John Terlato is more than a man on a mission. He’s a man possessed. Terlato, the co-owner of Chicago-based Terlato Wines, has spent the last 15 years trying to elevate the family’s crown jewel in California—Sanford Winery—to “grand cru status” as one of the greatest pinot noir and chardonnay estates in the world.
That journey has taken him to Burgundy countless times and propelled him through thousands of hours of research and consultations. It’s made him question conventional wisdom (“I don’t think battonage makes sense”). And it’s made him impatient for answers (“What precisely do you need to do or not do to make a Wine of a Place?”)
But restlessness has also led him to a kind of soul searching. (“I needed to honestly ask myself, can we make wines that are emotionally provocative and moving?”)
He’s not done yet. Still, the quality of Sanford chardonnays and pinot noirs, already enormously high, is about to climb even higher.
A word of background: The vineyard known as Sanford & Benedict was founded in 1971. A partnership between winemaker Richard Sanford and botanist Michael Benedict, it was the first vineyard planted in the uber cool Sta. Rita Hills AVA in southern California. The pair were so cash-strapped that they didn’t even plant on rootstock. They drilled 40,000 holes into the hilltop (a landslide of ancient marine sediment), stuck in the Vitis vinifera, and held their breaths.
In 2007, the Terlato family bought not only the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard but also the Sanford winery and the neighboring Rinconada Vineyard. (Today, the original “Founder’s Blocks” of chardonnay and pinot noir vines—now 47 years old—make some of Sanford’s most nuanced and refined wines.)
Over the last few years, I’ve been impressed by Sanford’s wines, but this recent tasting left me convinced that the wines have achieved even greater beauty and dimension. “Passion is driving me,” said Terlato. “I want drinking Sanford wine to stop people in their tracks.”
Then he paused and added, “But I also want to make wine that makes people happy; that’s part of my being Italian.”
Then he offered to make me risotto soon.
SANFORD “Sanford & Benedict” Chardonnay 2016 (Sta. Rita Hills, California) $55
Very minerally, crisp, earthy, and long. As close to Burgundy as any California wine I’ve recently tasted. Creamy and yet super lively, setting up a delicious “tension” of opposites. 94 points
SANFORD “La Rinconada” Chardonnay 2016 (Sta. Rita Hills, California) $55
As different from its sister above as possible. A super creamy open leads to a languorous mouthfilling middle. A honied (but not sweet) richness, interspersed with lots of minerality. 96 points
SANFORD “Sanford & Benedict” Pinot Noir 2015 (Sta. Rita Hills, California) $70
Seductively classic pinot aromas of warm earth and exotic spices. Silky texture. Refined and pure without any overripeness or heaviness. 93 points
SANFORD “Dominio del Falcon” Pinot Noir 2015 (Sta. Rita Hills, California) $88
So deeply and seductively earthy, it’s primordial. Long on the palate with waves of minerals and a sea spray saltiness. Beautiful rich fruit and savory characters—baskets of cherries, dried herbs, and pomegranates. 96 points