He co-founded Saintsbury and was a leader in California’s pursuit of Burgundian grape greatness
Napa Valley in the 1970s was still gaining fame with Cabernet Sauvignon when Richard Ward broke from the pack. He and David Graves took a chance on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros. Their vision—and their winery Saintsbury—came into focus just ahead of a wave of interest in those two grapes and that region.
Ward died May 27 at age 67 from complications related to a bone marrow transplant. He had been battling Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a blood cancer he developed after receiving radiation for prostate cancer, which he fought for 13 years.
Ward and Graves founded Saintsbury, named for English writer and wine connoisseur George Saintsbury, in 1981. Within the decade they had Carneros on a new path, catapulting the region in southern Napa Valley to the front of a growing American interest in the wines of Burgundy.
“We decided to make Pinot Noir, which was not a very popular variety then. It was a great challenge, but we felt if we could be successful we could be a bigger fish in a small pound,” said Ward, in a history compiled by the winery. The two also took a light-hearted spirit with wine, once referring to their experience as “Beaune in the U.S.A.”
Ward was born on Feb. 5, 1950, in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and grew up there and in Washington D.C. He earned a degree in structural engineering from Tufts University before moving to California to study enology at the University of California Davis. That’s where he met Graves. The two decided to go into business together.
Ward appeared headed toward a career with Cabernet until he and Graves tasted the potential of Carneros Pinot from Heiniman Vineyard on the Sonoma side of Carneros. They also checked out coastal sites from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara. “We were very impressed with what Sanford and Benedict were doing with cool climate fruit [in Santa Ynez Valley],” Graves told Wine Spectator. That sparked their interest.
“Even then, while we could not have known the trajectory Pinot Noir would take, Cabernet Sauvignon had already assumed its place at the top of the heap,” said Graves. “We are both prone to the attraction to what we are told is difficult: The road less travelled, in the words of Robert Frost. And the 1972 Burgundies were on the market, and I remember we were especially taken with the wines of Domaine Dujac.”
Saintsbury formed a partnership with key Carneros growers, which gave them a steady supply of top quality grapes. Ward and Graves broadened their appeal by introducing a lighter-styled, less-expensive Pinot called Garnet, starting in 1983, which proved a big seller. They expanded into numerous single vineyard bottlings from a handful of vineyards. In 2011, they sold Garnet to refocus on higher-end wines.
When not at the winery, Ward was an avid gardener, reader and someone with an encyclopedic range of knowledge, loving to chat with friends on everything from world history, architecture, politics and chicken breeds. He earned the nickname Dr. Dick for his detailed explanations, and he wore it with pride.
Ward is survived by his wife Linda Reiff; his children Philippa and Trent Ward of London; his mother Ella Meadows Giesey; and his sisters Normanide Fischer and Heidi Ravenel. Donations in his name can be sent to the National Bone Marrow Registry or by donating blood or platelets at a local blood bank.