Vincent Petrucci, visionary who built Fresno State winemaking program, dies at 91

Vincent Petrucci stands next to his 100-foot-long grapevine in his backyard. Petrucci founded Fresno State’s viticulture and enology program in 1948.
Vincent Petrucci stands next to his 100-foot-long grapevine in his backyard. Petrucci founded Fresno State’s viticulture and enology program in 1948. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Vincent E. Petrucci, a dedicated yet humble professor who guided Fresno State’s viticulture and enology program to international prominence, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Mr. Petrucci, whose name is known among giants of the wine industry, is credited with developing a program that produced world-class winemakers and expert vineyard managers during his 45-year career at Fresno State University.

His death was noted by Fred Franzia, co-founder of the Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres, the fourth-largest producer of wine in the U.S.

“Vince Petrucci was a great student, teacher and advocate regarding the great San Joaquin Valley grape and wine industry. Vince was a worldwide thinker and drinker of wines,” Franzia said. “Vince was dedicated and became a worldwide powerhouse in both enology and viticulture. Vince lived a long, good life and Fresno State is a much better school because of his good work.”

Mr. Petrucci was connected with farming his entire life. As a boy, he was raised on his family’s small farm in Escalon, where his Italian-immigrant parents raised dairy cows and grew peaches, almonds and, of course, grapes.

Later in life, Mr. Petrucci served in the U.S. Naval Air Corps at the end of World War II and in 1947, he graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor’s degree in pomology, the science of growing fruit. A year later he earned a master of science in horticulture.

At the age of 23, Mr. Petrucci applied for a job at Fresno State, where the college was expanding its agriculture program, including viticulture. His competition was much older and better educated. But he got the job.

“He asked them later why they picked him, and they said he was the only applicant who knew how to drive a tractor,” said Mr. Petrucci’s son, Vince P. Petrucci.

His tractor-driving skills aside, Mr. Petrucci was consumed with learning and teaching.

“He knew everything about a grapevine and how to produce grapes,” Vince P. Petrucci said. “And he passed that along to his students in the classroom and out in the vineyard.”

It wasn’t long before Fresno State began developing a reputation for training winemakers and vineyard managers who were laser-focused on producing quality grapes and wine.

Mr. Petrucci didn’t buy into the notion that the central San Joaquin Valley’s grapes were only good for making cheap wine.

“He believed that we could make world-class wines in the Valley and at Fresno State,” Petrucci said.

Mr. Petrucci’s influence extended beyond the classroom. A well-respected expert, he developed partnerships with the grape and wine industries, resulting in the first viticulture research building on the Fresno State campus in the late 1970s.

By 1985, Mr. Petrucci became the director of what was to become the Viticulture and Enology Research Center that now also houses the Vincent E. Petrucci Library.

“He saw a vision so many years ago that has come to reality and has grown by leaps and bounds,” said Sandra Witte, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences & Technology.

Although Mr. Petrucci retired in 1993, the momentum he created at Fresno State continued. In 1997, Fresno State became the first university in the nation with a winery bonded to market student-produced wine.

A humble man, Mr. Petrucci received many honors during his lifetime, including California State Fair Wine Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, Fresno State Meritorious Performance and Professional Promise Award in 1986, and the University of California, Davis, Distinguished Achievement Award in 1995.

Nat DiBuduo, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, is a former student of Mr. Petrucci’s and has kept many of his class notes and textbooks to use for reference.

“You really learned something when you were in his class,” DiBuduo said. “And he had the respect of so many people.”

Vince P. Petrucci said it wasn’t unusual for people to come up to his father and thank him for the lessons they learned in his classroom. He was appreciated by many, but especially his family. Petrucci said his father was never too busy to play catch, hit ground balls or shoot baskets. And he tried to make every father-daughter dance he could.

“As outstanding a man as he was in the industry,” Petrucci said, “he was even a better dad.”

Mr. Petrucci was married to his wife, Josephine, for 69 years. She died on Nov. 9, also at the age of 91.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Vincent E. Petrucci

Born: July 13, 1925

Died: Dec. 27, 2016

Occupation: Fresno State professor of viticulture and enology

Survivors: Five children, Julianne Calvet, Kristene Scholefield and husband John, Stephanie Weber and husband Doug, Vincent P. Petrucci and wife Terri Lynn, Terrie Antonino and husband Joe, 16 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

Services: Rosary, Tuesday at 7 p.m., Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 355 East Champlain Drive, Fresno. Mass, Wednesday at 10 a.m., Holy Spirit Church. Private burial to follow.