(Von Richard Sheppard in Healdsburg, Kalifornien) In an effort to learn more
about the wine making process, today I’m visiting John Bacigalupi. John grew up
farming along side his father Charles on their Sonoma County, California ranch.
I drive up a gentle slope to the Bacigalupi ranch. The road
curves to the right through a stand of trees, then left around an old house,
and ends up on a small hilltop overlooking vineyards. Stepping out of my car,
the sound of gravel under rubber tires distracts me, as a red truck pulls up
and parks beside my car. A large brown dog paces in the truck bed, and John
Bacigalupi and his daughter Katey step out of the truck. The dog barks and John
opens the tailgate to release him. “His name’s Cali,” Katey tells me. “Short
for California. He’s one year old and still has the energy of a puppy, as you
John was raised on this
ranch and worked alongside his father, Charles, in the vineyard. Now, John has
been farming these vines for over thirty years. So I ask him, “How are things
going out in the vineyard?”
pruned the vines about a month ago, and now bud break’s just beginning,” he
tells me. “Even though morning temps have been low, frost hasn’t been a
problem.” We walk along the rows of old vines sloping downhill from where we
are, only to rise and disappear over the next hill. The only thing breaking the
view is a single, majestic oak.
took out some trees awhile ago to expand the vineyards, but we decided to keep
that oak as shelter for events. Look at how perfectly round its canopy is. The
vineyard to the left of the oak is Pinot Noir. These old vines we’re walking
along are the famous Paris Tasting block of Chardonnay.” The head pruned vines
are twisted and gnarled with fresh spring grasses growing between rows of black
stocky wood. “The vines have had problems over the years and in part by
mistakes we made while learning how to care for the vineyard. There wasn’t much
covered in books back then. We didn’t know not to prune too early to avoid
frost or disease. Same is true for pruning while it’s raining. The disease
spores are more likely to spread in wet weather.
“Back in 1964 my father
created a reservoir to capture water during the rainy season. Still today, the
reservoir collects enough water to irrigate all the grapes on our property for
the remainder of the year. Up on hills like this one, you see, there’s no water
table for vines to tap into.
“Our vineyards now consist
of 125 acres of premium grapes, which I’ve managed for over 30 years. Growing
up, some of my fondest memories are of shadowing my father in the vineyards. As
a self-taught grower, he learned everything about the vineyards from
experience, trial and error. Although he doesn’t formally participate in the
harvest any more, he likes to ride the 4-wheeler around the vineyards, and he
sometimes even drives the tractor during harvest,” John says.
“Because my father used St.
George rootstock, phylloxera isn’t a problem. But over the years the vines have
contracted a bacteria that infects the pruning cuts and works its way down to
the roots, eventually killing the plant.” John points to a dark section of the
vine’s trunk where no flaky bark exists. “That part of the vine is dead. But
the rest still has some life in it and produces good tasting fruit.
“I’ve tried several methods
to combat the infection, with mixed success. At this point, the vines are at
about half the yield they were in 1973, but the grapes still pack flavors as
good as ever. Despite the vineyard’s problems, we’ll keep it as long as it
John points to a green vine
sprout protruding from a nodule. Bud break. Katey and I look in close. Two
shoots are growing out of each spur, with morning dew settling on the young
“See that bunch in there?”
John says, pointing to a small bulbous portion of the plant, its surrounding
leaves unraveling like a new butterfly. “The entire plant is contained within
this little bud. The leaves, cane, and grapes are all there.” One of life’s
Walking back towards the
house, we pass between the West Side Road Neighbors Pinot and the Paris Tasting
Chardonnay block. There I find the best view of the property, with the
Chardonnay in the foreground and the ranch up the hill behind. I pull my
sketching kit out of my bag and begin drawing the view looking back at the old
house. The vineyard is intimately quiet, broken only once by the distant sound
of a quail’s call “chi-ca-go,” though I never catch a glimpse of it.