John Belfy of Buona Terra Farming Company | Photo: MacDuff Everton

Vineyard manager John Belfy, who founded Buona Terra Farming in 1997 and planted many of Santa Barbara County’s top vineyards, died on September 12. He was 72 years old.

“We always had a great relationship and I truly thought of him as ohana,” said Mikael Sigouin of Kaena Wine, using the Hawaiian word for “family.” Sigouin, who’s from Hawai’i, worked with Belfy at Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon for more than 20 years. “He was truly a great grape grower and always put quality over quantity, which is why I’ve made so many great wines from his farming,” said Sigouin. “He was a straight shooter who always stood by his word. He was also a very generous person ready to help those in need.”

During an interview in 2020 for my book, Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County, Belfy explained that, as a kid growing up in Detroit, Michigan, he thought he’d take over his dad’s construction business, having worked for him every summer. But then his dad retired at age 49, sold the business, and left Belfy’s future wide open.

“I loaded my stuff in my car and took off for California,” recalled Belfy, who zig-zagged through Canada and the United States for more than two months before landing in San Diego in 1970. Work on Central Coast farms and orchards followed — kiwis and cauliflower in Cayucos, avocados and sheep along the Gaviota Coast — until he settled in the Santa Ynez Valley, supervising a ranch owned by Love Boat and Dynasty producer Douglas S. Cramer. (It’s where Koehler Winery is today.)

There was a vineyard on the property, and even though vines weren’t yet in his repertoire, Belfy was encouraged to manage them by Dale Hampton, the region’s leading viticulturist. “I really had no background in vineyards, but I was really observant and Dale saw that in me,” said Belfy, who took over the vines in 1984. “That was the start of my career in wine grapes.”

He was soon helping the Fess Parker family plant their vineyard next door, and eventually lived on that ranch as well. “Fess was a real good guy to my wife and my kids,” recalled Belfy, who repeatedly suggested that Parker buy and plant the Camp Four property until he finally did so many years later.

In 1997, Belfy started Buona Terra Farming as his own vineyard consulting business — the name (“good earth” in Italian) was Parker’s idea. “It just took off,” said Belfy, again crediting referrals from Hampton. “Dale Hampton was the best help ever. My phone was ringing off the hook. He didn’t want to work with smaller places.”

The Vogelzang Vineyard in Happy Canyon was Belfy’s first complete development, and he then worked on such properties as Star Lane, Bridlewood, Great Oaks, Estelle, Camp Four, and Happy Canyon vineyards. “I was doing vineyards all over the place,” said Belfy. “It kept me really busy.”

Today, the company handles about two dozen clients — including a number of olive-oil projects — with the help of about 90 employees, many of whom have worked for Buona Terra for more than 30 years. Belfy’s wife, Debbie, also worked for the business and their son, Ivan, who graduated from Fresno State with a viticulture degree, is now in charge.

When we last spoke three years ago, prior to being affected by Alzheimer’s, he was preparing to retire and looking forward to spending more time with the classic cars that he keeps in his four-car garage in Orcutt. He was reflective about his career, explaining, “There’s really nobody I don’t like in the grape business.”


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