As we continue to taste our way across the wineries of Sonoma County, we have learned so much about the history of this fascinating wine region and the families that have helped it become one of the country’s best sources for wine. Two learnings in particular stand out. First, the influence of Italian immigrants on the Sonoma wine scene is massive. Second, there are some very special vineyard locations across the Valley – and particularly in the Russian River appellation – that source grapes for so many big-name, award-winning wineries. Today’s blog is the intersection of both of these learning: how two Italian-American families cultivate vineyards that dozens of wineries depend on for their classic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other classic Sonoma Valley wines. While there are so many we could have written about, the two that caught our eye are Rochioli Vineyards and Bacigalupi Vineyards.
Tasting wines at Gary Ferrell, Williams Seylem, Russian River Vineyards, Ramey, Matrix . . . the list goes on . . . two vineyard locations kept popping up. You guessed it – Rochioli and Bacigalupi. We were intrigued not only with the fact that these two families’ vineyards kept popping up, but also that they have their own wineries and produce wine from the grapes that they sell to other wineries. So we thought, “we enjoy the wines made from their grapes, why not taste the wines they produce themselves?” That’s right, the wine that is “bottled at the source” – the vineyard source. In the same week, we visited both Rochioli Vineyards and Bacigalupi Vineyards, heard about their histories, met the current generation of the family working and the winery and, of course, tasted through their wine selection.
Both visits were great experiences and I cannot get over how similar the two families are in terms of their histories, philosophies, commitment to terroir, multi-generational commitment to the family business, and reputation as honest and loyal partners. I am trying hard not to blur the differences between these two impressive grape-growing and winemaking families and together as they both have made outsized contributions to the history of Sonoma County and California wine overall. At both wineries, the 4th generation pouring our wines mentioned the other winery and spoke of them more as neighbors than competitors. In fact, Nicole Bacigalupi, who poured during our visit, told us that she used to babysit Rachael Rochioli (who poured during our visit to that winery).
We visited Rochioli first, about two weeks ago during a rare several days off of work for us.
There were several other groups tasting at that time, a sign that things are starting to pick up again in the Valley. Rachael seated us in the shade with views of their stunning estate vineyards and told us a little about about their family story. It all began in the early 1900’s when Joe Rochiolli (they later dropped the second ‘l’) decided to emigrate from Lucca, Italy to New York, eventually crossing the country and finding himself in Northern California. Joe Sr. worked in agriculture and eventually saved enough to purchase a 125-acre property that is now the J. Rochioli estate vineyard in Russian River Valley. Unlike today, where Rochioli has nearly 150 acres planted to grapes, the predominant crop in the 1930’s and 1940’s was hops; you can still see hop kilns on winery properties across Russian River Valley (see: Russian River Vineyards, Landmark’s Hop Kiln Winery literally next door to Rochioli). Joe Sr. and Joe Jr. eventually got into the grape game and planted Cabernet Sauvignon (now all gone) and Sauvignon Blanc (planted in 1959 and still producing fruit for the winery’s delicious Sauv Blanc wine). The Rochioli property is now divided into five blocks and wineries that purchase from them compare the quality of grapes from the Rochioli property to Grand Cru vineyards in France.
As you can see from the map, there are five blocks (River, Mid 40, Little Hill, Big Hill, and Sweetwater Vineyard). If you look even more closely, you’ll see that there are many sub-sections within each block. Within each block, grapes are fermented separately due to the diverse growing conditions and soil. While this has been common in regions such as Burgundy for many years, it was a novel approach for this region and now many wine makers work this way.
Looking at the map legend, Pinot Noir occupies its fair share of the 140 planted acres, as you would expect for vineyards in Russian River Valley; among the blocks that include Pinot plantings, there are over 20 sub-sections. What’s interesting, though, is how relatively recently Pinot Noir vines were planted in a region which is now defined by them. I would have thought that Pinot Noir was growing in the appellation going back to the early or middle part of the 20th Century; in fact, Joe Rochioli is credited with planting the first, or among the first, Pinot Noir Vines in the area that officially became the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area in 1983. Together with Sonoma County legend Joseph Swan, Joe Rochioli is considered a Pinot Noir pioneer. Somewhere along the way, the Rochioli family had that “aha” moment where they realized if the grapes were good enough for others, perhaps some of the grapes should be used to make a Rochioli-labeled wine. So now you can taste Rochioli wine “bottled at the source” as well as at other premiere wineries.
