Charles Bacigalupi, a longtime grape grower whose Russian River chardonnay grapes helped bring California wines their first international acclaim, has died after a brief fight with cancer. He was 89years old, and drove a flatbed truck to deliver grapes and worked the fields throughout the final year of his life.
Bacigalupi may be best known for selling to Chateau Montelena Winery about a third of the chardonnay grapes that went into the wine that won the Paris Tasting in 1976, where California wines beat France's best for the first time.
But Bacigalupi's talents were felt well beyond the vineyards. As a longtime Healdsburg dentist, a profession he practiced throughout his grape-growing career — except during harvest, of course — Bacigalupi kept a folder full of jokes that he would recite to patients to help them relax in the chair.
"People that knew him understood that they probably weren't going to be able to make an appointment during harvest time," said his wife, Helen Bacigalupi. "They got used to it, they didn't care. It worked out well."
And Bacigalupi was a passionate sailor who raced on ocean yachts and won an international race to Tahiti, a race where he performed dentistry on a fellow crew member.
He even made gold jewelry from leftover bits of dental fillings, which he molded into nautical-themed cufflinks or tie clips that he wore.
"He was a wonderful husband, and we were married 62 years," Helen Bacigalupi said. "He loved to tell jokes, and he was just very outgoing and had so many friends."
Charles Bacigalupi was born in Santa Rosa in 1924. He grew up in the town where his parents and grandparents owned Bacigalupi Market, a grocery store that was on Fourth Street until it was razed to make room for Highway 101.
Bacigalupi's love of sailing began when his parents, who had a place in Bodega Bay, bought him a rowboat, which he turned into a sailboat.
"He somehow jerry-rigged a rudder on it and stuck a mast on it, and he taught himself to sail right there in Bodega Bay," said his son, John Bacigalupi. "He spent a lot of time there on the beaches and racing around doing all the things a kid does, digging for clams and fishing."
As a young man, Bacigalupi was an Eagle Scout. Later in life, he would became a member of the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco and the Cruising Club of America, a sailing club that made international sea voyages.
After graduating from Santa Rosa High School, Bacigalupi served as a pharmacist mate in the Seabees, the U.S. Navy's construction battalion, in the Pacific during World War II.
When he returned, Bacigalupi met his wife, Helen, at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he took prerequisites for medical school while she studied to become a pharmacist.
The pair both transferred to the UC San Francisco and graduated in 1951. They married at a small church in Sonoma that year, Helen Bacigalupi said.
The Bacigalupis later moved to Healdsburg, where Charles Bacigalupi rented a dental office and began building a clientele, while Helen worked as a pharmacist for several years.
Then one day they heard about a ranch for sale on Westside Road, and decided to buy the 120-acre property. They bought the farm and began the grape business in 1956.