Angelo Clement Sangiacomo, a pioneering winegrower who helped revolutionize California grapegrowing and a founding partner of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, a third generation family business in Sonoma, Calif., has died on Monday, February 27, 2023. He passed away peacefully at his home at the age of 92 years old.
Angelo was an icon in agriculture. He oversaw the expansion of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards to its current status as one of the largest family-owned, premium winegrowing businesses in California with over 1,600 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County. The family continued to enhance his legacy with the launch of their namesake wine brand in 2016.
Angelo’s agricultural career spanned nine decades and began in his youth as he picked fruit on the ranch his family still farms today. Under his leadership, the family business flourished in good times and fought through bad times.
His biggest challenge arrived early in his career when he successfully steered the family through the perilous transition from farming fruit-tree orchards to growing winegrapes following the decline of the pear market in Sonoma County beginning in the 1960s. Angelo, along with his three siblings, planted the family’s first vineyard, Green Acres, in 1969 and bravely looked toward the future of the wine industry.
The accomplishment of which he was most proud was the transition of the family business to the next generation, just as his parents had done decades before for himself and his three siblings. Today, his three children, Mike, Steve and Mia (Pucci) Sangiacomo run the business.
“Our Father was a role model in every way; he led with his genuine spirit to inspire his family, most importantly his children and grandchildren. We cherished his guidance to be the best person we could be along with the fortitude to lead our family business into the next generation,” said Steve Sangiacomo, Angelo’s son and a third-generation partner.
At a time when the California wine industry was just beginning to garner international acclaim, Angelo helped build a reputation for California premium grapes and wine, particularly those from Sonoma County. He had the foresight to see that grapegrowers — like winemakers — could reap the benefits of brand building. He nudged his family and other local wine grapegrowers to focus on premium grapes and to treat them as a luxury good, one on equal par with the best anywhere in the world.
Angelo helped pioneer the creation of California vineyard-designated and single vineyard wines. The 1979 Gundlach-Bundschu Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyards was amongst the first Californian wines to carry a vineyard designation on its wine label. Today the family sells grapes to more than 80 premium wineries, many of which produce wines that carry the Sangiacomo Vineyard designation.
Angelo recognized the importance of carving out prestigious viticultural areas and was instrumental in the creation in 1982 of the Carneros appellation spanning the southern tips of Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
He credits much of his good fortune to falling in love with his wife, Diane. For over fifty years, she provided undying support, advice and a steady hand behind the scenes while raising their three children.
Family always came first. Throughout his whole life, he mixed family and business freely whether over an early morning cup of coffee or lunch with his siblings — a practice he did every day for over 85 years — or teaching his children the nuances of the business. In his later years, his grandchildren were his light that brightened up every day and moment.
“He was a kind and compassionate person, his ability to connect and relate to people made him special,” said Mike Sangiacomo, Angelo’s son and a third-generation partner.
Angelo was a kind and affable old-school farmer, but behind his humble demeanor lay an astute businessman with finely honed skills. In his easygoing manner, he was a master marketer. He understood that his family’s success was inextricably linked to that of his winery clients. Under his direction, the family pioneered customized grapegrowing, leading him to seek out high-end winemakers looking for growers willing to indulge their every whim. He was one of the first to accommodate winemakers’ requests to deliver small lots of grapes, pick specific rows of grapes, and farm according to their specifications.
He aimed for long-term partnerships often sealed in a handshake agreement at the kitchen table over a home-cooked Italian meal. His belief that one should “dance with the one that brought you” meant he never faltered in his loyalty to his clients, who, in return, stuck by his side when the chips were down. Endearing even in difficult times, he always offered others the benefit of the doubt.
Never losing sight of the future, Angelo carefully set the stage for the business to thrive for generations to come. As a young man, Angelo understood that the business must expand to support several siblings and to enable his children to have a place at the table. He shrewdly scaled the business by prioritizing investment in land; making do with used equipment; working long days; and continually sacrificing for the future.
Learning from his father, Vittorio, Angelo was very savy at finding agriculture real estate. Year after year, he scoured the surrounding areas to carefully select the best land suitable for wine grapes, ones that the family could farm for generations to come. He closed many a real estate deal prior to having secured the necessary grape contracts to cover it. But inevitably, the deals were in place before the first harvest and often even before the vines were planted.
Born in Sonoma on August 24, 1930 to Italian immigrants Vittorio and Maria Sangiacomo, he lived there his entire life with the exception of his college years at the University of California at Davis, where he studied viticulture and pomology. His parents had pulled up stakes in San Francisco to become farmers in Sonoma Valley just three years before he was born, at a time before the Golden Gate Bridge was built and travel to Sonoma from San Francisco was difficult.
The first ten years of Angelo’s life coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression. Unlike many who steered clear of risk-taking after the Depression, he was not afraid to take a chance, but only after a most thorough calculation of the risks. His financial education began at a young age at the nightly dinner table, where his parents discussed their struggles to keep the family business afloat through the Depression. Even as a young boy, he always knew the market price for pears which sold during this period for as little as $20 per ton. He began working in the fields at the age of six, picking and packing pears and figs for shipment.
Emerging early on as a leader, Angelo was designated in his early 20s by his father as the spokesperson for the family business. This set the pace for a lifetime in the public eye, first in the fruit business, and then later in the wine business after the orchards were replanted to grapevines in the 1980s. Ever humble, he was always quick to point out that he shared an equal say in all major business decisions with his three siblings, Lorraine, Buck and Bob (deceased in 2006).
Angelo was generous by nature, willing to help both personal friends and colleagues as well as give back to the community. He held a wide range of civic positions throughout his lifetime that helped shape the future of both Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County, including serving on the Public Utilities Commission; Taxpayers Association; Ag Conservation Board; Water Board; and as chair of the Sonoma County Grand Jury. He was instrumental in establishing the Carneros and Sonoma Valley viticultural appellations and served on the boards of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance; the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce; the Carneros Quality Alliance; and the Santa Rosa Junior College Viticultural Advisory Committee.
Angelo loved the agricultural life, working alongside his family members, while following his entrepreneurial spirit.
As he reflected on his life towards the end, he was quoted as saying, “If I had the choice, I’d do it all over again the same.”
He is survived by his wife, Diane, children Michael Sangiacomo (Whitney), Mia Pucci (Michael), and Steven Sangiacomo (Connie); sister Lorraine Sangiacomo and brother Victor “Buck” Sangiacomo (Susan); and grandchildren Joseph, Julia, Robert, Andrew, and Samuel Sangiacomo; and Michaela and Dominic Pucci.