Three wineries have spent decades touting their roles in the US wins in the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting – the event that changed the wine world forever. But the vineyards that produced the historic grapes have never shared in the acclaim.
Now, for the first time, a Chardonnay is being released that might change that, and finally bring recognition to the grapegrowers. It's about time; there was even a Hollywood movie about the famous wine that resulted from this vineyard but it didn't give any credit to the farmers.
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The new wine is Bacigalupi "Renouveau" Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018. The block of the Bacigalupis' Goddard Ranch from which this wine comes is extraordinary, perhaps unique in the world. It has 50-year-old, own-rooted Chardonnay vines that produce about one ton to the acre – less than a third of the crop that even the most high-end Chardonnay vineyards usually produce. Grapegrowers simply do not maintain white-wine vineyards that produce so few grapes; they replant with younger vines.
The Bacigalupi family, who have been farming the vineyard from the beginning, haven't replanted because the grapes made up about 40 percent of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat top white wines from Burgundy in the 1976 blind tasting, in which a group of all French judges were shocked to learn that California could actually make would-class wine.
It's hard to imagine now, but before that event, the prevailing opinion worldwide was that only France could make fine wine. Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon won the competition, stunning the French judges and making everyone realize that New World wines are in the same league, and can even be superior.
"At the time, the vines weren't old vines," says Bacigalupi Vineyards winemaker Ashley Herzberg. "And now they are. They have succeeded in history."
In the bottle, yes. But the vineyard, despite producing very expensive single-vineyard wines for several years for Rudd Estate, hasn't really been noticed by the wine world.
The Wine Advocate reviewed 13 vintages of Rudd Estate Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay (12 by Robert Parker, one by Antonio Galloni) and never mentioned its connection to wine history. Parker gave scores up to 96 points but wrote that its quality "reflects the meticulous perfectionism of proprietor Leslie Rudd", rather than the scraggly old vines that produce differently-sized grapes that ripen at slightly different times, giving the wines additional complexity.
Don't blame Parker; he's not the only one, as you will see. The vineyard's history could have been well known, but its obscurity shows something about California in the 1980s, when the Judgment of Paris was being cited all the time because of the legitimacy it conferred. It was an era when winemakers were revered and terroir was not.
The Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet that won the red-wine portion has always been credited to the winemaking skills of Warren Winiarski rather than the estate vineyard he planted.
The story of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay has been told many times and even is the source of a film, "Bottle Shock". Chateau Montelena founder Jim Barrett and Mike Grgich, the winemaker who made the wine, feuded for years over who deserved the credit. Both spent the rest of their careers touting their involvement in producing the wine, and don't misunderstand – they deserve credit.
But the vineyards from which they sourced the wine were an afterthought to everyone but the Bacigalupis. I have written a lot of stories about the Judgment of Paris Tasting, and I didn't realize that Bacigalupi Vineyards Goddard Ranch played an important role until I learned of this new wine.
I'm in good company. George Taber is a former Time magazine journalist who wrote an entire book called "Judgment of Paris", published in 2005.
Let me give you a little journalist backstory. I was preparing to write this story on a Friday night, and I picked up Taber's book to get a little detail about the 1973 vintage. It's a 327-page hardback book essentially about two wines. But Taber spends only one paragraph on the sourcing of Chardonnay grapes for the Chateau Montelena wine, and he names some other grapegrowers but doesn't mention Bacigalupi Vineyards at all.
I panicked. Could the Bacigalupis be mistaken? I sent emails to every living person who might possibly remember; there weren't many. Steven Spurrier, the English wine merchant who arranged the tasting, graciously responded but said: "All I did when making the final selection in April 1976 was to visit the winery, taste the wine, approve of it and buy two bottles. I assumed it was from estate fruit but didn't ask as it was labelled Chardonnay and that was what I was after."
I didn't think Grgich, who is 97 years old, would respond, but I asked his daughter Violet anyway. Don't count out Mike Grgich even at age 97. He remembered in detail.
"Montelena had no vineyard, so I started in July to find vineyards that might produce good Chardonnay," Grgich said. "I found in Napa Valley Hanna Vineyard, and in Sonoma Henry Dick in Alexander Valley, 20 tons, good grower ... From Bacigalupi I got 14 tons. It was a good location, sloping, and it looked nice ... Mrs. Bacigalupi said that I was the only vintner who purchased their grapes who actually came to the vineyard to taste the grapes, and didn't just check in the laboratory with refractometer and titration. One day after I had been checking the vineyards all morning I came home for lunch, but I was too full of grapes to eat. My wife couldn't understand why I wouldn't eat her delicious lunch, but I was too full of grapes!"
