CARNEROS — Buck Bartolucci loves to tell a good story, and he has a a good supply of them — a century’s worth.
As the Bartolucci family plans for an old-style Italian open house celebration at their Madonna Estate Winery on Aug. 27 to mark 100 years of family winemaking in Napa Valley — only the Nichelini family has had a longer run — Bartolucci shared a few of them, including how the winery in Carneros got its name.
It all begins with Andrea Bartolucci, an immigrant from Rimini in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy who left his pregnant wife, Giuliana, to wait for him, when he set out for America in 1913.
Passing through Ellis Island he went on to San Francisco, where he worked in construction, building structures for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, among other jobs.
By 1918 he had earned enough to bring his wife and son, Louis, whom he had never met, to California.
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On June 1, 1922, he and his sister bought one acre of land in Oakville, just south of the Oakville Grocery, and this was the beginning of Madonna Winery and Vineyards.
And the name? “He wanted to call it Madronna,” his grandson, named Andrea for his grandfather but always called Buck, explained. “But after he had the sign painted, he found out that someone had already taken that name.” Like a good, frugal Italian, Buck said, he didn’t want the expense of painting a new sign; he just painted over the “r.”
This wasn’t the best year to start a winery in Napa Valley. With the passage of the Volstead Act, Prohibition had gone into effect in 1920, decimating the market for wine. The Bartoluccis, nonetheless, still managed to buy 24 more acres in 1923, and kept afloat by selling grapes in San Francisco for home winemaking, an activity that was not prohibited by the Volstead Act. A fire destroyed the original winery in 1924, but the family rebuilt.
Owning a winery in Napa Valley then was not the gentleman farmer’s pastime it can often be today. Buck, the only son of Louis, said, that in addition winemaking, “my dad was always working at family enterprises that included a building supply store in Oakville, a wrecking company, and a car dealership selling Studebaker, Packard and Mercedes-Benz automobiles on Pearl Street in downtown Napa.”
Louis Bartolucci had “graduated from Napa High in 1932 and he was a good student, but there was no money to send him to college,” Buck said. “He found out about a two-year technical program at UC Berkeley in aeronautical engineering, and he worked for Jimmy Regusci’s grandfather baling hay to make enough money to enroll.”
Completing the program, he went to Los Angeles to work for Douglas Aircraft Co. He married an Angeleno and with World War II looming, he brought her and her daughter from a previous marriage back to Napa Valley, so she’d have a family if he were called up to serve. His technical skills, however, got him a deferment to work at Mare Island and he was able to buy a house in the brand-new Westwood area of Napa, constructed to provide homes for Mare Island workers.
And, Buck said, with rationing of liquor during the war, the wine market boomed. By 1948, the winery had been renamed Mont St. John, and Louis, with his brothers Lino and Henry, were managing what was then the 12th largest winery in California.
Buck has memories of playing baseball on a deserted Highway 29 in Oakville, and of his hardworking grandfather. “He’d put us all in his Packard, driving us to the fair, and give us each $1 to spend. It didn’t go far,” he laughed. “Rides were 25 cents each then.”
Buck went to Fresno State to study enology and there he met his future wife Sue, an English and anthropology major planning to become a teacher. When he transferred to UC Davis, Sue Bartolucci said, she got her first taste of the winemaking business when she came to visit him on weekends. “He’d be working at the winery and the only way I could see him was to work with him. I drove a tractor, worked in the vineyards. I did every job for at least 10 minutes.”
Buck became assistant winemaker at the family enterprise, but in 1970, Louis Bartolucci’s two brothers decided they wanted to leave the wine industry. The family sold the 300 acres they had accumulated in Oakville, Yountville and Oak Knoll.
Louis and Buck Bartolucci, however, looked south to the relatively unknown Carneros region. Two brothers Louis had gone to high school with were growing hay in the area, and the new highway going from Napa to Sonoma had cut through their property, leaving a 5-acre parcel on the north side of the junction of Highway 12 and Old Sonoma Road.
They sold this land to Buck and Louis. Among his many occupations, Louis also had a contractor’s license. The father and son began building the next phase of Madonna Winery.
Buck also purchased 160 more acres and planted the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which would become the signature grapes of the cool Carneros region. His new vineyards produced the first vintage of Pinot Noir in 1979, and in 1981 the tasting room opened.
From the start, the Madonna Vineyards produced 100% organically grown, dry-farmed wine grapes. “That was just the way you farmed back then,” Buck said. “No one irrigated.” In 1991, Madonna became one of the earliest members of California Certified Organic Farmers.
Buck also decided to produce single-variety wines with no blending. The 10 wines they produce also include Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dolcetto, Barbera, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat Canelli.
Today, Buck and Sue are assisted in the winery by their daughters, Brette and Taylor, as well as their sons-in-law, and a new generation of grandchildren are growing up learning about winemaking from their grandparents.
You can find the family working in the office, cellar, tasting room and vineyard. Buck, now 77, still tends to the day-to-day business of winemaking. “I’m slower,” he said, “but I’m happy. I’m doing what I wanted to do since I was a kid.”
As they began to plan a celebration of the family’s 100-year legacy, Taylor Bartolucci said they considered options such as a fancy dinner but decided “that’s not us.”
Instead they are hosting a complimentary open house, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, inviting people to stop in, meet the family and taste the wines. There will be barrel tastings, food and games, and, Buck Bartolucci’s daughters said, they are going to have a chair for their dad with a sign, “Meet the winemaker.”
“That’s news to me,” Buck said.
“So you can tell stories,” his wife replied.
Admission to the open house is free, but to give the family an idea of how many people to expect, make reservations at www.madonnaestate.com.
Photos: Madonna Estate Winery looks back on 100 years of winemaking in Napa Valley