Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyard
Sta. Rita Hills AVA
Inspired by the principles of organic farming and sustainable agriculture.
In January of 2014, a Houston-based investor named Robert Zorich became the owner of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards out of a Chapter 11 re-organization of the company. The arrangement brought to an end the ownership of Alma Rosa founders, Richard and Thekla Sanford, who had begun the project some five years into the new millennium.
The name Alma Rosa is Spanish for ‘Soul of the Rose’ and has great sentimental value to the Sanfords. “Our ranch is a portion of the original Rancho Santa Rosa, an original California Mexican land grant. The old timers of our area refer to the hills on the south edge of our ranch, the Santa Rosa Hills, as “The Rosa”. Thus, the wines that come from our home reflect the soul of the Rosa, or the “Alma” of the Rosa.” Although the winery is now in the capable hands of Robert Zorich, the Sanfords remain fully engaged in the winery and the initial vision and quality of wine remains an integral part of the operation today.
Zorich was not a stranger to the area, having graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a BA in Economics in 1971. Zorich was then the head of EnCap Investments LP, a highly successful partnership and a leading player in the petroleum exploration and development segment of the oil business. It was quite fortunate that Zorich just happened to be very familiar with Alma Rosa and Richard Sanford.
“I really wanted to do something with Richard Sanford. He has been creating great Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay, with integrity and class, for nearly 40 years in Santa Barbara County. I’m basically a business guy who enjoys wine, and it was important for me to partner with someone like Richard, whom I greatly respect and admire. In private equity we back highly experienced management teams and give them the tools to create value. This is a very similar situation,” Zorich stated at the time.
The infusion of money is exactly what the doctor ordered for Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards who had been founded in 2005 and who had suffered greatly from the terrible recession that literally raked hundreds of good California wineries over the proverbial coals. Even the fact that Alma Rosa was located at the gateway to the rising (in stature) Sta. Rita Hills AVA wasn’t enough to pull the winery through the particularly hard times. A Chapter 11 re-organization followed in 2012 and Robert Zorich became a player in 2013.
The winery has remained basically the same as it was under Richard Sanford’s ownership — with one glaring exception. The business now has sufficient capital to assure continued quality in its wines and the management team to insure its continued financial success.
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards has also continued its access to the organically-farmed vineyards of El Jabalí and La Encantada, both designed and planted by Richard Sanford. This arrangement assures the winery of an incredible source of top caliber fruit, so necessary for its continued success.
Alma Rosa produces around 15,000 cases per annum, with a majority of the wines coming from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. This is a tribute to Richard Sanford, the area’s iconic pioneer of planting and the very first person to recognize and plant Burgundian varietals on the cool climate setting.
Map of the area
Richard Sanford - Proprietor
He’s been called the ‘Visionary Vintner’ and ‘the poster child of Pinot Noir’, and has already been enshrined in the Vintner’s Hall of Fame, but Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards’ Wine Director, Richard Sanford feels his work in the wine industry isn’t completed as of yet.
The son of a naval officer, Sanford was also a naval officer during the Vietnam War before turning his sights to the wine industry. It was 1971 and Richard Sanford decided that a cool weather stretch of land on California’s Central Coast was the ideal place (see Region Section) for planting Pinot Noir grapes — at a time when the now prized varietal was a postscript by most industry veterans.
His theories proved correct and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA has become one of the top producing regions for the fickle and cantankerous grape from Burgundy.
Sanford has always related that he made extensive comparisons to the weather in Burgundy itself before committing to the area in the Santa Ynez Valley. The temperature readings and amounts of rainfall of both locales were eerily similar so he made the decision to go forward and plant the first vineyard.
His first winery operation was Sanford & Benedict in 1971 that created huge waves in the world of Chardonnay. Around 1980, Sanford left the partnership and founded Sanford Winery a year later. In 1983, Richard and his wife Thekla turned a Buellton warehouse into a winery to showcase his prized Pinot Noirs that were grown from his home vineyard, Rancho El Jabalí. A strict adherent of organic farming, Richard Sanford saw his dreams of owning and operating a successful winery reaching fruition when his winery reached the 50,000 case production levels.
Disaster came in the form of a $10 million price tag for the new winery of his dreams. Originally estimated at $4 million, the project put the Sanford’s in a hole from which they would never recover. An agreement with a Chicago importer and distributor went south quickly and Richard Sanford vacated the dream world he had conjured up after four years.
Undaunted by the events, Richard and Thekla settled into the establishment of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. Another Buellton warehouse was located and the couple went about making their new winery a success. Things were going along quite well until the Great Recession of December 2007 saw the partial devastation of the high flying California wine industry. Even though the Sanford’s did everything within their power to survive, by 2012 Richard Sanford decided a Chapter 11 re-organization was necessary.
Their prayers were answered in the form of Houston-based investor Robert Zorich (see Main Story). Today, Richard and Thekla Sanford continue to live at Alma Rosa and help promote the winery.
“It’s become more and more important to be out repping the product,” he continued. “There’s a lot more competition and that’s only likely to increase. The Sta. Rita Hills has room to grow and there is a demand for new vineyards. I’ve been at this for more than 44 years, and I have always been a pioneer. I finally decided to recognize that fact and enjoy that.”
There are few individuals within the wine spectrum that can compare to Richard Sanford. He is a man of principles and is blessed with the fortitude it takes to get back up off the canvass when knocked down.
Anyone who enjoys Pinot Noir (or Chardonnay) should pay homage to Richard Sanford, truly a man for the ages.
Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara County AVA and its myriad of superior growing areas is arguably the best location in California for plantings of the most difficult Burgundian varietal: Pinot Noir. The actual growing zones are huge in size, running from Santa Maria in the north to the City of Santa Barbara in the south. Santa Barbara County AVA is also home to more than a hundred wineries of all shapes and sizes.
There are six official American Viticultural Areas within the Santa Barbara County (Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Santa Maria Valley AVA, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA, Ballard Canyon AVA and Los Olivos District AVA) and due to their unique terrains and distinctive micro-climates, each of these regions can rightfully boast about having their own identity and specific growing patterns. Not only does this apply to the sub regions as a whole, but diving in further, individual vineyards within these sub regions can rightfully claim originality when it comes to their land. This has to do with the natural topography of the Pacific coastline. Not only does the coast lie to the south (rather than west like most of the California coastline) but the influences from the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountain ranges also play a major role in the variety of micro-climates and soils which, in turn, allow for an array of grape varietals to thrive.
The major players in the Santa Barbara County AVA are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir followed by Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. However, due to its overall ideal growing characteristics, this region has been producing first-class wines from the over fifty different varietals planted.
Nick de Luca - Winemaker
His resume would occupy a page in Who’s Who in Wineries if such a book actually existed. Nick de Luca, hired as winemaker more than two years ago at Alma Rosa Winery, was on his way to a career in Law when he was bitten by the wine bug and switched callings.
He started at Sonoma’s Cline Cellars and swiftly moved through stints at Williams Selyem Winery, Fisher Vineyards and Byington Vineyard & Winery in Santa Cruz. In 2004, he became winemaker at Star Lane Vineyard and Dierberg Vineyard where he was first exposed to the Santa Ynez Valley. More than a decade later, de Luca assumed his present post as winemaker at Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyard.
What about the Central Coast? His answer was unequivocal.
“It doesn’t rain here. It dawned on me a few days ago that this place is paradise. The wines reflect that exuberant, outdoor sunny attitude,” he said, and he can’t help but get excited about them. His successes in competitions and in periodicals bear testament to his prowess in winemaking.