Winemaker Herzberg was thrilled to finally get a chance to taste these grapes herself. The Bacigalupis were only farmers, selling all their grapes, until the 2011 vintage, when they decided to start a wine brand and hired her. At that point, that fabulous block of their ranch was under long-term contract to Rudd.
Rudd founder Leslie Rudd died in May 2018 at age 76. I have a funny story to tell about Leslie, a gregarious man who once also owned the gourmet food stores Dean & Deluca and Oakville Grocery. On my first visit to his estate winery he showed off all the state-of-the-art equipment he had purchased, including an impressive door he had shipped from Italy. As he talked about how expensive everything was, and how he didn't plan to make very much wine at Rudd Estate so he could keep the quality high, I asked: "How can you ever turn a profit?"
Rudd told me, "We don't have to make a profit for 100 years."
But his daughter Samantha may not agree with that timeline, as within three months of his death, she contacted the Bacigalupis to tell them they could keep their expensive Chardonnay grapes if they wanted; she would let them out of the contract.
"When we got the phone call that we were going to be able to take that fruit back in, you have those moments in your life where this is just a wave that comes over you," Herzberg told Wine-Searcher. "My first thing to do was to jump up and down and scream inside of my head. This is a big deal. This is momentous. It still feels that way. Wine is so special in that way, in that it connects you to pieces of history."
Herzberg is only 36 and has never tasted the Judgment of Paris-winning Chardonnay that was made 11 years before she was born. And she says she's never really heard descriptions of how it tasted. She sat down with members of the Bacigalupi family to ask them what they remembered about 1973, but it was a long time ago, and they didn't even remember the harvest date (which must have been much later before decades of climate change). So she went to the Rudd winemakers and asked them how they had worked with the block.
"There is a lot of variability in the block," Herzberg said. "Both of them said that part of the charm of the block is to pick it all together as one block. You get that mixture. It's old Wente clone. You get a lot of hens and chicks [large and small berries]. When you pick it all together you get little pops of acidity and also some riper flavors. Picking it all together gives you this complexity."
Winemaking like that is allowing the terroir to express itself, rather than have the winemaker pick every row of vineyards separately at the peak of ripeness, fermenting 10 (or 50) different lots and later blending them together, as is much more common in California high-end wines today.
"My philosophy and the Bacigalupis' philosophy is we don't add anything," Herzberg said. "We use indigenous yeast. The only thing we put in the wine is oak – French oak barrels. We don't fine, we don't filter, we don't blend, which makes it fun, because you have a true sense of what the vineyard wants to do. Luckily John Bacigalupi is one of the most amazing farmers I have worked with. The block was beautiful."
Herzberg normally makes the picking decisions herself but for this one she consulted with John Bacigalupi, because, she said, "I'm only 10 years into making wines from their property. He knows every single vine on every one of their ranches. I don't have that."
The winemaking was simple, and kind of a throwback.
"We whole-cluster pressed and we went straight to barrels, 50 percent new and 50 percent used," Herzberg said. "Nothing above a medium toast. From there, I just let it go. No additions. No water, no acid, no nutrients, nothing added. The barrel sat in a little part of a warmer area in the winery until it got going. It took about a week to kick off. Then we moved it to a cooler part, about 56 degrees [Farenheit]. That fermentation took about three weeks. It was beautiful. I like to ferment my Chardonnay quite cold. I think that slow consumption of sugar by the yeast makes it so the yeast doesn't get overly stressed or overly vigorous, for the slow building of flavors. That's something I like."
The Bacigalupis have never done a full replant, and they are lucky that phylloxera has never reached the ranch because the old own-rooted vines would be vulnerable to it. They have replaced some vines as they died with young vines.
"That adds to the nuance of an old vine block," Herzberg said. "It adds to the layers and texture of the finished wine."
Nonetheless, it's remarkable that the family persevered with a block that produces so few grapes – especially with Chardonnay. That's why Rudd charged so much and why the Bacigalupis' version isn't cheap either. They made only 99 cases of the 2018 vintage because, despite the vineyard's history, they aren't sure how much they can sell of a Chardonnay that costs $82 from the winery. The remaining fruit ended up adding interesting notes to the Bacigalupis' other Chardonnays, albeit at a big loss financially.
"We have replanted missing and dead vines over the years, but have never considered a full replant," Nicole Bacigalupi told Wine-Searcher. "You could not replicate the fruit that we get from the Paris Tasting Block. It would take generations. These vines helped to shape our family's farming legacy and are representative of the sweat equity of my grandparents and my parents over the last 60-plus years. The quality of the fruit in the Paris Tasting Block has always been extremely high – the variation it gets and the complexities outweigh any low yields due to its age. It's why the fruit was under contract up until a couple of years ago. We always knew when it became available to us once again, we wanted to share their magic and story."
Now it can be told: with the New World wines that upended the wine world, winemaking mattered, but terroir mattered too.