November 2009

Pinot Noir Redevelopment Project

By: Meridith May
Photos by the author

The Santa Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County—now known as Sta. Rita Hills for legal reasons—was certified in 2001, although its reputation for stylized versions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was cemented a few decades earlier. The area’s most notable name—recognized not only as an area pioneer but also for its acclaimed land—is Sanford winery.

Following the purchase of the winery by the Terlato Wine Group in 2007, new owners Tony Terlato and his sons Bill and John have launched Sanford into a major redevelopment project, under the guidance of VP of Winemaking Doug Fletcher and winemaker Steve Fennell.

The first Pinot Noir planted in the Santa Rita Hills appellation was at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard almost 40 years ago. Today, Sanford winemaker Steve Fennell stands in front of 33 acres of new plantings added to the redeveloped original 100 acres.

The state-of-the-art winery uses a unique gravity racking system. Powerful hydraulic lifts raise and lower vats, minimizing handling and preserving the esters that give Sanford's wines complexity and delicacy.
Sanford's white wine fermentation takes place in both 60 gallon French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, while the Pinot Noir is fermented in open-top stainless steel tanks and then finished in French oak barrels.

And within the legendary Sanford & Benedict vineyard, first planted in 1971, the original 12-foot rows have been redesigned on a new pattern: six feet of space between rows and five feet between vines to maximize the potential of the site. Steve Fennell points out, “We’re expecting a 60 percent increase in yield and a higher quality Pinot Noir.” In the works is an additional 12 acres of vines.

As one of the most desirable sources for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the appellation, the Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada vineyards continue to offer stunning wines. “We’re going to grow better fruit than ever on these sites,” insists Fennell. “Our choices of rootstocks and clones have also improved, although we may not see the ultimate results for another two to five years."

Fennell adds, “There are big changes on board for both vineyards ; we are keeping everything separate—from water and nutrition to vineyard practice, from fermentation to aging—from 14 different blocks of Pinot Noir at La Rinconada and 12 at Sanford & Benedict. And because we harvest separately, there may be as much as three weeks or more between harvesting these blocks.”

Remarkable Vineyards, Side by Side

Overlooking La Rinconada Vineyard and the Sanford winemaking facility.
 “The major reason I came on board at Sanford,” admits Fennell, a former Napa winemaker (Trefethen and Voss) who is working his fourth vintage at Sanford, “is that I tasted the wines. I thought the Pinot Noirs were too extracted, with pronounced tannins. The beauty of Pinot Noir is a silky quality, and I was up for the challenge."

“Changing the dimension of tanks and adding more stainless steel─ ultimately making them taller, with a one-to-one ratio of height to width─offers a greater surface area to the cap,” the winemaker explains. “This equates to more juice-to-skin contact, and that all-important balance.”

 The Sanford 2007 La Rinconada Vineyard Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills ($38) is lean, lemony and youthful. A kiwi and cucumber zing meshes with a minerality that, according to Fennell, “is the hallmark of our cool-climate Chardonnay, and when done right, will age well. This wine, aged in 40% new French oak, is as similar to white Burgundy as you may find from this region.”  

  The Sanford 2007 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills ($60) is the first-ever release of this vineyard-designate. Meaty and teeth-coating; intense candied fruits offer an old-vine character. A kirsch-like liqueur quality strikes depth and intensity with ripe, if not big, tannins; structure is key in this exciting red.


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