that, while the overall climate was moderated by the sea, the island’s small mountain ranges protected the valley from overwhelming maritime influence. He pondered where that might apply to the mainland, and realized the east-to-west lying Santa Ynez Valley might possess similar attributes.

He was sailing quite a bit at that time with Sanford, and their wealthy friends agreed to back a vineyard venture if they found the right place. In 1970, they purchased vines from the original DeMattei-Nielson Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley and planted a four-acre nursery at Betty Williams’ farm, which became Buttonwood. Then they started hunting for an ideal location, from British Columbia and Oregon to Northern California and Baja California. They kept coming back to the western reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley, which opens directly onto the cold Pacific Ocean. 

“From that point on, it was kind of luck,” said Benedict. “Lo and behold, halfway between Buellton and Lompoc, there was this big ranch that hadn’t been farmed since World War II.”

That property became known as the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. Within a few years, the vineyard’s pinot noir, planted in 1973, won wide critical praise — especially that first commercial vintage of 1976, which writer Robert Balzer popularized in his article “American Grand Cru in a Lompoc Barn.”

When Sanford left to start his own winery in 1980, Benedict kept managing the vineyard and selling grapes for the next decade. After his original investors passed away, Benedict and the remaining interests sold the property in 1990. He retired to Yankee Farm near Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara, raised his daughter, Morgan, and spent much of his time in Mexico. 

“I never completely left the wine industry,” explained Benedict, who would often offer his advice to vintners. In recent years, he’d spent more time at the old Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, advising the current co-owner of Sanford Winery, John Terlato, of the Terlato Wine Group, and winemaker Trey Fletcher. 

In 2010, he began consulting for Lavender Oak Winery on the eastern end of Santa Rosa Road, where the owners wanted to plant a vineyard. Again hitting the climate and geologic research, Benedict discovered that this warmer, clay-rich pocket of the Santa Ynez Valley was most like Pomerol in Bordeaux, France, home to the world’s best merlot, bolstered by just the right amount of cabernet franc. Merlot became the winery’s flagship grape. 

Benedict’s path into wine was always rooted in his Santa Cruz Island experiences, which remained a beloved part of his memories throughout his life. According to Marla Daily of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, Benedict was the first director of the University of California’s Santa Cruz Island Reserve, from 1964 to 1968, and even rediscovered a small population of the rare Santa Cruz Island endemic bush mallow that had been lost since 1930. In 1996, Benedict became member #36 of the All Eight Club, meaning that he’d set foot on all eight California Channel Islands. 

“It was Michael’s vast knowledge of botany, geology, and climate that led him to investigate the possibilities of growing grapes in various local geographical regions,” said Daily, who knew him for more than half of a century. 

Though they were not close for many years, Benedict’s former business partner Richard Sanford said that they made a good team in the early days, with Michael’s botany skills and his own geology and geography background. “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard was a great adventure,” said Sanford. 

Michael Benedict is survived by his daughter, Morgan Benedict. 

This developing story may be updated as more information becomes available. 

Credit: Macduff Everton


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