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Taste of the grape: hall of fame winemaker Richard Sanford shares stories about his business

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Richard Sanford and his wife Thekla at their Alma Rosa winery in Santa Barbara.

If you have a taste for the grape and an appreciation for art, there’s a great opportunity presenting itself October 20 in “A Night in Tuscany” at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes Estates. There will be an art sale and wine tasting from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the church at 2200 Via Rosa, with a special guest – recently inducted to the Winemakers Hall of Fame, longtime Hill resident Richard Sanford will speak to the group.

“I’ll give a little talk about the development of wine in this part of the world, the Santa Barbara area,” he said.

Sanford started his vineyard in 1970, it’s now known as Alma Rosa Winery. “Actually, I bought cuttings in 1970 then put them in the vineyards in 1971. I had gone to school at UC Berkeley (degree in geography), Upon graduation I was drafted into the military, so I joined the Navy and went to Officers Candidate School and spent three years in Vietnam and I returned from that experience wanting to become involved in something earthly and decided it should be agriculture”, said Sanford.

“I had been introduced to a beautiful bottle of Burgundy wine. So, with my background in geography, I decided that I would try to find the perfect place in California to grow Burgundy style wine. My feeling was at that time that the climates the Pinot Noir grapes were growing in were too warm. Pinot Noir needs a cooler climate to preserve the fruit quality. I did a lot of research to find the right climate zone and I found the mountain range around Santa Barbara.

“It’s curious that when you’re driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara you’re actually heading west. Most people think the coast of North America is north and south, but in this part of the country with the mountains, most of the valleys are east and west. It’s an interesting anomaly that the winds blowing in from the ocean moderate the climate, so it’s quite cool. This occurs between San Luis Obispo and Los Alamos and of course the Santa Ynez valley where I am.

“I determined that it’s very interesting in this region. I began driving up and down the valley with a thermometer in my car measuring the differences in climate and everybody thought it was a dumb idea. But I recognized it’s about a degree per mile difference as you travel east and west, which is pretty dramatic anywhere in the world to have such a change”. He said the coastal temperatures were as much as 40 degrees lower than the heat 40 miles inland.

“First of all I determined a band of climate pretty much parallel to the ocean, then looked for the appropriate soils within that band,” said Sanford. “I discovered a place where I wanted to plant vineyards. Then came the real chore of going out and finding investors because I was still in my 30s and didn’t have the wherewithal to do this. I was able to find investors who had confidence in our enterprise. My involvement at this point was all sweat equity. But I drove around in the tractor and got the vineyards started and it was a great healing experience after the war. I developed a real spiritual connection with the land here. The ranch on the vineyard land had never been electrified, so we were living here with gas lights.

“Finally in 1976 we converted the barn that was on the property to a winemaking place and 1976 was out first vintage and it really raised people’s attention to the potential of Pinot Noir in this country and this region.”

Sanford said the company is remaining true to its original concept of making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both the red wine and the white wine of Burgundy growing in this region because of its cool climate.

Sanford lives with wife Thekla, who he says is very involved in the business, and they have a daughter Blakeney who is pursuing a career in art.

Sanford was born in Hawaii but lived in his youth in Rolling Hills. “Our father was a naval officer,” he said. His time in Rolling Hills was the 1950s. “It was a very different place then. The Portuguese Bend Club was active. It was a wonderful place growing up. We’d either walk down or ride a horse down to the beach which was a mile or two away. It was really country at that time. Incredibly there were still farms between the Peninsula and Los Angeles in those days. It was spectacular. We were very lucky to have Catalina on the horizon.”

He was bussed to high school because the Peninsula didn’t have a school. “When I was coming of age,” said Sanford, “there was no high school out on the Peninsula. So, the county would make arrangements to send the kids to different cities. For a long time, all of the young people on the Peninsula went to Redondo High School. There weren’t that many kids out there in the country. Finally, Redondo could no longer take these students, so for the classes of 1958 and 1959, the students were bussed to El Segundo…. Then finally Palos Verdes High School was built.”

Sanford has a history with the sea. Besides being born in Hawaii, after high school here on the mainland he joined the Merchant Marines to make money to go to college. Then, after college it was a hitch in the Navy. During his summer breaks at school, Sanford also served as a lifeguard in the South Bay.

So, get a chance to meet this interesting man with a long Peninsula history at this event. The art will be warm, the wine fruity and the talk on winemaking educational.

‘A Night in Tuscany’ art Sale and Wine Tasting. Hors d’oeuvres, silent auction, live music. Saturday, October 20, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. St. Francix Episcopal Church, 2200 Via Rosa, Palos Verdes Estates, 310-375-4617. $25 per person advance sales, $35 at the door. Child care is available if you call the church office before October 13. All proceeds benefit the mission and ministries of St. Francis Episcopal Church.



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