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Sonoma Legacy in a Bottle
By Linda Murphy
May 20, 2014
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I’m a sucker for a good wine story, particularly when I’ve experienced a tiny bit of it myself and know it to be authentic.  The Bacigalupi family’s story is one of those.

Charles and Helen Bacigalupi met at Santa Rose Junior College, married and settled down in Healdsburg in Sonoma County.  He established a decades-long dentistry practice and she worked for a time as a pharmacist.  Together, they purchased the Goddard Ranch on Westside Road in 1956, and Helen became its overseer.

At the time of the Bacigalupis’ purchase, Goddard Ranch had walnuts, fruit trees, and a kitchen-sink, field-blend vineyard planted to, among other varieties, Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Golden Chasselas and Muscat.  They eventually planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the property and sold their grapes to nearby wineries.

If you’re familiar with the “Judgment of Paris” story, you know that in 1976, two Napa Valley wineries, Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, shockingly bested French wines in a blind tasting in Paris of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, respectively.  What you might not know is that the Chardonnay “winner,” the 1973 Chateau Montelena, was comprised of approximately 40% Bacigalupi Vineyard grapes.  From Sonoma, not Napa.

A copy of the weigh tag, which lists the tonnage and price paid, shows that Bacigalupi delivered 14.165 tons of 1973 Chardonnay (then called Pinot Chardonnay) to Chateau Montelena at $815 per ton, for a payment of $14,342.92--including transportation costs.  That might seem like a lot of money for 1973, yet it was the majority of what the Bacigalupis would make that year from their vines, and certainly not enough to turn a profit.  Charles kept his dentistry job.

Charles and Helen added to their vineyard holdings over the years, focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir while maintaining their older Zinfandel vines, which continue to contribute to single-vineyard bottlings for such superstar producers as Williams Selyem.  

Fast forward to 1990, when I moved to Healdsburg.  I didn’t know a wit about wine but was determined to learn, and took a low-paying yet highly rewarding job as a harvest Brix sampler and cellar rat for a company that at the time owned Mazzocco, Lyeth and Laurier wineries.

One of my duties was to take berry and cluster samples from the Bacigalupi vineyard and report the Brix readings back to the mother ship, so that the winemakers could predict when the grapes should be harvested.  At the time, I didn’t know the Bacigalupis, nor their reputation; my daily inspection of their vines was simply part of my job.  But when I coincidentally moved to a small cottage across Westside Road from them six months later, I started paying closer, yet quiet, attention. 

Charles died in 2013 at age 89.  Helen, now the same age, is like a bottle of great red wine that has many years of life left in the cellar -- vibrant, talkative and with many a tale to tell.  So when her twin granddaughters, Katey and Nicole, began reaching out to the wine media with a fresh, new voice, it was time for me to pay even closer attention.

Helen and Charles’ son, John Tyler Bacigalupi -- Katey and Nicole’s dad -- has long been responsible for the vineyards, and a “John Tyler” wine brand was created as a home for some Bacigalupi grapes that wouldn’t interfere with the wines made by others from Bacigalupi fruit. 

With the young, energetic vision of Katey and Nicole, the John Tyler brand has morphed into Bacigalupi Vineyards wines, with the kids capitalizing on the family’s winegrowing heritage as a branding statement. 

In 2011, Ashley Herzberg was hired by the family to produce a new range of Bacigalupi Vineyards wines, and her current releases knock the ball out of the park.

The 2012 Bacigalupi Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($56) is loaded with ripe pear, apple and citrus fruit, with mineral, vanillin and hazelnut notes and a refreshing, tangy finish.  This admirably complex wine is made from vines grafted from the “Paris Tasting” block. 
 
The 2012 Bacigalupi Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($65) is racy and lively in its wild strawberry and raspberry fruit, with cranberry, root beer float and sassafras character on an energetic palate.

Yet the most impressive wine, to my taste, is the 2012 Bacigalupi Vineyards Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($39).  It’s elegant in a way that few Zins are, with polished tannins, bright, juicy raspberry and Bing cherry fruit, and a softly spicy kick on the finish.  An ever-so-subtle herbal note adds complexity.