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.