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Continuing the series featuring the wines, wineries, and winemakers of Santa Barbara County in the lead-up to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference that officially begins this Friday.  In this installment of the ‘get to know the winemaker series,’ we visit with Steve Fennell, winemaker, Sanford Winery & Vineyards.

Please read the previous interviews in the series: Larry Schaffer winemaker/owner of Tercero Wines; Paul Wilkins winemaker at Alta Maria Vineyards; and Jason Haas of Tablas Creek.

With more than 35 vintages of wine production and the first to plant Pinot Noir (in 1971) in the region, Sanford Winery & Vineyards is one of the pioneer winery operations in the Santa Barbara County wine region.  Best known for their world-class Pinot Noirs, Sanford is one of the most recognized names in the region — the tasting room served as the first winery ‘Miles and Jack’ visited in the 2004 film ‘Sideways.’

When Santa Barbara County was selected to host WBC14, Sanford was the first winery I thought of revisiting.  When wife and I first visited the region about seven years ago Sanford was the first winery we visited in Santa Barbara and have remained fans of Sanford wine since.


Steve Fennell – Picture Credit: Sanford Winery & Vineyards

Steve, you came back to Santa Barbara in 2006 and currently serve as the Winemaker and General Manager at Sanford Winery.  Can you share some of your background prior to coming back to Santa Barbara in 2006?
I got into winemaking as a choice made based on the culmination of my interests and background. I was studying geology and geography at UCSB; I had a summer job in agriculture (Ag Research Division of H.J. Heinz); My grandfather was a plant breeder, who specialized in grapevines. Once I discovered I loved wine and had a good palate, I looked into winemaking as a career. After graduating from UCSB, I enrolled in the Graduate program at UC Davis to realize this dream. After Davis, I worked in Napa and South Australia before coming home to Santa Barbara County, where my wine journey began.

Describe your winegrowing philosophy?
My winegrowing philosophy is based on cool climate, balanced wines, that favorably reflect on the site in which they are grown and crafted.

How has the wine narrative in California, and the larger wine world, changed since your first vintage?
I think the biggest change is that winemakers have gotten much more involved in what happens in the vineyard.

What is the one myth about wine that you would like to see ended?
While there are many, one that I would like to see ended (or at least qualified) is that low yield = quality; it’s not that simple.

The Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) is a fast-paced, wine-soaked weekend with many wines, stories and experiences.  What would you like WBC attendees to know about you, your wines, and/or your winery?
That we are producing world class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that are great examples of what makes the Sta. Rita Hills so special for these two noble varieties.

What do you hope to gain from the WBC experience?
I hope to convey some of the magic of the Sta. Rita Hills. I also hope to get insightful feedback and lively dialogue.

What wines will you be sharing with the WBC group?  Why did you select these particular wines to share at the conference?
We will be including our Sta. Rita Hills Pinot for my presentation on the A.V.A. At the tasting at our winery, I will be pouring our lineup of estate Chardonnays and Pinot Noir. That is what we do!

What is the most exciting grape variety you work with, and why?
While it would be natural to say Pinot, I am going to say Chardonnay. Not that it’s exciting, per se, but that our region is truly outstanding for the variety, and I think the winds really stand out.

What would you be doing if you weren’t making wine?
Wishing I was making wine. Besides that, I would likely be doing something in the field of meteorology/climatology and farming high end produce on the side.

What vintners or regions do you look to for inspiration (and favorite wines)?
I still look to Burgundy for examples of great Chardonnay and Pinot, but I am also a huge fan of Barolo & Barbaresco, and the wines of the southern Rhone.

What is the worst (wine related) mistake you’ve ever made?
Following someone else’s suggestion regarding a blend, when my gut told me it wasn’t the way to go.

What wine do you not currently make but would like to? (or, what variety do you not currently grow but would like to)?

What did you drink last night?
A Cotes du Rhone from Chapoutier.

Look for the team from Sanford on Saturday during the Wine Discovery Breakout Sessions.  Sanford will be hosting the ‘Dig In: Santa Rita Hills‘ session from 1:15 – 2:15pm in the Court Tent.

Sanford Winery & Vineyards
5010 Santa Rosa Road
Lompoc, CA 93436
United States
On Twitter:  @SanfordWinery

Thank you Steve for sharing your time and insights.  Look forward to seeing you this weekend.

Tomorrow’s interview will be with Clarissa Nagy, winemaker at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery.