Helen Bacigalupi has overseen one of Sonoma’s defining vineyards for 50 years. Here, she talks to F&W’s Ray Isle about the old days of prune farms and dollar-a-gallon zin, and her family’s thrilling new winemaking project.

Helen Bacigalupi
Credit: Courtesy of the Bacigalupi Family

What was the Russian River like back in 1956, when you and your husband first moved here?

Everything was prunes in those days. In the springtime, the ground was covered in the white blooms from the plum trees—it was like the snow had fallen. No one back then paid anything for grapes—$50 a ton. It hardly paid to pick them. Anyone who had actual vineyards, like the Pedroncellis and the Seghesios, they just sold bulk wine to Gallo.

When did you plant the Bacigalupi Vineyards?

In the early ’60s. My husband was a dentist, and one of his patients was a farm adviser for grapes in Sonoma County. We asked him, “If you were to plant a new vineyard here, what would you plant?” and he said, “Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” We had never heard of those grapes. Pinot Noir? Nobody was growing that.

Back then, was Healdsburg a vacation destination?

Oh, absolutely not. It was just a little cow town. Couple of motels, no hotels. A hotel—gosh, that would have been really uptown! And certainly no tasting rooms. Though, when we were in college we used to go up to the Pedroncelli winery—it was one of the few around back then—and bring four empty gallon jugs. Mr. Pedroncelli, the old man, would fill our jugs, and we’d take them back to San Francisco. Dollar a gallon. Beautiful Zinfandel!

Sonoma has certainly changed since then.

Oh, my, yes. I remember one day a little while back I looked in the Wall Street Journal, and there was an article on favorite places to visit. On the left side of the page was Las Vegas and on the right was Healdsburg. And I said, “My God, will you look at this! We’re right in the same category as Las Vegas.”

I’ve read that the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which won the legendary 1976 Paris Tasting, was made partly with your grapes from the ’73 harvest.

I drove those grapes up over the mountain myself, in this VW pickup that we had. The engine couldn’t really handle the weight, so I’d get to the bottom of a hill and just gun it, and pray to God no one would get in my way before I reached the top. I made 15 trips like that, I think.

So the most famous Napa Chardonnay in history was actually made with Sonoma grapes. Did they keep buying from you?

No! The very next year I got a letter in the mail from the winery that said, “I’m sorry, but we won’t be wanting your grapes anymore.” I thought, Gee, that’s strange. Then, after the Paris Tasting, Mike Grgich [the Chateau Montelena winemaker] called me and asked, “Have you heard? We just won, over all the French wineries. I’d like to buy your Chardonnay again!” I just said, “Well, Mike, my grapes are already sold.” That was the end of anyone from Napa County buying my Chardonnay.

Where were the Bacigalupis from originally?

I’m not a Bacigalupi myself; my husband was. His grandfather came over from Genoa. All the Italians knew instinctively that Sonoma County was a good place to grow grapes. They flocked here. They told the people back home, “Come to Sonoma County. It’s just like Italy.” So there were huge vineyards here before Prohibition. But then Prohibition came along and knocked the stuffing out of ’em!

Recently, you and your family, including your granddaughters, started producing your own wines and opened a tasting room. How does that feel?

It’s absolutely thrilling. But we did make wines once before. My husband’s grandfather had a vineyard and winery up on Chiquita Road. But the 1906 earthquake destroyed his warehouses in San Francisco, and all the wine was used to fight fires or something, I don’t know.

Have you ever felt the desire to leave?

Several years ago, I had a person who is big into the wine business ask me, “Would you ever like to sell your property?” I told him, “I certainly would not! When I moved here, I said, ‘I’m going out of here in a pine box,’ and that’s still true! ”

Currently, 18 Sonoma wineries make Bacigalupi Vineyard bottlings. Here are a few of the best:

2014 Bacigalupi Vineyards Chardonnay ($56)

The Bacigalupis make their Chardonnay from the best block in the vineyard— the one that provided the grapes for the Chateau Montelena wine that won the historic Paris Tasting in 1976.

2012 Matrix Winery Bacigalupi Vineyard Petite Sirah ($32)

The Bacigalupi Vineyard is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the family also grows Zinfandel and a small amount of Petite Sirah. The latter goes into this potent, blackberry-rich red.

2013 Passalacqua Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel ($37)

Zinfandels made from Bacigalupi grapes hew to the cool-climate Russian River Valley style: elegant and relatively moderate in alcohol. The Passalacqua family, who made this wine, has been in the business even longer than the Bacigalupis have.

2012 T-Vine Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel ($48)

T-Vine partners James Harder and Jim Regusci started working with the Bacigalupis for this peppery Zinfandel thanks to the family’s longtime devotion to sustainable farming practices.

2013 Williams Selyem Bacigalupi Vineyard Zinfandel ($55)

Superstar Pinot producer Williams Selyem also makes sought-after Zinfandels. This is the 15th vintage of the winery’s plush, powerful Bacigalupi Vineyard bottling.

2013 Venge Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir ($59)

Up-and-coming winemaker Kirk Venge produces intense Napa Cabernets, and he’s equally gifted with Pinot Noir, as this black-cherry-inflected one shows.

2012 Gary Farrell Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60)

Winemaker Theresa Heredia crafts 11 different Pinots, the majority from some of Sonoma County’s most prized vineyard sources; this graceful bottling is one of the best in her lineup. wines to try now