Pioneering Santa Barbara County viticulturist Michael R. Benedict.
Pioneering Santa Barbara County viticulturist Michael R. Benedict passed away earlier this month at the age of 83. He co-founded and planted the esteemed Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1971. (Photo courtesy of Terlato Wine Group)

Santa Barbara resident Michael R. Benedict, a “visionary wine grower and vintner” who co-founded and planted the esteemed Sanford & Benedict Vineyard with Richard Sanford in 1971, died on July 3 from melanoma. 

A botanist and mathematician by training and a wildland preservationist and passionate sailor, Benedict was revered as an independent thinker who approached grape growing and winemaking from the perspective of a naturalist, according to a news release from the Terlato Wine Group, which has owned Sanford for more than 15 years.

John Terlato, vice chairman and chief administrative officer, recalled Benedict as a “dear friend whose friendship and camaraderie I thoroughly enjoyed and deeply valued. Through the years we came to know each other well, and our friendship grew with each passing year. I will miss him deeply.”

Terlato met Benedict around 2011, and over time, the two became good friends.

“It took me a bit of time to understand his depth of knowledge,” Terlato said.

Like many intellectuals, Benedict possessed “an inexhaustible curiosity,” and also applied “a rigorous honesty in all he did.”

While Terlato had known “from early on” of Benedict’s cancer battle, the latter kept it quiet.

“He remained upbeat — to him, (the cancer) was just another challenge for him to cross,” Terlato said.

After studying the cool climate of the western Santa Barbara County region that later (in 2001), would be designated as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Richard Sanford and Benedict planted pinot noir and chardonnay in their namesake vineyard.

By doing so, both became recognized as pioneering forces behind what today is one of the world’s top-notch cool climate regions.

The vineyard partners eventually grew apart, and Benedict began to make a name for himself by consulting for other vineyards, among them Lavender Oaks west of Buellton. 

Terlato recalled the methodology Benedict used as a viticulturist, by first identifying the site — “his vision” — and then by “following all the steps along the way, connecting the dots.”

“His vision for a cool-climate location with the ideal soil conditions to grow extraordinary fruit came to life with that Sanford & Benedict site, and the results were proven.” 

Benedict “took great joy in finding a solution” to any issue, and “it was a fascinating thing to watch.”

During his first visits to Sanford, Benedict “helped me frame the potential of the vineyard, which is a magical place,” Terlato said.

The historic property, which contains two vineyards — the older Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada, planted to more pinot noir and chardonnay by Richard Sanford in 1995 — has “a gravitas, or weight to it, that’s almost palpable,” he continued.

“Conversations with Michael were a pure joy: They were purposeful, and deeply provocative, requiring attention and engagement. When engaged, he always had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

“He was a ‘“’net giver’”’ — he really wasn’t in it for himself. He was just comfortable in his own skin, with who he was, and with his capabilities and views,” Terlato said.

The Terlato family plans to host of Celebration of Life for Benedict at Sanford Winery & Vineyard; details will be announced at a later date.

Barbara Satterfield, longtime executive director of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, shared that “it is with great sadness that we have learned of the passing of Michael Benedict.

“He, along with Richard Sanford, pioneered our Sta. Rita Hills with the planting of Sanford & Benedict, the first vineyard in our region. He will forever be a part of the history of the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Barbara County wine industry.

“Our condolences go to his daughter, Morgan.”

Longtime wine industry publicist Sao Anash echoed Satterfield: “Michael Benedict was a visionary winegrower who, along with Richard Sanford, established one of America’s most celebrated pinot noir vineyard designates.”

Laurie Jervis can be reached via The opinions expressed are her own.