By Alexandra Russell
Steve Sangiacomo and Winemaker James Macphail Reflect on Winning Big at the 2020 North Coast Wine Challenge
In September 2020, Sangiacomo Family Wines’ 2018 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay became only the second white wine to ever take top honors at the prestigious Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge (in 2015, Roche Winery & Vineyards’ 2013 Reserve Chardonnay from Carneros won the title). What makes the win even more remarkable, the Sangiacomo family has only been producing its own wines since 2016.
The decision to make wine was a natural extension of the family’s successful farming operation, which started when Italian immigrant Vittorio Sangiacomo purchased property in Sonoma County in 1927. The family transitioned from pears to winegrapes starting in the late 1960s, becoming a reliable source of premium fruit for dozens of area wineries. Today, the family farms 1,600 acres across 14 different vineyards. It owns about two-thirds of the land and leases the remainder. In 2015, the business was certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance program, which includes more than 100 assessments of a farming business.
“It was one of the best decisions we have ever made for our business,” says third-generation owner Steve Sangiacomo (who runs the business with brother Mike, sister Mia Pucci and brother-in-law Mike Pucci). “It’s a more transparent way to understand how we do things, and helps us focus on areas to improve.
“Being certified sustainable also provides a platform to discuss our practices in a meaningful way with our consumers, educating them on the importance of sustainability,” he continues. “We’re proud to farm in the most sustainable wine region in the world, Sonoma County, where more than 99 percent of vineyards are certified sustainable.”
Once the decision was made to begin making wine, the siblings began searching for just the right person to craft their brand. Fortuitously, that person was nearby and looking for a new challenge.
Winemaker James MacPhail remembers, “In 2011, I sold my namesake brand, MacPhail Family Wines, and in 2016, I departed as winemaker and went back out on my own. A mutual friend let me know that the Sangiacomos were thinking about starting their own brand. I had worked with the Sangiacomos since 2003, during my tenure with MFW, so I called up Steve and let him know I would like to throw my name in the ring.” Currently, MacPhail makes wine at two North Bay facilities and is the berry-to-bottle winemaker for eight brands, including Sangiacomo.
It was a natural fit, based on mutual respect and shared values. “All the qualities I find important in my life, the Sangiacomos do as well—including honesty, integrity, commitment to excellence, passion, attention to detail, and focus,” says MacPhail. “Not only are they good people and a nice family, but the shared vision of taking your time and creating something special also hit my wheelhouse of standards, right smack in the middle.”
Sangiacomo echoes the theme: “Our family is very lucky to have James making our wines,” says Steve. “We share the same philosophy: We want the vineyard to showcase through in each wine. It’s been amazing how our visions for the wines have been so aligned from the start. It helps that he’s worked with our vineyards for decades, so he has a great understanding of what our grapes can produce.”
About the wine
The winning wine, which was awarded 99 points at the competition, combines fruit from two vineyard sites, Roberts Road and Green Acres, and four different clonal selections, Old Wente, Hyde, 95, and 17. Each added its own dimension to the wine
“I’ve always thought Green Acres was an exceptional site for Chardonnay, and when we blended it with Roberts Road, which is now emerging to the level of Green Acres, we found something magical,” says MacPhail. “Couple this with old world winemaking practices—sur lie aging, batonnage, hands-off, incorporating a low percentage of new French oak—and the aromatic and palate expressions that we discovered were extraordinary and special.
“So many different aspects have to align—vintage, vineyard site, harvest timing, and winemaking—to create a wine like this. That’s the beauty of wine,” he continues. “When all these aspects come together, it creates something special.
From the winery website: “Aromas of baked apple and pear crisp with layers of nutmeg and chai mingle with fresh white rose petal, quince, and a touch of sexy French oak. Bright yet weighty with a rich mid-palate, this Chardonnay boasts a delicious richness of tarte tatin caramelized apple flavors and fresh citrus peel balanced by a crisp and clean finish.”
Best of the Best
Established in 2013, the North Coast Wine Challenge is only open to wines made of grapes sourced from California’s North Coast AVAs, including those in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Marin, and parts of Solano counties. “It’s a great gauge of our local wine community,” says MacPhail. “I believe local wine competitions are important, because they let the community know more about their neighborhood wineries. It also gives them—and our industry peers—knowledge of who’s doing what, and how well they’re doing it.”
Given the well-earned reputation of wines from the region, a Best of the Best designation is, indeed, something special. “In competitions like the PD, you never really know how you’re going to fare,” adds MacPhail. “There are so many good wines, with so many styles among each varietal. So to win is an honor, and it comes with all the ‘good feels’ of knowing your peers recognized your team’s achievement.”
“It’s a tremendous honor, especially being included with so many world-class wines,” agrees Sangiacomo. “Winning the Best of the Best award allowed us to grow our customer interactions organically. Even though our vineyards have been around for 50 years, many didn’t know we were making our own wines. We’re so grateful to have been discovered by new wine-loving fans in our region, it’s been very exciting!”
The Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge 2021 is now accepting entries. Visit www.pdncwc.com for more information.