At their winery tastings, Rochioli pours their three Estate wines which are a blend of grapes from multiple vineyard sites across their 140 acres: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. We fell in love with the Sauv Blanc which is produced from vines planted in 1959 and purchased several bottles of that delicious wine. We also loved the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and even the olive oil (produced from a 1-acre parcel on the property) and bought some of everything to take home with us. During our tasting, Rachael mentioned that Rochioli also produces single-vineyard wines and these are available only through allocation to “The List.” John thought he was being sneaky as he signed up for the list during our tasting, only to learn that The List has a waiting list of 4-5 years. Those of you that know John know that of his many non-virtues, patience is one of them. He left feeling a bit sad.
While John waits for his turn on The List to come up, we’ll keep visiting Rochioli and buying the Estate wines and enjoying the wine tasting experience there.
Okay, so enough about Rochioli, how about Bacigalupi? You’re probably thinking, “wow, that Rochioli story is pretty impressive, how is Bacigalupi going to even match up?” Before I get to our tasting, let me tell you something about Bacigalupi that will surprise many of you (except those that recently saw my Facebook post on this topic). Every wine geek and even more casual students of wine history know about the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting where California wines held their own against the historical juggernauts of Burgundy and Bordeaux. For some reason, we have taken this achievement and over-simplified it: “it put Napa Valley on the map.” Sure, the red wine came from Stag’s Leap and the white wine was made by a Napa Winery (Chateau Montelena). What most people do not know, though, is that 74% of the grapes in that Montelena Chardonnay came from Sonoma County vineyards with 34% of the grapes coming from, you guessed it, Bacigalupi’s estate vineyards. In its own way, Bacigalupi has had an equally momentous impact on the history of Sonoma and California wine.
Okay, now that I got that out of the way . . . To our tasting. We have had some really great luck with the weather so far this Spring. Except for one particularly hot weekend we have had temperatures in the high 70’s / low 80’s with a gentle breeze. That’s how it was for our Bacigalupi tasting (okay, maybe the breeze was more of a wind, but the temperature was perfect!). We got lucky to have a 4th generation Bacigalupi pour for us, as I mentioned above – the incomparable Katey who is not only friendly and enthusiastic but super knowledgeable about wine in general. She started her career at another winery (coincidentally another Italian family winery of course!) and learned the ropes before settling down to help run the family business.
At Bacigalupi we tasted through several wines, starting with the 2020 Rosé and moving on to the 2018 Chardonnay (produced from vines grafted from the vineyard that went into the famous 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena). Shifting to the reds, we enjoyed a 2018 Pinot Noir blended from three different Pinot blocks (grapes fermented and aged separately and blended only just before bottling), a 2019 single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Bacigalupi’s Bloom Ranch estate vineyards – 100% made from 828 clone. Shifting to the more “heavy” reds, we tasted the 2018 Zinfandel made in the style that we prefer: lower alcohol, balanced, not overly “jammy” or “fruit bomb” in nature. Even though Dry Creek Valley is a couple of miles up Westside Road from Bacigalupi, they do an excellent job of producing a classically Russian River Zinfandel (14.2% alcohol, compared to some Zins we’ve had recently what are 16 point-something!). We finished with a wine that has quickly become one of my favorite varieties to enjoy and compare: Petite Sirah. We tasted the 2018 and it was everything I want a PS to be: bursting with spice and fruit, tannic, with nice acidity. We bought some and I’m going to try and hold on to it for at least a couple of years and taste it when it has had more bottle time. Not that it wasn’t delicious when we tasted it – it was; it’s just that it will get so much better with some ageing time. All of the wines we tasted were bottled unfined and unfiltered and were fermented using native yeasts. I believe that the wines were also aged sur lie (“on the lees”) which yields deeper color and texture.
During our tasting Katey Bacigalupi shared the family history which by this point sounded reminiscent of so many Russian River Italian family wine stories: great-grandfather came to America and worked hard in agriculture and saved enough to buy some land. After growing other crops, the family decided to plant grapes and sell them to wineries in the area and build a reputation for premiere vineyard sites and quality grape production. At some point, a business-minded person in the family says “hey, if it’s good enough for these award-winning wineries, maybe we should make our own wines.” And they do. And people love the wines. And they establish a reputation not just for growing great grapes, but making great wines.
We were enthralled by the simple yet powerful story of these two wineries and also aware that there are so many similar stories to be told in this region. The influx of Italian families starting in the late 1800’s through the middle of the 1900’s has left an indelible legacy on the Sonoma wine scene. Where to visit next? So many options. Seghesio. Foppiano. Rafanelli. Sbragia. Pellegrini. Sebastiani. Ramazzotti. Trentadue. Pedroncelli. Battaglini. E altro ancora.
May 24, 2021