The news this week that Richard and Thekla Sanford have petitioned for bankruptcy protection for their Alma Rosa Winery has triggered a flood of support from admirers of their Sta. Rita Hills winery and his devotion to the region.
Sanford, 72, one of the Central Coast’s pioneering winemakers, and the only one in Santa Barbara County to be inducted into the California Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy July 27, according to the United States Bankruptcy Court.
A copy of the Sanfords’ petition indicates that Alma Rosa’s two largest unsecured creditors are Richard Szerwo, the winery’s former business manager, who claims $110,971 in severance pay, and Hillside Road LLC, the company that purchased the Sanford family’s La Encantada Vineyard early in 2011.
Hillside is owed $74,543 for grapes, according to the document.
Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows the petitioner to begin reorganizing debts to creditors under guidance of the court; most who file for Chapter 11 protection intend to remain open for business in order to generate sales.
Indeed, the Sanfords emphasized that they have no plans to shutter Alma Rosa’s tasting room on Santa Rosa Road west of Buellton.
“Our historical tasting room at Rancho El Jabalí (vineyard) proudly remains open for business, and we look forward to welcoming you on your next visit,” Richard and Thekla Sanford said in a news release issued July 31.
Both the recession of 2008 and the lower-yielding harvest years that followed “placed our properties and business in jeopardy, and has ultimately forced us to make the decision to enter in Chapter 11 reorganization,” according to the family’s statement.
“Though this was a difficult decision, we feel it will give us time to proceed in a constructive and mindful manner that will stabilize our business and build a stronger foundation for the future.”
As one of the first to recognize the potential of the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley — now formally recognized as the Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area — Richard Sanford in 1970 planted the iconic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard with former business partner Michael Benedict.
In 1981, utilizing grapes from Sanford & Benedict and other vineyard sites, the Sanfords established their namesake winery. During the next 25 years the family made an international name for itself by producing some of the Sta. Rita Hills’ best chardonnay and pinot noir.
Throughout his career, Sanford advocated for sustainable practices at Sanford and at other vineyards throughout the region. He urged employees who toiled in his vineyards and cellar to become legal citizens of the United States and send their children to college.
It was this devotion to both the vineyards and the people that earned Richard Sanford a standing ovation from the crowd gathered Aug. 13, 2011 at Alma Rosa Winery for Wine & Fire’s Saturday seminar.
There, Sanford was honored with a plaque by many of his colleagues and Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, as a “navigator” in the evolution of the region’s viticulture business.
Behind the scenes, however, the Sanfords have endured years of financial disrepair and business failures, the most public being the loss in 2005 of both the Sanford name and the winery they built to Paterno Wines International, based in Chicago.
That company, since renamed Terlato Wines International, in 2002 invested cash into Sanford Winery, according to published reports, but three years later, the business deal with the Sanfords collapsed when Terlato gained a majority share in the winery.
The Sanfords walked away with their pride but not much else, and their winemaker of more than two decades, Bruno D’Alfonso, was subsequently fired by Terlato.
But by as soon that fall, Richard and Thekla Sanford had regrouped and turned their attention to their burgeoning label, Alma Rosa (“Alma” is Spanish for “soul), which also focuses on pinot noir and chardonnay. While they relocated both production and sales into what some then viewed as the “low rent” district of Buellton, their fans quickly followed.
Alma Rosa became one of many prominent Central Coast wineries to utilize the more sustainable method of all-screwcap bottle closures.
Since its debut, Alma Rosa’s case production has grown to nearly 15,000, according to reports.
D’Alfonso’s own labels are D’Alfonso and Badge, and with his wife, Kris Curran, he produces D’Alfonso-Curran wines.
One of the best accounts of Richard and Thekla Sanford’s lengthy career was written by writer Matt Kettman (Santa Barbara Independent, New York Times, Wine Spectator) in April.
Visit http://almarosawinery.com for details about Alma Rosa Winery.