Richard and Thekla Sanford

Richard and Thekla Sanford,  oil 30x36

Richard and Thekla Sanford, oil 30x36

History of Wine            

Wine has an ancient history, with a long cast of characters including the Roman God Bacchus, best known for his Bacchanalia festival. In our own California history, Father Junipero Serra planted our first sustained vineyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano two hundred years ago.  One hundred years after that, Jean-Louis Vines was the largest wine producer in Los Angeles and his peer, Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian soldier, promoted vine planting over much of Northern California, including Sonoma Valley. All of these men were immigrant adventurers, each fulfilling their own quest.

            I think there is something in our genetic code or our own Manifest Destiny that has brought all of us here to the Central Coast. Either, within ourselves, or in the temperament of our fore fathers, we are adventurers, free thinkers and/or entrepreneurs. These are all common traits you find in gold miners, immigrants and hippies, all of which have made up our collective California culture.

             Let me focus on a very specific time in our state’s history. In 1965 Berkley was the home to Flower Power, people wore Birkenstocks and marched for civil rights. Meanwhile our nation was in the midst of the Vietnam war which left our country questioning the establishment and authority. These two countercultures converged to shape the next century. Imagine graduating as a Geography student at UC Berkeley in 1965 and then suddenly be drafted into the Vietnam War for the next 3 years. This was Richard Sanford ‘s reality.  After his service as a naval officer, Richard wanted to work with the land and felt agriculture would help him reconnect with his former life.  He had been introduced to a Burgundy wine during his time with the military and thought, “Out of all different agricultural products, why not grapes?” Combining his knowledge of geography, he began to study our climate records for the last 100 years and compare them to the Burgundy region of France.  It was here he discovered our transverse mountain range created the perfect environment for the Pinot Noir grape.

            This history only underscores Richard Sanford’s adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit.  With incredible insight, the birth of our central coast wine country was established in 1970 when he planted the first Pinot Noir vines in what is now the Santa Rita Hills.  California is now the 4th largest wine producer in the world and garners a $61.5 BILLION impact in our state economy.

            Meanwhile, the other half of this story, was moving west. Thekla Brumder, a nice girl from Wisconsin, had spent her childhood outdoors, in tune with nature and investigating the wonders of her grandparents’ dairy farm. As a young adult, she stopped off at the University of Arizona to pick up a BA in Art History and a few minors in Spanish and Italian. She then spent her 20‘s in the Colorado Rockies before moving to Santa Barbara.

            Fast forward to 1976. This is when Richard and Thekla, meet on a sailing adventure in Santa Barbara. In the same year, there is a blind wine tasting in Paris with a panel made up exclusively of French wine experts. Six out of the 9 judges ranked California wines as the best in the world.  Two years later, Thekla and Richard marry in 1978 and start Sanford Winery by 1981. Together, they have produced award-winning wines for over 30 years. Their latest venture is

Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards

 Using their life’s experience, they have created a business that produces high quality wines.  It also is the benchmark for organic, sustainable farming and is environmentally responsible to the land, it’s employees and customers.

And it is here ,on their home ranch, Rancho El Jabali, that the Sanfords were sharing their mutual life story in a lovely room designed by Richard and built sustainably from bales of hay and stucco. Thekla humorously recollects about how Richard stuck a thermometer out of the window while driving his car through the Santa Ynez Valley in order to measure the temperature on this hillside or on top of that range. This was to find the perfect location for the first vineyard.  Likewise, Richard gives Thekla all the credit for starting their organic farming practices, an offshoot of their family vegetable garden.  The El Jabali Vineyard was the first OCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) certified vineyard in Santa Barbara County.

While the fire crackles in the fireplace and radiates its warmth throughout the room, I observe a couple who have shared a common goal throughout a life that has been filled with hard work, successes and challenges.  They have a thoughtfulness about their legacy and future.  Their efforts and business enterprise reflect what is important to them and what they stand for.  

Remember at the beginning of this story, I talked about the spirits of adventure, free thinking and entrepreneurship. These common attributes are what make this couple so dynamic and forerunners in both winemaking and conservation.  They both share a love of the land and this has been the foundation in their success as vintners and conservationists. While Richard brought his understanding of the land and agriculture to winemaking, Thekla brought her love of nature and community. The arc of their commitment starts with organic farming and sustainable agriculture and includes ecological packaging, green building, wildlife protection and culminates in the slow food movement, which addresses the quality of the food we eat, where it comes from and how this affects the world.  They were even honored by the Environmental Defense Center as Environmental Heroes.  All the while, they make award winning wine!  Richard Sanford was just added to the Vintners Hall of Fame at The Culinary Institute of America.

Their incredible commitment to our environment while operating an enlightened enterprise is just the beginning of their contribution.  I always find their support and sponsorship at so many of our non profit events.  They have consistently made one good decision after another to operate with integrity, be good stewards of the land, and serve humanity.  Cheers!


By Holli Harmon