Richard Sanford returned from the war in Vietnam as a pacifist. He wanted to do something more earthly, something that brought him closer to nature. During his time in the service, Richard had been exposed to some excellent French wine, and now, looking to bring himself a sense of balance, peace, and connection to the earth, he wondered about growing grapes in California. Thus, his journey into wine began driving up and down the coast with a thermometer in his car. The readings he took during those drives led him to the Santa Rita Hills, a region that was yet to be born as a prized wine producing area. After finding investors to back his venture and waiting five years for the vines to produce quality fruit, Richard had a first vintage of Pinot Noir to offer in 1976 for Sanford Winery.

As time went by, Richard found himself drawn more and more to ideas of Taoism, particularity the notions of balance in nature. Rather than trying to manipulate nature, Richard began to feel that it was best to work in harmony with it. However, during this period, the use of chemicals in the vineyards was common, and the idea of forgoing them was an uncomfortable thought for many in the wine business. Thus, for a long time, Richard farmed in the same fashion as everyone else, using chemicals to control weeds and to kill insect pests. As time passed, though, Richard began to have doubts about the safety and environmental impact of such methods. Organic farming techniques offered Richard a path to achieve his ideals, but organic farming wasn’t widely practiced. Still, Richard was determined to change. His commitment was such that, he even dissolved two partnerships because of differing views on the matter. Despite being a pioneer in the region back in the 70’s, Richard wasn’t able to open up a winery that followed all of his earth-friendly ideas until 2005. That’s when the Alma Rosa Winery came to be. Richard and his wife, Thekla, have relied on only organic farming techniques in their vineyards ever since.  It’s more widely practiced today as the popularity of earth-friendly farming has grown a steadily in the past few years.   



Outside Alma Rosa Winery


Even just six years ago, earth-friendly farming practices weren’t nearly as common throughout the wine industry. At the time, most wines produced from organically grown grapes also followed USDA standards for organic wine and contained no sulfides. (Sulfites in wine suck up oxygen, which allows the wine to have a longer shelf life. To reach a level that’s high enough to effectively preserve the wine, sulfites have to be added. Because the addition of extra sulfites is artificial, it was decided these wines would not qualify as organic.) Things have changed since then.

Now, there are three other earth-friendly techniques which are fairly common in the industry. In addition to sulfite-free organic wine that carries the USDA organic seal, there are also wines made from organically grown grapes. These wines have sulfites added to them, so the USDA doesn’t consider them organic, but the vineyards used to produce the wine have been certified by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). A second category of wines are those produced using bio-dynamic farming methods, which, in a nutshell, is a specific type of organic farming using natural sprays made from the surrounding land and animals. The final category is sustainably produced wine. These methods are not as defined, but often involve earth, as well as people friendly practices. Sustainably farmed vineyards aren’t necessarily organic. They’ll use what have been deemed as “low risk” man made sprays. There’s a great deal of ambiguity about what sustainably farming means. Thus, unless a vineyard is certified by an outside authority with written standards of certification, it’s hard to know exactly what farming techniques are being employed. Simply put, if you want to support wineries engaging in earth-friendly practices, look for a third party certification on their bottles or on their website. It’s much easier than trying to understand the various different farming methods.    


The movement toward environmentally sound production in the wine industry has been gaining popularity, but the changes haven’t been embraced by every grower. “Farming without chemicals requires thinking outside the box and being creative with solutions sometimes,” Richard explains. There is a degree of uncertainty when it comes to earth-friendly farming, and that scares some growers away from seeking certification, whether it’s sustainable, organic, or bio-dynamic. But Richard feels strongly that the industry has to continue moving in a more environmentally conscious direction, and growers need to begin shifting away from dependency on chemicals. For many producers, it’s not a shift that can be made unless the customers are willing to follow. It may mean paying a bit more for a bottle of wine, but when weighed against the greater cost of damaging the environment, a few extra dollars doesn’t seem so bad. For Richard, there’s hope, though. “I really see young people starting to care more. It matters to them where things they put into their bodies come from and how they are produced.”

Richard Sanford


(Click the links to read reviews of Alma Rosa’s Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.)

With Alma Rosa Winery, Richard will continue to help lead the way towards better farming practices for the planet, and its tough to bet against his cause. Back in the 70’s he saw the opportunity to grow Pinot Noir where almost no one else had, and it’s become one of the most revered varietals in the market today. Given that record, along with his faith and commitment to earth-friendly farming, it would be no surprise if wine produced from organically and sustainably farmed grapes become the next revered items in the world of wine. It’s a long way to have come for a guy who was simply looking for some balance in his life. Thankfully, for himself, and for us, Richard found it.

(Click the links to read reviews of Alma Rosa’s single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay)


By Jason Barlow