Visiting Sanford Winery is like a trip down memory lane because the founders of this winery pioneered the region, putting both Santa Barbara County and Sta. Rita Hills on the map as prominent wine producing areas for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Meeting the current owner, John Terlato, and Winemaker Steve Fennell, one realizes they respect the winery’s legacy as they move forward to its future. Most interesting was listening to John speak about the barrels and how the various types of barrels affect his wines.

Sanford Winery View

Sanford Winery View; (c) Ken Bornstein

Sanford Winery History

Before discussing barrels, one must understand the history of Sanford, the vineyards and who started it all. It began with Michael Benedict and Richard Sanford, who were determined to find a cool climate region to grow grapes. I was fortunate to meet Michael on my visit to the Sanford Winery. Michael has a background in biology and taught at University of California, Santa Barbara (<UCSB).  He researched and toured the central coast to find his ideal region for growing grapes. His quest ended when he discovered the terroir now known as the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard.

John Terlato and Michael Benedict at Sanford Winery

John Terlato and Michael Benedict at Sanford Winery; (c) Ken Bornstein

In 1971, the first Pinot Noir vines were planted. This vineyard became the foundation of what is now the Sta. Rita Hills. In fact, this vineyard supplied the cuttings for many other vineyards in the area. In 1980, Michael and Richard parted ways, but Sanford Winery continued. By 1997, La Rinconada Vineyard was planted and also became the site of the winery and tasting room. Several years later, the Terlato family became partners in the winery, and in 2011, the two vineyards, La Rinconada and Sanford and Benedict, reunited under the auspices of Sanford Winery.

The Terlato Family, Sanford Winery and Pinot Noir

The Terlato Family’s philosophy is “to be involved with quality vineyards because we are the stewards to the vineyards. Most vineyards tell the tale of the family and the vineyard.” In this case, the family is responsible for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. For John Terlato, this meant traveling to Burgundy to learn how the French tell the vineyard’s story. One thing John discovered through his journeys – one must put trust in the expression of the place. This trust gives way to an authentic expression of the varietal.

To achieve their goals, the Terlato Family is always expanding their knowledge and experimenting. With Steve Fennell at the helm, this occurs via sustainable practices along with both scientific skills and creativity, thereby Steve and the Terlatos become the interpreters of the vineyard.

A Glass of Sanford Wine

A Glass of Sanford Wine; (c) Ken Bornstein

Another outcome of the Terlatos’ goals is they are passionately committed to creating great wines from vineyards they own. Ultimately, the winemaker and vintner must align, deciding the winery’s direction and how they expect to achieve their objective of creating delicious, seamlessly integrated wine. Through experimentation, they advance this vision.

Sanford Winery Barrel Program

Sanford Winery Barrel Room

Sanford Winery Barrel Room; (c) Ken Bornstein

The barrels are one of the main focuses of experimentation. A barrel has the single greatest impact on wine beside farming the vineyards.

In choosing a barrel, there are many important factors that must be reviewed, especially removing the resin and sap from the barrel. Often when the barrels are toasted, the heat from the fire penetrates the staves, causing the sap to liquefy and bubbles to emerge. If residue sap seeps into the wine, it can negatively affect the wine.

The Cooper

Although I was not permitted to disclose one of the newer French Coopers used by Sanford, this company takes some extra precautions to prevent this leakage including toasting the barrels over a low fire for a longer period, and toasting by visual observation rather than a set formula. In addition, the Cooper limits the number of barrels produced. The Cooper watches each barrel because every one is different. Inspection is done on every stave as it is being cut to ensure there are no cracks that could cause an imperfection in the wine. The staves are milled until each is crack-free or without imperfections. Often, varying the widths of the staves and milling can resolve the imperfections.

Barrel Type

The type of barrel can articulate the style of wine and/or the vineyard. A winemaker must determine what he or she is trying to accomplish with the wine. For John and Steve, it is the soil versus the barrel. Perhaps it is like a puzzle – determining which type of barrel and how many will be ideal to perfect the wine they are seeking to produce. This includes the particular forest where the wood for the barrel originates and the grain of the wood for each barrel. You can have the same type of oak, but due to a tree’s location in the forest or the location of the forest itself, it can have a different effect on the wine.

This is also true with the kind of grain. Grain represents the average size or width between the annual growth rings of the tree. Barrels typically consist of medium grain, semi-tight grain, tight grain, and very tight grain.

Sanford Winery Pinot Noir

Sanford Winery Pinot Noir; (c) Ken Bornstein

In the case of Sanford, for example, let us take one row of Pinot Noir from the La Rinconada Vineyard. If you were to place the wine in barrels from different Coopers, you would have different results. Another scenario: taking this same row of Pinot Noir, utilizing the same cooperage but the barrels come from different groves or contain a variety of grain cuts, the results would also vary. For this reason, Sanford places great importance on testing the barrels for a period, making sure these barrels meet the vision and expectations that Sanford has in mind for their wines.

Sanford Winery Terroir

While the barrels play a significant role in the winemaking process, the terroir emphasizes a more important part in Sanford’s statement about the expressions coming from their vineyards. Capturing the essence of the land on which the vineyards reside is key. It is also why the Sanford winery portfolio consists mainly of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Sanford legacy lies in this land and its diversity within the various blocks and rows.

Sanford Winery Rancho La Rinconada Truck

Sanford Winery Rancho La Rinconada Truck; (c) Cori Solomon

To emphasize the history of this property, Sanford produces an old vine Chardonnay called Founders’ Vines Chardonnay. This single vineyard wine represents the Chardonnay planted 45 years ago. In addition, Sanford also produces a Founders’ Vines Pinot Noir celebrating the founding of the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard in 1971. These two wines, more than any other wines in the portfolio, pay tribute to Sanford’s legacy.

Summing up the goals of Sanford winery and the vision of John Terlato, you might say they strive to learn something, and through this knowledge, there comes the flexibility to adapt and try new things. This ultimately makes a wine about which one says, “Oh my God, that’s delicious.”

If You Go

Sanford Winery

The writer would like to thank Sanford Winery for hosting her visit.