Sanford Founder Departs in Dispute Over Direction of Company

The Terlato family, which now controls the Santa Barbara winery, says issues arose over organic farming and wine quality

After three decades, there’s no longer a Sanford working at Sanford Winery. Founders Richard and Thekla Sanford recently severed ties with the winery, which is located in California’s Santa Rita Hills region, north of Santa Barbara.

The departure was not unexpected and follows several tumultuous years at the winery, during which the Sanfords were increasingly at odds with their partners. «It’s a difference of philosophy,» Richard Sanford explained.

The winery, which specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, has been buffeted by a number of challenges in recent years, including a drastic loss of sales after Sept. 11, 2001, and a series of particularly difficult, low-yielding harvests at its organic vineyards.

Sanford, who has been a minority partner for a number of years, and his partners turned to the Chicago-based Terlato Wine Group in 2002 to provide an influx of cash and help improve sales. Terlato–which also owns Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock and Alderbrook wineries in California–eventually enlarged its 25 percent stake into a majority share.

The main conflict seems to center on the winery’s dedication to organic farming. «The problems became more apparent lately,» Sanford said of the clash over organics. «Some people don’t think it’s a very good investment.»

But Bill Terlato, president and CEO of his family’s wine group, said the issue was quality, not money. Richard Sanford had been managing the vineyards in recent years, Terlato said, and winemaker Bruno D’Alfonso had little control over the grapes. Things came to a head about six months ago when the partners tasted the 2003 Pinot Noir, Terlato said. «We were not happy with the quality of that wine. We decided to declassify all of it. You will not see a bottle of 2003 Sanford Pinot.»

Sanford allowed that the 2003 wine was controversial but said it was a minor issue.

Whatever the breaking point, Terlato acknowledges that the winery is no longer committed to organic farming, although he said the company will continue a program of sustainable grapegrowing, which is generally more flexible than organic or biodynamic farming.

Though the Sanfords can’t use their name on a wine label, they have started a new project, Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards. Sanford said he retains about 115 acres of vineyards, mostly Pinot Noir, and they are making the wine at Orcutt Road Cellars, a custom-crush facility in San Luis Obispo. The first Alma Rosa wines will be released later this year.

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