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james laube's wine flights

D'Alfonso Wears a New Badge

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 2, 2007 2:14pm ET

Some people aren't cut out for the corporate life.

Count Bruno D’Alfonso among them.

When Terlato Wine Group took over Sanford winery in 2006, I figured it was only a matter of time before D’Alfonso, Sanford's winemaker, would be gone. And I was right.

In his 24-year career with Sanford, D’Alfonso has been one of Santa Barbara's most influential winemakers, right up there with the likes of Jim Clendenen, Ken Brown and Rich Longoria.

No one has made more Santa Barbara Pinot Noir than D’Alfonso (routinely making nearly 30,000 cases a year), and he has made some amazing wines that have helped put Santa Barbara on the global wine map.

Moreover, he's been a mentor to many of the new wave winemakers that are proving that Santa Rita Hills is one of those sweet spots for Pinot Noir, among other wines.

D'Alfonso is also, arguably, the most outspoken and articulate voice of wine from this area and is not shy about expressing his views on just about any topic.

He is the complete opposite of a "yes man." Having known him his entire wine career, I find him refreshingly candid, insightful and seemingly unwilling to gloss over details, however sensitive.

Now 53, with thick, long, wavy hair, D’Alfonso is on his own. He maintains his longtime friendship and affiliation with Richard Sanford, who was a pioneer with Santa Ynez Valley Pinot Noir in the 1970s.

"Richard's been a mentor," D'Alfonso said. "He allowed me to do what I wanted and didn't get in my way with winemaking."

The wines D'Alfonso produced at Sanford were stylistically unique and distinctive. He excelled with rich, ripe, opulent Chardonnays, which had an exotic tropical fruit quality, and similarly distinctive Pinot Noirs, marked by earthy cherry and spice scents.

As the winery grew, finding new vineyard sources became more challenging, and then Sanford decided to build a new winery and to farm his vineyards organically.

"You have to spend the money to [grow grapes organically] and he tried to do it on the cheap," D'Alfonso said. "You need to spend more time [in the vineyard and that’s more expensive], like working on a bonsai."

The end of Sanford's ownership of his namesake winery came about when cost overruns for the new winery and dicey vineyard decisions undermined quality.

Sanford had lofty ambitions for his new facility, but it cost nearly $10 million—$6 million more than had been anticipated—said D'Alfonso. That was the "most glaring" problem with their business, he said, "the bale that broke the camel's back."

Sanford's move to farm his vineyard organically didn't work as planned either—he was forced to take on a partner, said D'Alfonso. Enter Terlato Wine Group, based in Napa, which owns several California wineries, including Rutherford Hill and Chimney Rock in Napa Valley, and Alderbrook in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

According to D'Alfonso, Terlato's majority ownership cost them longtime relationships when Terlato changed distributors. But ultimately, Terlato Wine Group "was just too corporate," for D'Alfonso. "Under Terlato, initially, potentially, we had a chance to make this winery better than ever," he said. But it wasn't long before the "corporate suits" took charge, said D'Alfonso, and "they all have egos bigger than the state of California."

"It wasn’t a good fit at all," said D'Alfonso, who was forced to resign late last year. But he says he isn't bitter about the split, adding that he likes being on his own. "It's like the mafia saying, 'It's just business, nothing personal.'"

D’Alfonso has already started one label, Di Bruno, dedicated to Italian varietals, including Sangiovese from Stolpman Vineyard and Pinot Grigio from Santa Barbara.

He also launched Badge, which focuses on Pinot Noir, and he's been helping Sanford with his new label, Alma Rosa, which makes a variety of Santa Barbara-grown wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.

The name Badge comes from the song of the same name, which was co-written by George Harrison and Eric Clapton and recorded in the 1960s by the rock group Cream.

The 2004 Badge Santa Rita Hills ($40, 800 cases) is a blend of two vineyards, Ampelos Vineyard and Ashley's Vineyard, which now goes by the name Gaia Vineyard, said D’Alfonso. The wine was made at Fess Parker, and it's delicately balanced, rich and complex, with good depth and length built around earthy cherry, blackberry and wildberry scents.

