Women in Wine: Sonoma’s Legendary Bacigalupi Vineyards’ Brillante

While a beautiful sparking Sonoma Blanc de Noir rosé was my official introduction to Pam Bacigalupi, learning about her history fell right into a topic with which I’ve had some new involvement. Sonoma writer Amy Bess Cook approached me recently about a project she’s released, a database of woman-owned wineries in Sonoma County. Though Bacigalupi isn’t fully woman-owned (it is shared between husband and wife), it is the work of individuals such as Pam Bacigalupi and her mother-in-law Helen Bacigalupi that have laid the groundwork for more women in the field, for more women to enter an environment such as Sonoma, where winemaking is conducted with excellence, where good earth, good people, and super wine are the standard.

sparkling rosé, rostato, sparkling wine, bubbly
Brillante Blanc de Noir from Bacigalupi Vineyards. Credit: Jill Barth

Pam Bacigalupi has her ear to the ground when it comes to winemaking – not that she herself is a winemaker – but because her job is to determine which winemakers are the right buyers for Bacigalupi grapes. Bacigalupi fruit was included in the 1976 Paris tasting when the 1973 Napa Valley Chardonnay from Château Montelena was crowned – recognition that still holds sway in the history of California winemaking on the global stage. Gary Farrell Winery (the 2017 top wine winner in Wine Enthusiast) makes single vineyard designate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Bacigalupi Vineyard grapes as do other well-respected Sonoma wineries.

Pam Bacigalupi was born and raised in Santa Rosa, the daughter of Paul Robert and Anna Marie Heck. This year she’s released her own wine dedicated to her father. 2014 Brillante, a sparkling Russian River Blanc de Noir rosé composed of 50% Wente Clone Chardonnay and 50% Wente Clone Pinot Noir has been created to honor Paul Heck, a father who in Pam Bacigalupi’s terms, embodied “inspiration, dynamism and positive nature”. I find that the story of father highlights the story of daughter – both integral to this history of Sonoma winemaking.

Paul Robert Heck

Paul Heck was the son of Adolf Ludwig Heck Senior, a winemaker from Alsace-Lorraine, an immigrant Chicago in the very early 1900’s. Adolf Heck was responsible for the post-prohibition return of Cooks Imperial Champagne Cellars in St. Louis for the American Wine Company and the inventor of the first automatic riddling machine.

As a young man, Paul Heck enrolled at the University of Missouri but before completing his education he joined the army during WWII, serving General George Patton and eventually earning the rank of Major. After the war, he married and worked for a short time for the American Wine Company in the Midwest before moving to Lodi, California to manage production at Italian Swiss Colony. He eventually moved to Asti, California for that position in 1951.

A few years later he and his brother purchased Korbel Champagne Cellars where he was an influential leader in the vineyard and the cellar. “Paul was active in the Sonoma County Winegrowers, Sonoma County Wine Association, American Society of Oenologists, and served as a consultant to the viticulture program at UC Davis.” Says his family, recalling the accolades and experience of this strong figurehead in North Coast winemaking.

California Champagne, Sparkling rosé, Sonoma Wine
Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Noir from Bacigalupi Vineyards. Credit: Jill Barth
Pam Bacigalupi’s Early Years

Bacigalupi, then Pam Heck, was born during the Korbel years into a childhood filled with memories of horseback riding, vineyard and cellar work, and family time. A newspaper clipping from the Russian River News describes the tenacity of young Heck in her efforts to be included on a television show being filmed on and near the Korbel property. (She eventually prevailed.)

Bacigalupi Vineyards, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Wine, California Wine
Russian River News story. Courtesy Bacigalupi Vineyards

And while her childhood and personal interests lent her future toward a lifetime of work in winemaking, she chose the path of nursing, where she led a thriving career for more than three decades while working with her husband John Bacigalupi in the family vineyards, sales office, and cellar all while raising twin daughters.

