At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara Wine Country, four of the founding fathers of the Santa Barbara wine industry (Richard Sanford, Ken Brown, Rick Longoria and Bob Lindquist) gathered for a panel discussion to talk about their experiences and what they love about Santa Barbara. These are just some of the all-star winemakers who live in Santa Barbara and have helped make the region what it is today.
Richard Sanford – the father of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir
Richard wanted to be a winemaker but there were no grapes. After studying geography, he went to Vietnam as an officer. Returning home dejected, he decided to pursue something more earthly connected – agriculture. Having been introduced to a bottle of Burgundy wine from Beaune, he thought, “why not grapes? And why not Pinot Noir?” Looking around California, he found that other wine areas were too hot. However, Santa Barbara had the east-west running valleys that moderate the climate. Richard chose a site and with no funding, bought a vineyard. He spent 6 years developing the land while living on gas lights. Watching the vineyard grow was an opportunity to connect with nature, what he called an “almost a spiritual journey after Vietnam.”
Richard was the first to plant Pinot Noir in what is now known as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, which has been recognized as a wonderful area for Pinot Noir. His first vintage in 1976 received a great reception and Richard sold out the entire vintage and started Sanford Winery in 1980. In 2005, Richard sold Sanford and established Alma Rosa Vineyard. Focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Richard continues to farm organically, having planted the region’s first organic vineyard (Rancho El Jabali) in 1983.
On his 38th vintage, Richard is “very proud of our world class wines and truly the best is yet to come. I feel blessed to find something in my life that resonates so much with me.” He also loves the number of young winemakers who have come to Santa Barbara to make it their home. With a great dynamic, new plantings, enthusiasm and friendly competition, the result is manifested in the wine! “This is a super place where bright people are not afraid to experiment.”
Ken Brown – the first winemaker to introduce Syrah, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc to Santa Barbara County
With a degree in business finance, Ken Brown attended graduate school in 1974 at Cal State Fresno where he studied enology and led the research program in the school vineyard and winery. After graduation, Ken worked with some of the first vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley where he helped determine the commercial viability of wines made in the area. This is when, in 1976, Ken met Richard Sanford and was first introduced to Pinot Noir from what is now known as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. In 1977, Ken became the first winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery and then founded Byron Vineyard & Winery in 1984 in the Santa Maria Valley. “What we saw in the improvement from mid ‘80s to mid-‘90s was remarkable. For years we had gone to Burgundy asking ‘what’s the secret?’ Once we learned what this place offers, we knew what we had.” After selling to Mondavi in 1990, he continued to pursue an extensive experimental vineyard program. In 2003 started his own label, Ken Brown Wines, to focus on small lots Pinot Noir as he continues to pursue what makes great Pinot Noir.
Rick Longoria – the father of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto
Although Rick went to high school in Lompoc and started at UC Santa Barbara, it was while he finished school at UC Berkeley that he discovered wine in Napa and Sonoma. After some traveling, Rick got a job as a cellar rat at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma where winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff took him under his wing. Andre was consulting at Firestone in Santa Barbara and Rick moved back in 1976 to be the cellar foreman. While at Firestone, Rick met his wife Diana and they married in 1977. With few opportunities to advance, Rick left after two years and moved back to Northern California for the 1978 harvest. But, working in Napa reminded him about what hr loved about Santa Ynez County….the wine, the people, the laid back nature. He returned to the Valley in 1979 to make wine for J. Carey Cellars and then became the winemaker for Gainey Vineyard in 1985. While he started making Longoria Wines in 1982, it wasn’t until 1997 that he left Gainey to run Longoria Wines full time. Rick produces 14 different wines because “here in Santa Barbara County, we can do that.” This is perfect for a man who is curious and likes to try things in order to discover what the best wines are for the region. That is why he has been making wine in Santa Barbara for 37 years and isn’t going anywhere.
Bob Lindquist – the preeminent producer of cool climate syrah
Orange County native Bob Lindquist got the wine bug in 1975, while a student at UC Irvine. A regular at wine retailer Hi Time Cellars, Bob asked question after question and spent what money he had on wine. He knew he wanted to work in the wine industry and thought he would be a retailer. He started by doing wine sales, working for a wholesaler in Ventura County selling to restaurants and retailers, including the Los Olivos Café. On January 1st 1979, Bob was hired to manage the store, owned by John, the son of the owner of Zaca Mesa. As Bob got to know winemakers, he fell in love with area.
The day that Bob got fired from the Los Olives Café by John, he was hired that afternoon by John’s father Marshall to be tour guide at Zaca Mesa. He then worked as a cellar rat under winemaker Ken Brown and assistant winemaker Jim Clendenen and learned how to make wine. Bob was 29 years old in 1982 when he started Qupe, with the support of Zaca Mesa where he made the wine. He fell in love with Syrah and saw its potential. “The climate sets us apart. The East-West valleys are the biggest qualitative factor. That’s why we can grow Pinot Noir and Syrah side-by-side in the same vineyard.” Bob says that Santa Barbara County is a special place to live. Bob’s entire family lives in the area now and his son Ethan is making wine.
These four winemakers continue to make their mark on the Santa Barbara wine industry. They have worked for each other, worked with each other, inspired each other and learned from each other. And the learning and sharing continues.