At Sandar & Hem we strive to tell the story of the Santa Cruz Mountains and its unique vineyard sites through transparently made wines, and in particular showcase Chardonnay which we believe captures the essence of the terroirs and through its many expressions paints a picture which helps us to interpret such a rugged, complex, and endlessly beautiful place.
The name Sandar and Hem references our family’s Norwegian agricultural origins. As the home place (Sandar) and surname (Hem) of our ancestors, we find origin stories and exploration of place and people worthy of frequent and deep reflection. In our quest as winegrowers and winemakers, we aspire to make wines which express the breathtaking mountain sites upon which our grapes are grown and honor the dedicated people who take the grapes on their miraculous journey from soil to bottle.
Our journey in wine has led us to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where a deep history of pioneering viticulture and winemaking and a recent wave of growers and wineries with a trajectory of excellence has inspired us to grow grapes and craft wine here. In particular, we believe chardonnay, above all other varieties, is able to capture the wide breadth of expressions and great heights possible from the rugged and geologically diverse sites with wildly varying microclimates of the region.
When local winemakers discuss wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains, they talk in detail of the yet-to-be-formalized subregions of the AVA and we have been careful students of this movement as we work to gain a grasp of such a diverse place. These subregions range from the warmer sandy-loam Aptos-Corralitos region in the far south to the white Zyante sands and decomposed granites of Ben Lomond above Santa Cruz to the steep, rocky shale sites of the North Skyline region with its brisk ocean breezes and cool evening fog. In the 2018 vintage we explored two of these subregions and for the 2019 vintage we have crafted chardonnay from four subregions and look forward to taking you on this journey of exploration and discovery of the Santa Cruz Mountains through these amazing vineyard sites with their resulting wines.
The Origin of Sandar & Hem
While researching the family’s immigration story, Robert looked to his great grandfather Oscar Hem who emigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago and discovered the branch of the family from the idyllic Sandar region of Norway on a stunning fjord just south of Oslo. Our ancestors lived and worked on the Hem Farm in Sandar. The farm was so inseparable from the people who worked it, that the farm name was used as the recorded surname for all its residents regardless of their parents’ names. Somehow the Hem name was lost to the family when Oscar adopted the name Bergstrom shortly after moving to America in an act that remains a great family enigma. It has brought the Bergstrom family great joy to discover and visit the Hems of Sandar and with pride they connect their past to their future by naming the winery Sandar & Hem.
Robert has a diverse background and history of life adventures providing many stones on the path to becoming a winemaker. Formative early experiences include exploring winery barns of Napa in the 1970s as a child during a period where his father Donald, a chemistry professor at UC Davis, and Mother Eva would visit the still-modest local wineries on the weekends. Holiday banquets at his Grandparents Chinese restaurant taught the importance of thoughtfully sourced and crafted food in tying together family, exploring culture, and invigorating the spirit. And well before the days of Deadliest Catch, Robert spent a season commercially fishing for salmon in Alaska. There he learned the Herculean efforts and perseverance required and great rewards brought by delivering such a pristine and delicious food source to delighted chefs and diners. In an interesting parallel, Recha also worked in the salmon industry in Alaska the summer before Robert but we were not to meet until several years later.
A love for the natural world and a curious mind led Robert to becoming a research academic with an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a Ph.D. in Biophysics. A postdoctoral fellowship in cancer research at UCSF brought Robert to San Francisco where he reveled in the Bay Area food and wine scene and soon after he met his future wife Recha, a UCSF trained radiologist, at a wine tasting event that she hosted on a high-rise rooftop in SOMA. After years of research, Robert joined the management strategy consulting firm McKinsey and Company serving clients around the world in the Pharma, Healthcare, and Alternative Energy sectors. After a beautiful year back at home in San Francisco dedicated to family with the birth of our first child Tessa, Robert went on to work at Bay Area startup companies including roles as Director of Business Development at both the Vietnamese craft food company Red Boat and the technology flash sales company Touch of Modern.
