This past weekend, Helen Bacigalupi and her family celebrated the 50-year anniversary of planting the original blocks of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes at the famed Bacigalupi Vineyards in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.
It’s a story that began more than six decades ago when Helen married Charles Bacigalupi, a Sonoma County native, whose grandfather had a winery on Chiquita Road and who grew up filling jugs of wine straight from the barrel for customers who shopped at his family’s Bacigalupi Market on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa.
After meeting in college, the young lovebirds were married and moved to Healdsburg, where Charles established his long-term career as a dentist and Helen worked a short stint as a pharmacist before she took on her new role as the family’s official ranch keeper and accountant when the Bacigalupis purchased the old Goddard Ranch on Westside Road in 1956.
At the time of purchase, the hillside property featured 16 acres of vineyards planted with a classic field blend of Zinfandel mixed with Alicante Bouschet, Golden Chasselas, Muscat and Mission. But back then the more lucrative crops on the property were fruit trees and small walnut orchard. So to make ends meet, Helen and Charles bought ten pure-bred Angus steers from the nearby MacMurray Ranch owned by actor Fred MacMurray and raised them and the offspring on the pasture land at the ranch over the next 15 years.
In 1964 the focus on grape growing on the property started to change, when the family planted a new 14 acres parcel of vineyards which included Chardonnay and the first Pinot Noir vines planted on Westside Road.
Once these new vineyard blocks were established, the Bacigalupis began selling grapes to Rodney Strong and the Foppiano and Seghesio families. In 1973, Helen sold 14 tons of Chardonnay to Chateau Montelena, which eventually became 40 percent of the master blend in the famous wine that won over the French in the famed Paris Tasting in 1976.
Helen’s tale of how the wine made it to Paris starts when she received a call from Mike Grgich (the Chateau Montelena winemaker in 1973) saying he would like to buy some of the Bacigalupi Chardonnay grapes he had heard so much about. After an agreement was reached, she sold the winery 15 tons. But, according to Helen, getting the fruit from Russian River Valley to Calistoga was not such an easy task.
“It took me six trips to the winery and I hauled the grapes with my little Volkswagen pickup and a custom-made trailer. It was a little scary because the Volkswagen didn’t have the guts to get over the hill from Alexander Valley to Calistoga in Napa Valley. So I would gun it at the bottom and pray to God that nobody got in my way going up the hill to slow me down. If that had happened, I never would have made it.”
Fast-forward three years. Helen was baking a cake to celebrate the Bicentennial anniversary on July 4, 1976 when the phone rang and it was Mike Grgich. He told her then that we had won the Paris Tasting against the French. He also inquired about buying more grapes, but she had to tell him I was sorry because they were already sold.
Helen went on to say that the impact of the Paris Tasting took several years. “Today it’s still impacting the wines made in Northern California but I don’t think that people here understood how important the award was at the time,” says Helen, now 89 years young. “On the other hand, the French felt the impact immediately!”
At the end of the 1970s, the family partnered with Peter Friedman of Belvedere Winery and bottled its first vineyard designate Chardonnay as part of the Grapemaker Series. A few years later, the 1982 vintage won the Sonoma Harvest Fair Sweepstakes and the wine was eventually served at the White House. But after a decade of national distribution, the Bacigalupis ended their partnership with Healdsburg Wine Growers, Inc and made its last bottles of the Belvedere Bacigalupi Chardonnay in 1987.
As the demand for premium grapes expanded, the family began developing vineyards on newly purchased properties, including a 15 acre parcel on Lytton Station Road in Alexander Valley in 1973; the Bloom Ranch adjacent to the original Bacigalupi property in 1983; and the Frost Ranch on Westside Road in 1993.
Over the past two decades, most of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah grapes grown on the properties have been sold to a wide range of boutique producers, including Wiliam Seylem, Armida, Fantesa, Graton Ridge, Rudd, Tudal, Arista, Gott, Venge, Gracianna and John Tyler Wines (a brand started by Charles and Helen’s son John and his wife Pam began in 2002). But today, a portion of the precious fruit is being used by winemaker Ashley Hertzberg, who was hired by the family in 2011 to create a new series of Bacigalupi wines that are primarily sold to high-end restaurants and at the new tasting room at the base of the Goddard property.