Alma Rosa Winery vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, where Sanford first planted pinot noir.

Richard Sanford is nothing if not humble. The pioneer of Central Coast pinot noir and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA expresses pure, surprised delight when sipping a wine—from one of the vineyards he first planted. “Wowie,” you might hear him say about the Alma Rosa 2018 La Encantada Blanc. “Congratulations to [winemaker Samra Morris] on finishing this beautiful wine.” Or, when sampling the 2018 El Jabali Pinot Noir: “You can taste nature in this wine.”

Those who attended the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance’s recent online tribute and tasting certainly did. The event was scheduled by critic Matt Kettmann and regional winemakers to recognize Sanford as the 2020 Vintner of the Year.

“I can’t recall all the times I’ve spoken about Richard,” says Greg Brewer, founder and winemaker of Brewer-Clifton. “He and his family are the ecosystem here.” And from Bob Zorich who, along with wife Barb, purchased Alma Rosa from Sanford in 2014: “Richard is known for refinement and finesse over heavier expressions of the grape.”

Richard Sanford helped pioneer the Sta. Rita AVA.

Sanford and his wife, Thekla (whom he calls his “rock”), founded Alma Rosa in 2005. But the story actually took root nearly 50 years ago, in 1971. Sanford, a geographer by trade who’d tasted a life-changing Volnay while in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was the first to plant pinot noir grapes in the Sta. Rita Hills. It became his quest to produce wines that, yes, drew on Burgundian style—but, even moreso, were embodiments of this terroir, with its morning marine layer and afternoon ocean winds. It’s what Sanford calls “refrigerated sunlight,” a condition that allows cool-climate grapes to spend a longer time on the vines while retaining their integrity.

The couple launched Sanford Winery in 1981, after producing estate-grown pinot at the Sanford & Benedict vineyard from 1976 to 1980. (That winery is now owned by the Terlato family.) The next 25 years saw Sanford’s impact grow; he developed premier sites like La Rinconada, La Encantada, and El Jabali, Alma Rosa’s estate vineyard, planted in 1983. And he and a group of like-minded individuals established the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 2001. It is one of seven in Santa Barbara wine country, with upward of 59 vineyards.

With Alma Rosa, situated on a 628-acre plot, the Sanfords sought to preserve the area’s history—and in the hands of the Zorichs, the destination does exactly that. (The Sanfords live on the land, and Richard is a winery ambassador.) It has five non-contiguous plantings of pinot, chardonnay, syrah, and grenache, yielding bottles like the two below.

Alma Rosa 2018 La Encantada Blanc

The wine is a 50-50 blend of pinot blanc (a favorite of Richard’s) and pinot gris. It is the only pinot blanc vineyard in the region, and the Alma Rosa offerings are aged in oak and stainless steel. Sanford finds citrus, especially orange peel, notes here. “It has an acidity, yet it’s subtle,” he says. It was planted in 2000—the acre and a half of blanc and gris were meant to blend in more color. “But it turns out, we didn’t need it,” he adds.

2018 El Jabali Pinot Noir

From the original bud wood of the Mount Eden clone, this wine came about despite Sanford’s initial hesitation about age in vineyards. “It has a character you don’t find in a youthful, young wine,” he says. “There’s something about pinot noir; it’s magical and connects with the earth.” From 35-year-old vines, this wine offers hints of cola, vanilla, and cherry; it is textured, with a bright quality.

As for Alma Rosa’s future? Harvest started late last month. The contemporary tasting room in Buellton has expanded into the parking lot to accommodate social distancing, and is seeing steady traffic, according to GM Debra Eagle. And a Ranch House experience on-vineyard may include a tour of the vines of Richard’s life—in the region that has grown into a passion for many.

“We can craft this beautiful wine and send [it] all over the [globe],” he says, always in deference to the land. “These are world-class wines. Sta. Rita Hills is a world-class area.”