Recha’s path to planting family roots at the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains has also been a winding one. She is a California native, but spent many years living on both coasts as well as several years abroad. At every opportunity, she traveled as far and wide as possible, taking in the amazing diversity people and place, learning about and enjoying different sights, sounds, tastes and cultures. Following so many years of adventure and so many years of medical training, she was ready to come home to California. She fully appreciates how fortunate they are to call this place home, with Robert and three young children, and she strives to give back - contributing to communities both locally and internationally. She has been an involved and consistent long time supporter of several philanthropic organizations, primarily focused on education, safety and opportunities for women and children, as well as environmental conservation. She will be continuing these contributions with a portion of profits donated to support the local communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
All along this journey we have cultivated our love for food, wine and community by frequently visiting wineries, spending time learning with and hosting local wine tasting groups, and making meals for family and friends using the bounty of the local region. With time, our knowledge and respect for the history and wines of the local Santa Cruz Mountain AVA grew and we delighted in the incredible stories and wines of the local winemaking legends including Paul Masson, Martin Ray, Emmett Rixford, Chaffee Hall, Kathryn Kennedy and Paul Draper. With a great respect for these pioneers, we explored the best new wines the region had to offer and took great interest in understanding the range of expressions of the best vineyard sites.
In 2013 Robert began to work part time in local wineries and vineyards and by 2016 was enrolled in the UCDavis Winemaking Certificate Program which he completed two years later and was working his first full-time harvest position at Rhys Vineyards. In the post-Sideways era, much of the region focused on planting and crafting Pinot Noir but Robert and Recha also saw the great heights that chardonnay was reaching in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His time at Rhys solidified Robert’s view that world-class chardonnays of great character and unique site expression could be produced in the region. Robert then worked a year in the vineyard and cellar at the legendary winery Mount Eden learning invaluable philosophy and craft from winemaker Jeffrey Patterson.
Launching Sandar & Hem
Formative work experiences with great mentorship helped to cement the idea that there was still much to discover and heights to be achieved in the region. In 2018 Robert reached out to several winegrower friends and learned they would be able to source fruit from some of their favorite vineyard sites in the region. With some smiles and handshakes, we took a leap of great faith and decided to launch a winery. With Robert focused on vineyards and winemaking, Recha took up the important roles of organizing and running the regulatory and business side of the winery. Months before the 2018 harvest we explored our genealogy, and that summer we found ourselves in dreamy Sandar visiting welcoming Hems. Soon after our trip, Sandar & Hem was born.
A Partner in Passion
Along the way, so many great people have shared, encouraged, inspired, and taught us. One person who has been instrumental to our journey is Taylor Smith. We met Taylor years ago while he was working at Ridge Vineyards and moments after meeting him our wine group was pouring him historic Ridge wines from the 1960s-1990s from our own cellars and he was pouring out his passion and knowledge for wine with us. We developed a great friendship over the next several years and as Taylor expanded his career in wine, he has continued been a treasured friend who we find ourselves always excited to catch up with. Often a co-conspirator in wine events and ideas, and someone who we can’t wait to open that special or curiosity of a bottle with, he is someone who has always inspired us as we explore new regions, varieties, and philosophies in wine. Taylor grew up in San Jose and since a young age has cycled extensively through the back roads of the mountains, taking inspiration from the stunning vineyards sites of the region. A year of teaching English in the Provence region of France was instrumental in exposing him to the French engrained proclivity to intertwine life and wine and instilled in him a passion to dive into the industry. Professionally, he went on to work as a sommelier in some of the greatest restaurants in the area including Plumed Horse, Saison, and RN74. As his knowledge of wine has grown, he has gone on to hold important roles at Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, Eisele Vineyards in Calistoga, and has worked harvests at Chateau d’Eugenie in Burgundy and Chateau Latour in Bordeaux. As we launched our winery, we found ourselves often consulting Taylor for his thoughts about our directions with the winery. Soon after our first 2018 wines went to barrel it became clear Taylor had been with us throughout our journey and was already an essential partner in our venture. He clearly understood our vision and had even bigger ideas for us so we formalized our partnership and he joined us at Sandar & Hem.