****Earlier this week, I had the good fortune of spending a generous chunk of time with a pioneer in the California wine industry, Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery in the Santa Ynez AVA (one of Wine Enthusiast’s 2012 Top Ten Wine Regions, along with our own Virginia, of course!). Richard was the first to plant Pinot Noir grapes in California and the first to plant any winegrapes in the Central Coast of CA back in 1972. At the time, the local farmers told him grapes could not be grown in that region. Having studied geography at UC Berkeley, he felt otherwise. He compared the climates, topography, and soils of this region with Burgundy and determined that Pinot could indeed grow in that region of California, where the cool westerly winds off the Pacific, blowing through an atypical east-west range of mountains, would maintain a more temperate, cooler climate than surrounding areas. He planted the vines. His wines were celebrated. The region is now ranked as one of the top wine regions in the world. Later this month, Richard will be inducted into the Vintner's Hall of Fame. And a little side-note, their Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards was the setting for the famed Pinot Noir vs Merlot debate shared between Miles and Jack in the movie, “Sideways.”
I was interested in talking with Richard about his years of experience farming organic grapes. This area in the coastal region of central CA does not have to deal with summer rains, but they do have to deal with often foggy conditions that impose fungal pressures.
Richard offered to drive us around his vineyards while we talked viticulture and philosophies. We spent the next hour or so maneuvering over the hilly slopes in his rugged Jeep, crossing between vineyard blocks, interpersed with natural habitats left intentionally to create biodiveristy, which helps maintain a natural balance of nature. That hadn’t been a concern of his during the first decade or so of winegrowing when he farmed conventionally. But about twelve years later (nearly 30 years ago) his wife, Thekla, asked him why they are not growing their grapes organically if they grow all their food that way. At the time organic viticulture was on the fringe, and it would take a leap of faith to switch. But over a two to three year period, they converted fully to certified organic vineyards. I asked him what changes he noticed upon switching to organic. He said one of the biggest changes was in the health of the soil. He feels that the organic vineyards are more in tune with the natural rhythms of nature and they provide superior fruit quality. He compares the conventional vineyards at harvest with the organic vineyards and he notices the chemically treated vines are green and still growing at harvest, while the organic vineyards are beginning to harden off as the fruit is ripening. His vines move in tune with the natural cycles.
As we were talking about these changes, I noticed a small animal on the edge of the dusty road ahead of us. Getting closer, I could see it was a bobcat. It stood up, looked at us, then darted into the wooded gulley, its bobbed tail and spotted coat vanishing in a flash. An unexpected treat and an example of the natural world Richard intentionally nurtures in the acres where he grows his vines. They work hard to maintain a natural habitat in an effort to keep nature in balance. They have put up owl boxes and bluebird houses and all are occupied, its inhabitants playing a supporting role in the vineyard’s health by eating insects and rodent pests. Several areas between vineyard blocks are planted with wildflowers, grasses and other plantings that provide a natural habitat for beneficial insects.
Richard Sanford’s vineyards remind me of Benziger Vineyards in Sonoma, a Demeter certified biodynamic vineyard, which we toured many years ago. The vineyards were more like expansive gardens, teeming with life, color, fragrances… a beautiful place to work and to grow grapes that will one day become wine to share with family and friends. Both places have certainly inspired me.
It is with the greatest appreciation and gratitude to Richard for sharing his beautiful vineyards and his precious time with us.