A road winding out of the city during the heat of fall guides both oenophile and casual wine lover to the heart of Sonoma Valley, the Sangiacomo family’s home since 1927. The winery is nestled in the valley with vast views of its encompassing vineyards, greeting any guest with the perfect atmosphere for wine tasting.
Sangiacomo primarily farmed grapes for third parties until May 2018, when the third-generation family business established its own line of wine after 50 years in viticulture. In 1927, however, the land and Sangiacomo was quite different. Before luscious vineyards flooded the acreage, it was orchards. “Our grandfather, Vittorio, was a farmer in Italy. He came to the United States in the early 1900s and got a farming job in Alameda,” says Steve Sangiacomo, the third-generation partner of Sangiacomo Vineyards. “He used to come up to Sonoma Valley on weekends. He fell in love with the valley and bought our Home Ranch in 1927. This backdrop of the hills reminded him of his hometown in northern Italy.”
Vittorio and his wife, Maria Sangiacomo, tilled the soil into a fruitful pear growing business. From the 1950s to ‘70s, their developed into one of the largest pear orchards in northern California for canned fruit. But the pear growing business was a treacherous venture. Pears are susceptible to a myriad of diseases and insect problems along with deteriorating marketing conditions.
Led by family members Angelo, Lorraine, Buck and Bob, the second generation of Sangiacomo realized a switch from pears to winegrapes was essential, according to Mike, Steve’s brother and business partner. “They planted their first vineyard, Green Acres, in 1969. Realizing the cool climate was more suited to wine grapes, they saw a future in the new agriculture crop,” says Mike.
“Our uncles, once they got in the wine business, would have nightmares waking up from farming pears in a sweat,” says Steve. “Not that grapes are a cakewalk.”
Finally, by the early ‘80s, the pear business perished at Sangiacomo. Despite having 350 acres of fully mature orchards, the future was in grapegrowing. “They pulled out all the orchards and mortgaged the ranches in a do or die move, putting all their chips in the middle of the table,” says Steve. The gamble paid off. Currently, the third generation of Sangiacomo family, Steve, Mike and their sister Mia Pucci, oversee a bustling business farming 1600 acres in Sonoma County to over 60 world-class wineries.
In 2016, the family decided to take their business a step further. With 50 years of grapegrowing experience, the third-generation of the Sangiacomo family established their own wine label. “It was an epiphany that this is the time for many reasons,” says Steve. “We’re taking it slow. We picked one of the best winemakers in the industry to hand-craft our wines. We have worked with him for over 20 years so we got that part taken care of, in terms of having the artist behind it.”
Enter James MacPhail, winemaker. MacPhail’s impressive resume includes more than 100 different Pinots and Chardonnays with 90-plus point scores.
MacPhail and Sangiacomo first offer a taste of 2017 Chardonnay, born from Green Acres Vineyard and stored in 20 percent French Oak for 16 months. “We did quite a bit of bâtonnage, stirring the lees to incorporate into the wine, so we can get more mouthfeel and texture,” says MacPhail. Sangiacomo aims for a traditional style Chardonnay, an extension of old-world burgundy practices. “These wines should be an extension of that philosophy,” says MacPhail, extoling the virtues of Sangiacomo. “They have the vineyards, the sights, the farming—they have everything it takes to show the best expression of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that California can offer.”
Our second sample is a 2017 Home Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay made with 100 percent Old Wente clones. It’s a vibrant taste of pineapple, honeysuckle flowers, melon meringue and vanilla spice with refreshing acidity and a lingering finish. “We want to let the fruit shine. We don’t want to mask it with too much oak. It should just be a kiss,” says MacPhail.
A 2017 Pinot Noir from Roberts Road Vineyard is introduced alongside the Chardonnay. With aromatics and flavors of raspberry and dark cherry alongside a hint of orange peel, this wine features a creamy texture, expanding with each sip and ending with a focused finish.
With Sangiacomo’s wine production now a part of the family business, the fourth generation is eyeing the industry, though they won’t be pressured to join. “There are seven kids in the next generation. We’re hopeful at least a couple of them hop on, and I think there’s interest,” says Mike. “Farming is a good life, but it’s humbling—you have to want to do it. My grandparents didn’t want us to be farmers unless you wanted to be one.”
Regarded as an elevated class of farming, with lavish views and tasting experiences, grapegrowing is still arduous work. Yet, no matter the crop, the Sangiacomo’s are a family of farmers, and working the land is their lifestyle. The family’s 92-year dedication to agriculture shines with each new vintage bottled at Sangiacomo Wines, forming a new tradition of wine creation with each sip, a toast to Sonoma.
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