Bacigalupi Vineyards

We love driving down Westside Road in the Russian River Valley.  Healdsburg is just behind us; great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lie ahead.  Westside is a well-tended country road, with wineries on your right side, heading south, and occasional glimpses of the valley floor to your left.  And there on your right you will find Bacigalupi Vineyards (

The Bacigalupi tasting room.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

Bacigalupi is a family vineyard, which means a lot in these days, when “family” often means “We made a lot of money doing something else, and bought ourselves a vineyard”.  The Bacigalupis have been growing grapes on this property since 1956, with the first plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1964, possibly the first Pinot Noir in Russian River.  They must have done some things right, because their Chardonnay was in the blend that won the Judgement of Paris in 1976, included amongst Chateau Montelena’s grapes.

Bacigalupi’s Pinot Noir.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

In fact, you may have already tasted some of Bacigalupi’s production.  They sell more of their grapes than they use for bottling under their own label.  Williams Seylem and Gary Farrell are among their customers, who gladly announce the vineyard they source from.  We don’t know if this is true (and the family won’t tell) but it’s only reasonable to expect that they hold back their best grapes for their own wine.

To this day, Bacigalupi is truly family-owned.  Charles, the founder, has passed away, but his wife Helen is still with us.  John and Pam, son and daughter-in-law, run it and Katey and Nicole are in management positions.  We have found that if you stop by for a tasting, a family member is likely to be pouring your wine.  And in keeping with that of-the-soil tradition, the winery is simple, more of a farmhouse than a tasting room.  It’s far enough off Westside Road that it feels rather isolated, as though it were the only farm property for miles, instead of one of the many Russian River wineries.

To this day, Bacigalupi has stuck with what they do well: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  In fact, they have kept the 2½ acre Paris Tasting Vineyard.  Wine from this vineyard is available (though hard to find) under the name Renouveau.  Our tastes run more to their Pinot Noirs, from several of Bacigalupi’s vineyards.  We find them representative of Russian River Pinot Noirs, which is saying quite a lot.  If you want to know what good Russian River Pinot Noir tastes like, try theirs.  They are full-bodied, but not like some of the bruisers from Santa Lucia Highlands, nor thin and acidic as you find at other Russian River vineyards.

While the wines are modern and bright, the experience of a visit to Bacigalupi is homey and laid-back.  It’s as though you are being invited into the Bacigalupis’ home, which after a fashion you are.  The wines are well worth tasting but they’re not the only reason to stop there.  You get to feel a part of a culture that is sadly dying out, of honest people making quality wines because that’s what they do.  More, it’s who they are.  If you’re a serious wine taster, you’ll appreciate the people as well as the wine.

Right Place, Wrong Grape

They grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.  They grow Tempranillo in the Rioja.  There’s Chardonnay in Burgundy and Malbec in Argentina.  But let’s keep it domestic.  Napa Valley has Cabernet Sauvignon; Pinot Noir is grown in the area around Santa Barbara; and Zinfandel is the hot grape in Dry Creek Valley.  There are reasons for these grapes in these locations, including terroir, history and farming techniques.

Pinot Noir from Paso Robles.  Photo courtesy of Paso Robles Daily News.

But there are some times in your wine tasting travels when you might encounter grapes growing in places where they aren’t expected.  For example, Pinot Noir usually grows best in a cool, moist climate.  But there are quite a few wines made from that grape that can be found in the hot, dry region around Paso Robles.  And in Champagne, famed for sparkling white wines, you can find Bouzy red wine.

So if in your travels you should come across wines made from grapes that shouldn’t be there, what should you do?

  • Does it make sense to try these wines? Well, yes, what do you have to lose?  More to the point, you may have a lot to gain.  Some vineyard managers may take advantage of microclimates on their properties to grow grapes that can take profit from those conditions.  So, for example, many of those Paso Robles Pinot Noirs are grown behind the Templeton Gap, which gets its cool, foggy breezes from the Pacific.  These wines are never going to be confused with Burgundies, but some of them do express their own terroir, so they’re worth tasting on their own merits.
  • Why look for the unexpected wines? That’s one of the reasons to go wine tasting in the first place.  If it weren’t for trying these out-of-the-way wines, you could skip wine tasting and stick with your local wine store.  In some cases, they may be the only chance you have to taste these kinds of wine at all in that region.  We recently wrote about the wines made from Croatian grapes at Grgich Hills.  We’ve been to a couple of wineries where we were told that they were the only ones growing Tannat in California.  And I can think of only one where we have tasted Peloursin.
  • Is it worth the trip to try these wines? Probably not.  But that’s not the point.  If you’re already tasting the grapes that an area is famous for, trying something unusual is just an addition to your experience, not the basic rationale for an excursion.  There are places in Wine Country where the growers plant every grape they can, in hopes that the casual buyer will seek a specific varietal.  For the most part, most of these wines are not very good, because of both an unfavorable climate and an unfamiliar farmer.  There’s a reason they don’t grow Zinfandel in Canada or Marechal Foch (look it up) in Temecula, California  Or, at least, they shouldn’t.
  • Are these wines worth buying? If you like them, then sure, go ahead.  And if you want to share something really unusual with your friends, these offer the chance to do so.  But make sure you explain what makes them unusual.  Don’t be a wine snob.



