Angelo Papagni, a pioneering wine grape grower in Madera, is among a handful of individuals credited with laying the groundwork for the central San Joaquin Valley’s burgeoning wine industry. Mr. Papagni died Feb. 27. He was 95.
Born to Italian immigrants, Mr. Papagni grew up in Fresno, attending Fresno High School and later Fresno State College. Although he came from a farming background, Mr. Papagni also had a love of music. He mastered the saxophone and the clarinet, playing at times at the Rainbow Ballroom in downtown Fresno.
But farming came calling. Mr. Papagni gave up on his musical career and joined the family business after his father needed his help. He never looked back.
“His love of farming was huge,” said his son Demetrio Papagni. “He learned how to grow grapes like no one else.”
Demetrio Papagni admired his father’s thirst for learning, his passion for grapes and his interest in flying. Mr. Papagni was a pilot, flying his Piper Aztec to his various vineyards. It was a hobby that Demetrio Papagni also followed.
“I can still remember flying with him and having him tell me about the instruments and what they do,” he said.
As a grape grower, Mr. Papagni focused on specific varieties, like alicante bouschet, barbera and grenache, that did well in the Valley’s hot and dry climate.
He knew he was producing quality grapes that were going to quality wineries, but he also knew that he could start producing his own quality wines out of those grapes.
Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno
Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno and a former ranch manager for Mr. Papagni, said his grapes were becoming well known for their quality and were in demand.
“He knew he was producing quality grapes that were going to quality wineries, but he also knew that he could start producing his own quality wines out of those grapes,” DiBuduo said.
In 1973, Mr. Papagni made his dream a reality with the construction of a state-of-the-art winery in Madera near Avenue 9 and Highway 99. It was the first Valley winery to produce wine from its own specific grape varieties. Today, the Valley is home to dozens of winemakers and wineries who have followed Mr. Papagni’s trailblazing lead.
“Angelo was really ahead of his time,” said award-winning winemaker Tom Montgomery, who now works for Papagni’s Wines. “He had a great facility, was producing great grapes and a solid wine.”
At the height of his career, Mr. Papagni’s winery was crafting several varietals along with sparkling wine, dessert wines and specialty wines.
But the wine business that Mr. Papagni loved also caused him to stumble. In 1992, at the age of 71, he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for switching inexpensive barbera grapes for higher priced zinfandel grapes.
DiBuduo said Mr. Papagni manned up to the charge and took his lumps. Montgomery said it was a tough time for Mr. Papagni, but one that he survived.
“Regardless of what happened, he still has the tremendous respect of many people in the wine business,” Montgomery said. “People know the legacy that he left behind and they do not hold it against him.”
Montgomery, who is the director of wine marketing for Papagni Wines, created a blend of red and white wines in homage to Mr. Papagni. The bottles are labeled Tesoro D’Angelo, or Angelo’s treasure.
“I think he would have been proud,” said Demetrio Papagni. “Proud of what he helped create.”
Angelo Gregory Papagni
Born: March 19, 1921
Died: Feb. 27, 2017
Survivors: Wife, Blanche; five children, Marilyn, Rosemary, Kathleen, Dana and Demetrio
Services: Visitation: 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Whitehurst, Sullivan, Burns & Blair Funeral Home. Rosary: 7 p.m. Wednesday at the funeral home. Mass: 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, Fresno