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Pinot Noir Pioneer Michael Benedict Dies at 83

Pinot Noir Pioneer Michael Benedict Dies at 83

Three important cultural touchstones in wine—the founding of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, the film Sideways and Pinot Noir’s skyrocketing success across California—may have never happened without Michael Benedict, who died last week at age 83 from melanoma. A botanist by training, Benedict co-founded Sanford & Benedict Vineyard more than half a century ago on the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. His work helped prove that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could thrive in this cool corner of Southern California.

“Michael was a visionary,” says the vineyard’s current co-owner, John Terlato, of the Terlato Wine Group. Calling Benedict a “quiet force,” Terlato contends that “Sanford & Benedict was the foundation of the Santa Barbara wine growing region. Especially given the fact that Michael so willingly shared his knowledge, his information and his cuttings with all the neighbors. He shared with everyone.”

In the 1960s, Benedict was working on Santa Cruz Island off of the Santa Barbara coast when he learned that the island’s central valley was once home to a large commercial vineyard. He was surprised that grapes could grow so close to the ocean, but this made him think that the Santa Ynez Valley may have similar attributes. He teamed up with sailing buddy Richard Sanford, whose background was in geology and geography, and they set out to find the ideal site.

In 1971, there were only a few small vineyards throughout the county. But nonetheless, the two planted the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in a former bean field between the Santa Ynez Valley towns of Buellton and Lompoc, where persistent fog and wind counteract the sunshine. They planted a number of varieties, but were most excited about Pinot Noir, which many California winemakers from warmer regions had given up on.

“It was clear to me that the problem was not Pinot Noir,” Benedict told me in a 2020 interview. “It was where it was grown in California. No one had found the right place yet.” Recognition came in the form of an article by the renowned writer Robert Balzer, who praised the first commercial Pinot Noir vintage of 1976 in his article, titled “American Grand Cru in a Lompoc Barn.”

“Those early wines just created a buzz around their vineyard, but also the potential for the region,” says Richard Longoria, who started making wine in Santa Barbara in 1976, when he met Sanford and Benedict. “It was a perfect union of two guys really covering all the bases for what it took to identify an amazing vineyard site.”

Image Courtesy of Richard Longoria

Vineyards started popping up around Sanford & Benedict, including Fiddlestix, Sea Smoke, La Rinconada, Mt. Carmel and others. The region was federally recognized as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in 2001—the first of now four sub-appellations of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Three years later, the Sta. Rita Hills became the star of the film Sideways, which made Americans crave Pinot Noir like never before. The film triggered more plantings of the grape across the Central Coast, where more than 90,000 acres now grow. While Sanford & Benedict started as an outlier 52 years ago, it’s now just one of more than 320 vineyards/wineries in Santa Barbara County, which Wine Enthusiast named as Wine Region of the Year in 2021.

Benedict and Sanford eventually parted ways in 1980. Sanford founded his eponymous winery—now owned by the Terlato Wine Group—while Benedict continued selling grapes from their vineyard for another decade. He sold the property in 1990 and retired to Santa Barbara to raise his daughter, Morgan.

But although he stepped back from the wine scene at this time, Benedict never fully left. “In his later years, he helped a whole bunch of people get started,” says Art Hibbits, a multigenerational Lompoc walnut farmer. He first met Benedict in the 1960s, and later enlisted his expertise while planting his own vineyard with 18 clones of Pinot Noir on less than three acres in 2001.

In 2010, Benedict began consulting for Lavender Oak Winery, where his meticulous research determined that the site was much like Pomerol, an AOC in Bordeaux, and therefore best for Merlot. He was also an integral part of Cebada Wines, whose owner Sandra Newman planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in sandy soils amidst kiwi, tea and other exotic crops. “He taught me that the wine is made in the vineyard,” says Newman. “As a farmer, I was ecstatic. He became my dearest friend and mentor.”

Benedict connected with Terlato about a dozen years ago, and the two became close friends. “As soon as I started conversing with him, I came to the quick realization that he had a depth of knowledge and understanding of Santa Barbara wine culture and history that was encyclopedic,” says Terlato.

Michael Benedict (center), with The Ojai Vineyard's Adam Tolmach (left) and Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen
Image Courtesy of Richard Longoria

That relationship brought Benedict back into the forefront of the wine scene. He’d show up at tastings, often with bottles from those original Sanford & Benedict vintages. “It was just unbelievable how good they still were,” says Hibbits. “They had very good flavors, not a bad taste at all.”

Benedict enjoyed being back in the limelight. “He relished that,” says Longoria. “I could tell that he really loved having that attention and the respect from the other winemakers. In the end, he was happy to have been recognized.”

Hibbits says that while Benedict’s body had grown weak from the cancer treatments, his brain was still sharp when they were last together. “We went and looked at wildflowers and he could tell us every flower without looking at a book or anything, and he always gave you the Latin name,” says Hibbits of Benedict’s insatiable intellect. “He just inspired a whole bunch of people because he did his homework.”

Benedict and Sanford never rekindled their friendship after their partnership dissolved more than 40 years ago, but Sanford expressed sadness about his death and condolences to Benedict’s daughter, Morgan.

“In the beginning, we made a good team with Michael’s background in botany and my background in geology and geography,” muses Sanford. He called their whole vineyard years “a great adventure.”

Benedict’s legacy and his impact on Pinot Noir and the greater California winemaking region will live on for years to come.

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