According to the winery, “With an appetite and aptitude for high school biology, Pam wanted to pursue farming as a career. (As a chemistry project at Ursuline high school in Santa Rosa, Pam made a Pinot Noir wine at a time when modern California winemaking was in its infancy!) In the late 60’s and early 70’s the career options for young girls skewed towards teaching or nursing. Consequently, Pam attended the University of Nevada Reno School of Nursing and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1976. She practiced nursing in Sonoma County for 35 years.”

Pam Bacigalupi’s instinct was to make farm work a secondary role, as many women in the 1970’s and earlier chose to enter fields that tended to be supportive and in need of female leaders. As the tide shifts on this trend, Northern and Southern American and European wineries are finding women at the helm, many of them multi-generational such as Pam Bacigalupi. Others come to the field fresh from their education or as a second career. Bacigalupi is one of the many valuable female professionals armed with years of practical experience and first-hand knowledge. Her early years at Korbel were formative for North Coast wines in general, as the landscape since 1976 emerged as nothing short of stunning in terms of growth, polish, quality, and reach for winemakers and grape growers in Northern California. Now Bacigalupi works full time, the primary contact for wineries wishing to source the grapes from her vineyards.

Bacigalupi Vineyards’ History and Team – Sonoma Women in Wine

With Pam Bacigalupi at the helm of wine grape sales and her husband John farming the vineyards, the next generation employs mainly female leadership for the Bacigalupi team. Pam and John’s twin daughters, Nicole and Katey manage marketing and sales for the brand, which includes the newly released Brillante as well as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, and a late harvest Muscat.

Bacigalupi Family, Helen Bacigalupi, Sonoma winemaking family
Pam, John, Katey, Helen, and Nicole Bacigalupi. Courtesy: The Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine

The winemaker for the estate is Ashley Herzberg, a woman initially called to a career in medicine and an education in Chemical Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. A hospital setting didn’t suit her, so she applied her skills in the lab at Owl Ridge Wine Services in Sebastopol before finding her way to Mauritson Wines as Enologist before being named Assistant Winemaker. She is now the Consulting Winemaker for Bacigalupi Vineyards as well as Sonoma neighbors Amista Winery (co-owned by a woman in wine Vicky Farrow) and Saini Vineyards.

The legacy for strong and experienced women in crucial positions dates back to early days in Bacigalupi history. Pam Bacigalupi’s mother-in-law Helen has been called the “Godmother of Pinot Noir” by Ray Isle at Food & Wine Magazine, an interview in which she recalls her experience in the vines as early as 1956 when she and her husband purchased the vineyard. Until Pam Bacigalupi took over the responsibility for the grape contracts, Helen Bacigalupi was in charge of this important role.

In her conversation with Isle, Helen Bacigalupi recalls hand-holding the grapes that went into the Judgement of Paris wine, the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay, “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.” Isle’s interview also asks about Sonoma grapes in the famous Napa wine (was wondering myself!) and includes a list of wineries that are composed of Bacigalupi grapes.

Follow Up – Action Items

It seems that every link in the Bacigalupi family is integral. Pam Bacigalupi’s instinct to honor her father also honors the history and steadfast integrity of a winemaking family with such scope that it is literally blended into Sonoma legacy. Visit the Bacigalupi tasting room in Healdsburg, CA anytime from 11-5 daily. Before you do, some resources:

To order a bottle or two of Brillante, visit the Bacigalupi website.

For more on woman-owned wineries in Sonoma, become familiar with this project.

For Helen Bacigalupi’s story, as told in her words, visit this site (filled with great old photos).

My interview with Theresa Heredia, Gary Farrell Winery winemaker, Bacigalupi partner winery,

A timeline history of Bacigalupi:

Sonoma history, Helen Bacigalupi, Judgement of Paris
Bacigalupi Vineyards timeline. Courtesy Bacigalupi Vineyards
I received a media sample of Brillante, but was not obligated to write about the wine and this story is my own creation, my own opinions.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for introducing me to the Bacigalupi family and wines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill Barth says:

      I loved learning about Sonoma history through the eyes of this family. Thanks for reading along!

      Liked by 1 person

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