This past week I attended the Sonoma County Barrel Auction and was pleased to see that Helen Bacigalupi was honored as an icon of the wine industry. Standing less than 5 feet tall, 100 pounds, and in her late eighties, Helen is still a whirlwind with a sharp mind and whit. “I’ve limited myself to only 4 ounces of wine per day,” she told me, “because since I only weigh 100 pounds now, I can’t drink more than that.”
Seeing her again reminded me of the wonderful day I spent with her several years ago as we walked through her famous chardonnay vineyard, home of the grapes that made up a large percentage of the Chateau Montelena wine that won the Judgement of Paris contest in 1976. In honor of Helen, I decided to include an excerpt from the chapter on the Bacigalupi Vineyard that was published in my book, Call of the Vine: Exploring Ten Famous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.
|Helen Bacigalupi (center) Honored as Icon at Sonoma County Barrel Auction|
History of Bacigalupi Vineyard
The Bacigalupi Vineyard is located in the central part of the Russian River Valley AVA, and occupies what was known as the Goddard Ranch - an original homestead established in the early 1800’s. The Goddard’s lived on the 121-acre property for over five generations before selling it to Helen and Charles Bacigalupi for $35,000 in 1956. The purchase included two old houses – one that was 100 years old, and the second that was 150 years old. The Bacigalupi moved into the 100-year-old house and slowly started updating it.
At the time, both Helen and Charles had full-time jobs in Healdsburg, where Helen worked as a pharmacist and Charles owned a dental practice. However once they bought the property, Helen gave up her job to oversee agriculture operations. “There were already some old vineyards on the property,” reported Helen, “filled with field blends of zinfandel, alicante bouschet, golden chasselas, and mission grapes. In addition, we had acres and acres of prune orchards, but we couldn’t make much money on prunes, so we decided to plant more vines.”
The Bacigalupi’s consulted Bob Sisson, the local UC Davis grape advisor, who was also a dental patient of Charles’s. Bob suggested they plant some of the newer grapes such as chardonnay and pinot noir because they would perform well in the more moderate climate of the Russian River. However neither Helen nor Charles had ever heard of those types of grapes and couldn’t find a place to buy them. Finally someone suggested they contact Karl Wente in Livermore who had started a winery and nursery several years before. So Charles telephoned Karl who invited him to drive to Livermore, where Charles purchased the budwood for what has now become known as the famous Wente Chardonnay clone. They grafted the Wente clone to St. George rootstock with the assistance of Joe Rochiolo who lived down the road and had taken a class at UC Davis to learn how to graft vines.
The resulting four acres of chardonnay became known as the Paris Tasting Block when Mike Grgich, winemaker at Chateau Montelena at the time, contracted to buy the 14 tons it produced in 1973. Mike blended it with other Sonoma and Napa grapes to produce the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay which won the 1976 Judgment of Paris, beating out wines from Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault Charmes. This single event caused people around the world to recognize that California was producing wines of exceptional quality.
|The Paris Tasting Block in the Bacigalupi Vineyard Today|
The Paris Tasting Block
Once the results of the famous tasting in France became known, Helen had many offers for her chardonnay grapes, and to this day continues to sell them at a premium to high-end wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties. The original Paris Tasting Block, planted in 1964, still exists, and is surrounded by many other blocks of chardonnay and pinot noir vines.
Ironically, many people are still not aware of the fact that 87%, or 34 of the 39 tons of the chardonnay grapes that went into the 1973 Chateau Montelena were from Sonoma County. However, the information is well documented in George Taber’s book, The Judgment of Paris:
“Just over 40 tons of Chardonnay grapes in 1973 were purchased from four suppliers: Charles Bacigalupi from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, Lee Paschich, whose vineyard was located about a mile from the winery; Henry Dick from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County; and John Hanna. Bacigalupi provided 14 tons, Paschich about one ton, Dick about 20 tons, and Hanna four tons. The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was thus made with predominately Sonoma Valley grapes, although it was produced in the Napa Valley. (p. 143)”
|Bill of Sale for the Bacigalupi Chardonnay Grapes|
Touring Bacigalupi Vineyard
I met Helen on a sunny Spring morning at the Bacigalupi tasting room on Westside Road outside of Healdsburg. She was dressed in a burgundy-colored corduroy blazer, with navy slacks and sensible leather loafers to walk in the vineyard. She shook my hand with a strong grip and smiled, her blue-eyes twinkling behind round glass. She looked every inch the successful grape grower and smart businesswoman that she was known to be – even though she was 87 years old.
“Are you ready to go see the vineyard now?” Helen asked.
“Of course,” I jumped to my feet.
“Ok, then follow me in my car.”
I saw Helen into her old Mercedes sedan before climbing into my vehicle and following closely behind. We didn’t have to drive very far, because Helen turned onto Goddard Road just a few minutes after we drove north on Westside Road. We traveled on a narrow paved road that climbed the hill and made several sharp turns before dead-ending in front of a small wooden house with several outbuildings and barns surrounding it. All around the buildings and climbing up the slopes were rows of vines on tall trellis systems.
“Wow, you live in the vineyards,” I said, surprised.
“Yes, so when people tell me that spraying sulfur on vineyards is dangerous, I say nonsense. Do you think I would live where I could be poisoned?” She laughed and starting walking towards a block of vines near a large barn.
“Where is the Paris Tasting Block?” I called after her.