The 2005 Pinot has different grape sources, coming from Gaia and Sanford's La Encontada Vineyard, both in Santa Rita Hills. Eventually D'Alfonso is planning to have his wine made entirely from his vineyard, Rancho La Viña, and has broken ground for a 20,000-square-foot winery as well.

He, like several of Santa Barbara's pioneers, has successfully navigated his career in a new direction and is following his passions.

John Wilen
Texas —  January 2, 2007 6:06pm ET
Badge was actually written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison. It was one of just three new studio tracks the splintering Cream was able to cook up for its final album, Goodbye. Clapton and Harrison wrote the song at the Beatle's house in Esher, England. Clapton brought the song's mid-section to Harrison, who helped come up with verses and choruses -- reportedly with additional help from fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, who was hanging around that day. Starr reportedly contributed the line about the swans living in the park. EMI Records, the Beatles' label, balked at the idea of Harrison performing on a Cream album. He played anyway, but is credited under the name L'Angelo Misterioso.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  January 2, 2007 7:33pm ET
Aside from being an all around good guy - and super fun to hang out with - Bruno has been both an inspriation and a source of very helpful information. It's so cool to be able to ask questions of someone with his experience - and get no bull$hit answers. Just the truth - as Bruno sees it. Bruno will never sugar coat things, or pull a punch.... which is HUGELY refreshing in the wine world.

Bruno is on a very short list of people that helped create the wine world that I inhabit. Without Bruno, I wouldn't be able to do what I do... and for that, I'll be forvere grateful.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 2, 2007 7:38pm ET
John, nice to have a '60s (and more?) music trivia expert on board...
Jack Bulkin
January 2, 2007 8:02pm ET
That's great historical info about Badge and Cream John Wilen. I Didn't expect to see that kind of information on Winespectator.com. I'll look for the Badge label now and play some old Cream CD's as I try the wine.
John Stickler
nyack ny —  January 3, 2007 7:19am ET
actually john the name Badge came about because the only discerable writing on the page clapton had written was "bridge" ie the middle part of the song. ringo reading this upside down said, oh your calling it Badge and as the song was untitled thats what it became
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 3, 2007 11:55am ET
I got several bottles of the 2003 & 2004 Badge and have enjoyed them very much. I'm doing "Pinot N-Wars" every Friday in which I pit two Pinots from the same general area (not necessarily AVA) and from the same vintage against each other. I think I'll put the 2003 Badge against the 2003 Bonaccorsi Melville this weekend.....
Jonathan Merer
denver, co —  January 3, 2007 2:47pm ET
James, I believe you gave a projected rating of 92-94 to the 2004 Badge. Have you tried it since your barrel tastings? I was surprised that this wine had not been rated from the bottle yet. I give it very high marks, but I was curious if you had re-tasted it and what your new notes would be. Cheers.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 3, 2007 2:53pm ET
Jonathan, I did try it and it was excellent; also liked his final 2004 Sanford Pinot...A review should run soon on our website, under Pinot Tasting Highlights. FYI, it our policy not to print scores in blogs until they've been reported on-line or in the magazine.
Mike Northup
Houston, Texas —  January 4, 2007 7:32pm ET
It's great to see Bruno doing well. I had the chance to work with him while I was selling wine in California. He is definitely incredibly talented and and a great guy. I look forward to looking for his wines here in Texas. Thanks for the article.
William White
Oakland CA —  January 4, 2007 10:51pm ET
James,Is the final rating on the Badge out yet??I don't see it on the site.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 4, 2007 11:10pm ET
William, that note and many more on recent Pinot Noirs are on our home page, under Pinot Noir Tasting Highlights. Let me know if you can't find it. Sometimes I miss them, too.
Paul Charron
Scottsdale —  January 5, 2007 1:47am ET
Bruno's Pinots currently inhabit the cellar at my work twice: 2004 Badge and 2001 Sanford "La Rinconada". The soft, ripe opulance of the '01 bottling vs. the vibrant fruit and snappy acidity of the '04 are great contrasts, and I often sell them as a pair. (Or did, until our two case allocation ran low. It's actually easier to get the 2001 bottle than the '04!) Either way, the man provides delicious grease for life's Disraeli Gears...
Paul Murray
La Canada, CA —  January 8, 2007 4:45pm ET
Troy, the Pinot Wars sounds like a great concept. I am in nearby La Canada, how can I participate?

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