Managing Wine Clubs

Over the course of years, we have been members of at least 20 wine clubs (not all at the same time).  These clubs are effectively an agreement for the members to buy a case of wine each year from each sponsoring winery.  In return for that commitment, you get a discount, normally 20%, and free tastings when you are at the winery.  In addition, in many clubs there are events that members may attend, almost all of which entail plentiful servings of their wines.  If you like the wines a particular winery makes, joining the club makes good sense.

Loading the truck.  Photo courtesy of August Hill Winery.

However, when you join you quickly learn that there are matters that require management on your part, eating up time and detracting from the pleasure of having fine wines delivered to your home.

  • You like some of the wines, but not all. Some clubs allow you a degree of specificity, such as only red wines or only certain varietals.  But many have a policy of sending you what they want to send (that you must pay for).  If customization is permitted, that means that when you receive the notification of an upcoming shipment, you need to make decisions about which ones you want and don’t want, replacing them with other wines and communicating these choices to the club’s designated contact (often nowadays the “ambassador”.  Thus are wine snobs made).
  • You won’t be home for a delivery. If you know at the time of ordering that you will be traveling, you can notify the club contact.  Most are accommodating to your schedule.  When you get a notice that a shipment is on the way, you usually get the tracking number from the shipping company so you can track your order.  But then you (or someone) must arrange to be at home to receive the wines, which usually means the whole day.
  • You want to speak with someone at the club. Some wine clubs, alas not the majority, are eager to engage in person with their members.  They’re available by phone, they reply to emails and know more about wine than order numbers and ship dates.  In all too many instances, so we’ve found, the contacts disappear between shipments.  It’s just frustrating and this type of difficulty has sometimes been the reason we’ve quit certain clubs.
  • You’ve become tired of their wines. With a few exceptions, we resign from our clubs after two or three years.  No matter how much you liked the wines at the beginning of your membership, you may not like what they send you at the rate of a case a year.  Especially if you’ve been buying age-worthy wines, they begin to accumulate in your cellar.  The expense of club membership may deter you from drinking other wines you know and like.  Yes, you can quit, but that means remembering to put it in writing and checking that your resignation didn’t get lost somewhere in the winery’s back office.

All this may make it sound like wine clubs aren’t worth the effort.  With membership in five or six at a time, we are definitely advocates of joining clubs at wineries you love.  Just remember that there’s work on your end, too.


In writing about Sarlat, we need to be rather specific.  We’re talking about Sarlat-la-Canéda, located in the Dordogne region of France.  Names can be a bit tricky in France; there are at least three other villages named Sarlat and the Dordogne is also known by its more ancient name, the Perigord.  (We Americans shouldn’t sneer.  There are 41 US cities and towns named Springfield.)

The Place de la Liberté in Sarlat.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are three reasons to visit Sarlat and its environs: architecture, gastronomy and history.  The architecture of Sarlat is that of a well-maintained medieval village.  Before the French Revolution, Sarlat was a large commercial center but later the trains passed it by, commerce died out and it fell into disrepair.  André Malraux, the novelist and Minister of Culture in the 1960’s poured funding into Sarlat for its restoration.  Today, visitors can wander narrow cobblestoned streets and view homes and businesses looking much as they did in the 15th century.  The focus of interest is the main square, the Place de la Liberté, which is ringed by shops selling things to the tourists, where markets are held on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.

A typical Sarlat foie gras shop.  Photo courtesy of Sarlat Tourisme.

There are more than shops on the square and in the town.  There is food, often with the most famous products of the region around Sarlat: truffles and foie gras.  Dishes served perigourdine are flavored with those back gastronomic diamonds: truffes noires or black truffles.  There are other locales in France where truffles are found, not grown.  (See Power Tasting’s article about Carpentras.)  Truffles go so well with foie gras, and foie gras is really what Sarlat is all about,.  You can have it so many ways: sautéed, au torchon, mi-cuit, entier, pâté, terrine.  And they’re all for sale in Sarlat’s shops, along with implements like silver knives that looks a bit like coping saws for slicing foie gras and silver spatulas for serving it.

If you travel just outside Sarlat, you can visit farms where they raise the ducks and geese that are used for foie gras.  Yes, we know the arguments for the mistreatment of these birds, but from what we’ve seen, they look pretty well taken care of right up to the end.  And a flock of geese running around and honking like mad is a natural comedy show.

And as long as you’re traveling outside Sarlat, take in a little of the history of the region.  The most ancient on view is at the famous cave at Lascaux, full of prehistoric paintings.  Actually, you can’t see the actual cave, because exposure was erasing the artwork.  But they have built an exact replica nearby.  More recent, there are the châteaux of Beynac and Castelnaud…only 900 years old.  They face each other across a broad valley, and during wars of the Middle Ages, they fired back and forth at each other.  At Castelnaud you can actually see replicas of the weapons they used in those days.

It isn’t easy to get to Sarlat.  It’s almost a three-hour drive from the Bordeaux airport and 2½ hours by train.  You can shave off an hour if you start from St. Emilion.  However you get to Sarlat, it’s worth the trip.