Some of California’s Most Famous Wines Came From a Science Experiment

Michael Benedict’s research led to his founding of the first vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.
September 8, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
An aerial view of the Sanford Winery & Vineyards in Santa Barbara County, Calif.
Terlato Wine Group
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Starting out as a research specialist at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the late 1960s, botanist Michael Benedict had no idea that his studies of the ocean’s effect on plants would lead him to found one of California’s most famous vineyards, Sanford & Benedict, in the Santa Ynez Valley, 48 years ago. It would not only provide the fruit for the future Sanford Winery but also lay the foundation for the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, known for its Pinot Noir.

“The region has exploded, far beyond anything I had expected,” Benedict says of the area and its now highly sought-after Pinot Noir. “There’s pleasure in discovering that something you believed in strongly turns out to be true.”

And it all began with a science experiment.

As a young scientist, Benedict served as the inaugural resident manager of the University of California Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, one of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of California. Santa Cruz Island, visible from Santa Barbara, lies 23 miles offshore. There, he studied the effect of the surrounding ocean on native flora, known as the marine influence, which would later become a defining characteristic of some of the world’s most renowned wine regions.

Vineyards at the Sanford estate.
Terlato Wine Group

At the time, though, that wasn’t obvious. Not until Benedict learned that in the late 1800s vineyards flourished on the island did he realize he might be onto something.

In the 19th century, the island’s winery and vineyard produced some of the wines most favored by Californians. The finished wines were shipped north in barrels and were served at fine-dining restaurants in San Francisco for more than 30 years before being shut down during Prohibition.

“Because the vines had been cultivated for many years, a mound has accumulated where each vine had grown,” Benedict says. “The pattern of these mounds was still easy to see. The old winery buildings were still present. All of this prompted the question: How did good wine grapes grow so close to the cold, foggy ocean?”

It has to do with the mountains surrounding a valley near the ocean. Benedict explains that the marine layer of cold, foggy ocean air typically hangs 1,200 feet to 1,500 feet above the surface of the water. That will penetrate land until it runs up against a barrier, such as a mountain range, that is higher. Beyond that barrier, air will be cool and dry but lacking the moisture. On Santa Cruz Island, a 2,000-foot mountain range created that barrier and allowed for the perfect environment to grow wine grapes—a valley with cool, dry air.

The famous Sta. Rita Hills fog, hugging the Sanford estate in a cool embrace.
Terlato Wine Group

Putting two and two together, Benedict developed a model for an ideal vineyard environment with the marine layer influence. Armed with that information, he set off on a mission: to find a similar environment in which to plant a vineyard somewhere along the West Coast of North America. With his vines growing in a nursery, he traveled from the Todos Santos Valley in Baja California, Mexico, to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, looking for land. It was in his own backyard with friend Richard Sanford that he pinpointed the best location: a ranch in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the San Rafael Mountains, this valley runs east to west compared with most of California’s valleys, which go north to south. The east-west orientation allows for cool, dry air to linger in the valley, offering plenty of sunshine and a long growing season. Luckily, the ranch also had the best soil—an ocean-based shale—of any of the locations Benedict had visited, and it was, surprisingly, available for purchase. In his mind, he had struck gold.

Inside the cellar at Sanford Winery.
Terlato Wine Group

From there, he focused on planting vines and harvesting grapes—hardly a straightforward process. At the time, in the 1970s, Napa Valley was in full swing with its Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon prospering. The varieties were also growing in popularity with consumers. Some wineries in Santa Ynez Valley had planted the varieties, but to Benedict, the resulting wines didn’t have quite the same impact as their Napa Valley counterparts. He reasoned it had to do with the climate and set about trying another variety, Pinot Noir, a red grape known for its use in heralded wines from the Burgundy region of France. “The clue was the climate of Burgundy, not of California,” Benedict says of discovering why most California producers ignored Pinot Noir. “The conventional California vineyards were just far too hot for Pinot to produce a balanced wine.”

The Pinot Noir from his vineyard quickly proved that his hunch was true. Today, some of the best American Pinot Noir hails from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, and grapes from the 51-acre Sanford & Benedict Vineyard are in demand. They are, after all, the oldest Pinot Noir plantings in Santa Barbara’s wine region. Benedict was also ahead of his time when he originally planted the vines: He created a basin around the root of each vine to serve as a natural irrigation system, aided by the water-holding properties of the vineyard’s deep soil; this reduces the water waste that would result from a more elaborate irrigation system. Nesting sanctuaries around the vineyard attract birds who help control pests, and composting helps foster the microbiome of the soil.

“Michael’s early work and ideas have been an inspiration,” says John Terlato, vice chairman of the Terlato Wine Group, which has been the managing partner of the vineyard and Sanford Winery since 2005. “His vision was to produce great wines, and he too believed—and verified through his research—that great wines come from great vineyards.”

John Terlato (left) with Michael Benedict in the Sanford vineyards.
Terlato Wine Group

Expressions of the vineyard’s fruit are best experienced in the Sanford Winery’s portfolio, which includes a vineyard-designate Pinot Noir, block-specific bottlings, a founders’ series that uses fruit from the vineyard’s oldest vines, and a blanc de noirs sparkling wine. “Our winemaking is focused on showing the potential of the vineyard,” Terlato says of the team’s minimal-intervention approach. “We place the vineyard at the forefront and farm it intelligently, thoughtfully, and sustainably, and then present wines that are precise, balanced, seamless, and structured.”

It would be easy for Benedict to sit back and gaze upon his creation, but that’s not his personality. Instead, he’s interested in constant innovation, especially with the support of Terlato Wine Group. Now a consulting winegrower, he continues to work closely with the team at the vineyard and winery as well as make wine for other estates, including Lavender Oak in Buellton, Calif. He points out that at Lavender Oak, the wine model pulls from another world-class European region: Merlot from Pomerol in Bordeaux.

“Our Santa Ynez Valley is almost magical in its ability to produce everything from fine Champagne-like sparklers to Rhône-like Syrahs,” he says. “[The future holds] all great things for Santa Barbara County wines.”

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