Charles Bacigalupi sits behind the wheel of a small utility Gator truck parked beneath a majestic oak, eyes roving his famous vineyard on Westside Road just outside Healdsburg, California. It is the last remaining vineyard that produced chardonnay grapes for the legendary 1976 Paris Tasting, in which Napa wines defeated their French competitors.
Hearing rocks pop under my car tires, he waves and kicks the truck into high gear, driving over to pick me up for a walk through the historic vines.
“This is what keeps me young,” he says with a chuckle, referring to his truck. “Right now I want to spend as much time out here in the vineyard as I can.”
Clipped canes from spring’s pruning are scattered along the rows of the Paris Tasting Block, to be tilled into the soil after harvest.
“We planted the rootstock in 1964, and we budded in ’65,” Bacigalupi says. “The original grapes on this property were planted with their own roots. At the time, Phylloxera (root louse) had taken hold and the vineyard was in terrible shape, so we had to pull it out and replant.”
Nine years later, he walked the vineyard with Mike Grgich, the winemaker responsible for the award-winning 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.
“The grapes had gone through veraison and were just showing signs of sweetness when Mike Grgich stopped by the farm to secure a contract for Chardonnay,” Bacigalupi remembers. “For two weeks before harvest, Mike and I were here every day tasting grapes.
“The grape harvest started on a day much like this one,” he says. “The long dry summer had parched the hillsides, the sun broken only by early morning fog.”
The Bacigalupis had chosen the Wente clone for its flavor, although it wasn’t popular at the time.
“The berries are all different sizes, so they ripen at different times,” he explains. “Some berries don’t even have seeds. The newer clones, #4 and #5, have been heat treated, making them more uniform in size, but they don’t have the flavor. “And when you come down to it, flavor is everything.”
“Mike was the first person to talk about flavors, not just sugar and acid levels. We would walk these rows, and he would rave about the flavors.”
Bacigalupi reaches over and picks a grape. “Go ahead. Try one. Have as many as you like,” he says. “You can tell when the grapes are getting ripe by how translucent their skins are in sunlight.”
As I bite down on a small yellow orb, it splits to release soft pulp, a squirt of subtle butterscotch flavor and mouthwatering juices. I pop another grape into my mouth. The skins are much thicker than that of table grapes, and the seeds inside crackle when chewed. Pulling a couple of grapes apart, I count two to four seeds each.
Bacigalupi looks at the seeds and says, “When the seeds are brown, it’s another indication that it’s time to harvest.”
I pick another berry off a different vine that is sweeter than the others, and there’s something else, too. It reminds me of flowers, nectar, even honey, like the sweet wines of Anderson Valley 30 miles north. It reminds me of Muscat.
“You’re right,” Bacigalupi says. “There are a few Muscat vines interspersed.”
Turning to me and raising his eyebrows, Bacigalupi asks, “How would you like to take a ride?”
We hop on the Gator for a ride around the vineyard, darting between the rows of vines. Canes brush against us, and we have to push some aside to keep them out of our faces.
We pass the old Westside Neighbors Pinot block, then brake at the new Wente Chardonnay vineyard. “These vines were budded from the original Paris Tasting block,” he said. “We use them now to make the Bacigalupi Chardonnay available in our tasting room.”
Pulling full throttle, Bacigalupi heads back toward the oak tree where we met earlier and kills the engine. “Occasionally,” he says, “we host picnics and tastings out here under this beautiful old tree.” A gust of wind rustles the leaves overhead and a few float down around the truck.
From the viewpoint of a vine, not much really happens out here during the calendar year. A tractor drives by loosening the soil once a year, and pruning shears remove last year’s growth. Its canopy is managed a couple of times during the summer, but still, those are all quiet activities. Then harvest comes, and a season’s worth of fruit is removed with a quick snip of a knife before quiet returns.
“I’d never really thought about it that way,” Bacigalupi says. “But you’re right. It’s a very peaceful place.”