From selling grapes to a decade of winemaking

For decades, Charles and Helen Bacigalupi Vineyards sold their prized pinot noir and chardonnay grapes — among the first to be planted in this northern end of the Russian River Valley — to producers such as Chateau Montelena.  Then, about 10 years ago, the Bacigalupis decided to make their own wine when a contract expired.

Some WINE WEDNESDAY columns are appearing late, due to the publisher’s illness. He made the decision to post them late and more frequently, to catch up with the authors. This one was intended for Oct. 14, 2020. (Above image of the Goddard Ranch courtesy Definition Films.)

My, how far they have come since the days when Charles — advised by a friend to try better grapes — had to write down “pinot noir” and “chardonnay” because they were foreign varieties to a farmer who grew apples, cherries and just a little french colombard on the side?! Today, Bacigalupi puts its farming name on a scant 2,000 cases of premium wine every year while the rest of the grapes are sold to other producers, such as Chateau Potelle and Gary Farrell.

Bacigalupi achieved something special in 1973 when winemaking legend Mike Grgich came looking for chardonnay for Chateau Montelena.  Helen Bacigalupi delivered the grapes in her burnt-red Volkswagen truck over the hills to Calistoga. The grapes from that vintage represented 40 percent of the famous Chateau Montelena chardonnay that beat French burgundies in the 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting. Hardly anyone noticed to this day that Sonoma Valley chardonnay went into this heralded wine.

When the lease expired on this famous 2-½-acre plot, Bacigalupi made a special chardonnay dedicated to the family matriarch. Just introduced, the 2018 Bacigalupi Vineyard Renouveau, meaning revival or renewal, is as immense in body as Helen Bacigalupi is in life.

Helen Bacigalupi, courtesy Bacigalupi

Now 94 and still enjoying a couple of glasses of wine a day, Helen may have been the first woman in the family to strap on boots and help manage a struggling vineyard, but she is hardly the only woman there. Today, her daughter-in-law Pam and granddaughters Nicole and Katey carry on not only a family legacy but a legacy built on a can-do spirit that defies gender bias.

During a recent virtual program, the women waxed praise on their grandmother and cited her “words of wisdom” — “walk your own path” and “go with your gut” — from which the offspring have gained their confidence.  It was that confidence Helen and her late husband had when they first tilled the soil just north of Healdsburg on a site others saw as inhospitable to crops. Fortuitously, though, the soil turned out great for pinot noir and chardonnay despite wide swings in temperature that range from more than 100 degrees in the day to 45-55 degrees at night.

The chardonnay is still growing on the original vines planted in 1956 from bud wood it got from Karl Wente. Because of their age, many vines have slowly died and the others often perform unpredictably.  But it’s that serendipity that consulting winemaker Ashley Herzberg credits for Bacigalupi’s unique chardonnays.

Ashley Herzberg, courtesy Bacigalupi

“These are not cookie-cutter wines,” she said. “Each vine behaves differently.”

The job of nurturing old vines from the three vineyards falls to Helen’s son and vineyard manager John Bacigalupi. Herzberg said John is skilled at “pivoting to whatever the vineyards are giving us each year.”

The vines perform well enough that Herzberg doesn’t interfere with the natural winemaking process. She called herself just a “glorified babysitter” of the grapes.  The wines aren’t fined or filtered. Only indigenous yeasts are used and she doesn’t even rack the grapes from the lees.

“Our wines are a true representation of what each vineyard gives us,” she said.

Herzberg joined the granddaughters in paying tribute to pioneering Helen Bacigalupi. “Having female figures to look to who were so strong and capable is remarkable. We still have challenges just being female, like driving a truck. But it’s easier for us because of what Helen has done.”

Here’s to Helen and here’s to the tasty Bacigalupi wines we liked:

  • Bacigalupi Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($62). Using cuttings from the original Paris Block on Goddard Ranch, the chardonnay bears a rich character with melon and citrus flavors, peach aromas and a hint of almonds.
  • Bacigalupi Vineyards “Renouveau” Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($82). Entirely from the Paris Tasting Block of chardonnay grapes, this wine is generous of stone fruit and honeysuckle aromas, lushly textured and loaded with layered white peach and pear flavors. Oak fermentation provides secondary flavors of coconut and toast. It is a huge contrast to the understated previous wine.
  • Bacigalupi Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($69). Limited punch-down and limit skin exposure creates a lightly color pinot noir that is void of tannins but loaded with honest pinot noir flavor. Bright raspberry and cherry notes with a lingering finish. Very exquisite.
  • Bacigalupi Vineyards Frost Ranch Pinot Noir 2018 ($76). Wow, what a delicious pinot noir and quite different from the blend. We like the earthy and mushroom influences. Classic floral nose with ripe plum and black cherry flavors. Good acidity. This pinot noir is a full body and bold.

Wine picks

  • The Federalist Chardonnay Mendocino County 2018 ($23). This is a classic big styled ripe fruit chardonnay with oak enough for those seeking ample wood notes in their wine. Ripe apple with apple pie spice dominate this mouth filling, opulent California chardonnay experience.
  • Radio Boka Rosé VDT Castilla 2019 ($10-12). Made from mostly tempranillo (80 percent) with a dash of bobal, this Spanish wine is an outstanding value. Not overly complicated, but an interesting fruit forward rosé with cherry, strawberry and citrus notes. Great value! We also loved its sister wine the Radio Boka Tempranillo 2019 ($10-12) medium bodied with its cherry and strawberry inflected nose and flavors. Just a wee touch of oak completes the package.

Generic photos are selected by ThePhillyFiles and don’t indicate any preference.

Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.

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