Updated Dec. 20, 2005
Less than three months after founders Richard and Thekla Sanford severed ties with the estate, Sanford Winery fired its longtime winemaker, Bruno d'Alfonso, on Dec. 15.
Chicago-based Terlato Wine Group holds a 51 percent stake in Sanford, while the remaining shares are owned by various investors, including longtime partners in the winery such as Robert and Janice Atkins and Bob and Mary Kidder.
D'Alfonso, who had been the winemaker at Sanford since 1983, said that Terlato's director of winemaking, Doug Fletcher, personally handed him a letter of termination on Thursday. Fletcher, who oversees the winemaking at the group's other California wineries—Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock and Alderbrook—will oversee operations at Sanford, said Terlato spokesman Phil Rosen.
The company initially declined requests for comment and said in a statement only that it wished d'Alfonso well. "All of the partners are bound by confidentiality clauses, including Bruno," president and CEO Bill Terlato subsequently explained. While he would not discuss the reasons for the firing, Terlato said, "People see what we've done with Chimney Rock, Alderbrook and Rutherford Hill, and they all know we make our decisions with quality in mind. We're not doing anything different here with Sanford."
D'Alfonso, who is a limited partner with a tiny stake in Sanford, said the letter forbids him to talk to any winery employee regarding winery business or to be present on winery property without the presence of a representative designated by Terlato. In addition, he was instructed to move the wines he makes under his own labels, DiBruno and Badge, off the property and store them elsewhere.
The manner of the firing shocked many in the Santa Barbara County wine industry. "It's a shock in contrast to the kind and gentle way that Sanford always ran his place and the general pace and lifestyle here," said Wes Hagen, winemaker at Clos Pepe and an active force in the valley. He added, "Everyone is looking around and saying this place is changing really fast."
D'Alfonso said the way the situation was handled came as a complete surprise to him. "On one day, we were are all breaking bread, drinking wine and planning strategies, and the next day, I dunno, I just dunno."
His departure was not entirely surprising, however, as the winery had been going through some internal tumult even before Richard Sanford left. Just before Sideways brought national attention to Sanford and other Santa Barbara Pinot Noir producers, the difficult 2003 vintage was declassified because the partners were not satisfied with the quality. That left Sanford with little wine to sell at the height of the interest. In an earlier conversation with Wine Spectator, d'Alfonso attributed the quality problems to inadequate vineyard management, saying that budbreak was uneven and that more aggressive crop thinning should have been done. He said he was unhappy with having little input in how the vineyards were run and had been seeking more autonomy. Likewise, he said, he was not happy with the situation arose in 2005, when he believed bunches should have been dropped to control the large crop.
D'Alfonso speculated that his termination may have been related to his philosophic differences with the more corporate Terlato group. He characterized himself and Richard Sanford as "free spirits" and "extremely bohemian." (Sanford, who has started a new winery, Alma Rosa, left in a dispute over direction, including his preference for organic grape-growing methods.) D'Alfonso said he had received a fax from Fletcher a few weeks ago enumerating various transgressions, including making his own wine, speaking to the press without going through corporate public relations, and going to a tasting festival (which he had attended annually for 14 years) during harvest.
"I had thought it might work out," he said. "I thought the organization was professional, and I'd have my say in the vineyard and winery. But that hasn't turned out to be the case."
There have been several other recent changes in Sanford personnel, d'Alfonso noted. In addition to Richard Sanford's departure, longtime Sanford human-resources director Marge Garcia Loehr left and took a position at Alma Rosa, and Chris Burroughs, the Sanford tasting room "cowboy" who appeared in Sideways also resigned and has since been hired at Alma Rosa as well. "It's like the leaves are all falling from the tree," d'Alfonso said. "Richard, Thekla and I were the roots."
For now, d'Alfonso said, he needed to figure out where he was going to store and produce his wine brands, then he was going to take a little time off to spend some time with his girlfriend and their dogs. "Eat good food and see friends. Maybe go to Santa Fe," he said. "Play it by ear."