“Right here!” She continued to walk straight ahead and then turned around to motion me forward. “Here is one of the vines where Mike Grgich sampled the grapes that day in 1973 when he came to visit.”
I followed rapidly behind her, and then approached the vine with awe. Here was living history. This huge magnificent grape vine was part of the story that put the California wine industry on the map. Its fruit had gone into a bottle of wine that French wine experts, in a blind tasting, had declared was better than some of the most famous wines of Burgundy.
|Helen Standing Next To Chardonnay Vine|
Staring at the vine I realized it stood about seven feet tall on a modified California sprawl trellis system, which reminded me of some of the taller pergola trellises in Italy. Healthy green leaves spread out in many directions, and the shoots were filled with many small grape clusters in full bloom with small white flowers. The trunk was massive, about 10 inches across, but also quite tall, so that the grape clusters were around shoulder height.
Helen walked over and stood next to the vine. It dwarfed her 4 foot 10 inch frame. “So what do you think?” she asked.
“I’m in awe. I can’t believe how tall these vines are.”
“Yes, that is the way we like to plant them. We call it a modified California sprawl trellis system. It works well for us and is easier to pick the grapes during harvest, because they are higher. The only problem with this block is that some of them are dying of old age now. See the missing spaces.”
I glanced up the row of vines and noticed a few spaces where grapevines has formerly stood, but now all that was left were wooden stumps with tall golden grass growing around them. “My son John is trying to replant some of them using the same budwood,” said Helen, “but it is very difficult to get the old ones out. Their roots run very deep.”
Mike Grgich Comes to Bacigalupi Vineyard in 1973
“That’s wonderful that he is trying to replant with the same budwood,” I said, still filled with wonderment over the beauty and height of the vines. I walked back over to the one where Helen said Mike Grgich had tasted the chardonnay grapes. “How did Mike hear about your vines?”
Helen grinned and her blue eyes twinkled again. “You know to this day, I’m still not sure how he heard about us. We were selling the grapes to other wineries back then, including Chateau St. Jean, so it he must have found us by talking to other people. Anyway he called me one day in August of 1973 and asked if he could see our chardonnay.”
“Yes,” I encouraged, “so what did Mike say when he saw the vineyard?”
“Well, he walked around and looked at several different blocks and started tasting the fruit, but when he got to the ‘Paris Tasting’ block, he picked several grapes and after eating them said, ‘Boy, these are the most beautiful grapes I ever saw in my life. The flavors! There are so many different flavors!’
A delightful laugh slipped from her throat as she recounted the story. “So I negotiated the contract with him for $815 per ton, and then he came back almost every other day to walk through the vines and taste the grapes. Finally, he said they were ready to harvest at around 23 brix and asked me to deliver them to Chateau Montelena.”
|Helen with Chardonnay Cluster in Bloom|
Helen Delivers the Famous Grapes to Chateau Montelena
“So you drove the grapes to Chateau Montelena yourself?” I asked surprised.
“Yes, I had some people help me pick, but Charles was working in town, so we loaded the grapes into an old trailer which I attached to the back of that Volkswagen van.” She gestured to an old rusty Volkswagen parked in a wooden shed near the house.
“You did?” I asked in amazement, looking at the old van and thinking of the steep drive over the Mayacamas Mountains to Napa Valley pulling a trailer of grapes. “I know from the records that you sold them just over 14 tons, so how many trips did you have to make?”
“It ended up taking five trips, and I took Highway 128 through Alexander Valley and down into the northern part of Napa Valley. That Volkswagen didn’t have much guts though, and so I had to gun it to get it over the hill and hope no one was in front. Fortunately back then, there wasn’t much traffic. Later we got a used Chevrolet and it had a lot of power. It actually ‘growled’ in low gear.” She grinned widely.
“I’m impressed,” I said and meant it. This 87 year old woman was not only a brilliant grape negotiator, but she was also quite strong and gutsy. “So how did you hear that your grapes had won in Paris?”
“Mike called after the tasting in 1976 and asked if I had heard the good news,” reported Helen. “When I said no, he told me how the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay had won, and then asked if I would sell him more of the grapes. But I had to tell him no, because they were already under contract to sell to someone else.”
“And you’ve been selling them all of these years?”
“Yes, once people heard that these chardonnay grapes were part of the winning blend, we’ve always had plenty of buyers and have been able to demand a premium price for them. Would you like to see some of the other blocks?”
|Soil from Bacigalupi Vineyards|
Kiss of the Wolf
I nodded and she led me past the Paris Tasting Block to see some newer sections of pinot noir and chardonnay where the rows were more tightly spaced. As we walked through the rows, I asked Helen a question that had been on my mind. “So what does Bacigalupi mean?” I made sure to pronounce the ‘c’ as a “ch’” as I had heard her do.
“My husband Charles is of Italian ancestry, and as far as we know, ‘baci’ means ‘kiss’ and ‘lupi’ means ‘wolf.’ I don’t know what the ‘ga’ stands for.”
“Kiss of the wolf,” I mused out loud. “That suggests a linkage to werewolves or to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who were reared by a she wolf.”
Helen shrugged, and then grinned. “Who knows? The name is from Charles’s side of the family anyway.”
|Helen with Her Family - Courtesy of Bacigalupi Vineyards|
For the rest of the story, please see: Call of the Vine: Exploring Ten Famous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.