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Pioneering grape grower in central California dies at 95

In this undated photo provided by Kathleen Clack, is winemaker Angelo Papagni. Papagni, a pioneering wine grape grower in the San Joaquin Valley, was among a handful of individuals credited with laying the groundwork for the region's burgeoning wine industry. Papagni died Feb. 27, 2017. He was 95. In 1973, Papagni built a state-of-the-art winery in Madera, Calif. It was the first valley winery to produce wine from its own specific grape varieties and is now home to dozens of winemakers and wineries who followed his lead. (Courtesy of Kathleen Clack via AP)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Angelo Papagni, a pioneering wine grape grower who was known as the "maverick" of winemaking in central California's San Joaquin Valley, has died. He was 95.

Papagni died Feb. 27 at home in Fresno, said his son, Demetrio Papagni.

"He never really stopped working," said his son, who now runs Papagni Wines, which produces small-lot, hand-crafted wines, including their signature Alicante Bouchet, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Grigio.

In 1973, Papagni built a state-of-the-art winery in Madera, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. It was the first valley winery to produce wine from its own specific grape varieties.

The valley is now home to dozens of winemakers and wineries who have followed Papagni's lead.

"His main goal was to produce a high-quality grape from this area," his son said. "He was ahead of his time planting varieties that were not planted down here."

Angelo Papagni started farming at age 9 when he was big enough to follow his father's footprints in the soft vineyard rows. He had other loves — his wife of 73 years, flying and music — but grape growing was his life's work.

Demetrio Papagni said his father had a giant love of farming and he learned how to grow grapes "like no one else." The elder Papagni received the nickname "Maverick In the Big Valley" in the mid-1980s.

"Angelo was really ahead of his time," winemaker Tom Montgomery, who now works for Papagni's Wines, told the Fresno Bee. "He had a great facility, was producing great grapes and a solid wine."

At the height of his career, Papagni's winery was crafting several varietals, along with sparkling wine, dessert wines and specialty wines.

Born to Italian immigrants, Papagni grew up in Fresno, attending Fresno High School and later Fresno State College. His father was a grape farmer.

Papagni also had a love of music, mastering the saxophone and the clarinet, playing at times at a Fresno ballroom.

He was a commanding presence, said his daughter Kathleen Papagni Clack.

"He was pretty much larger than life," she said. "When he walked into the room, people stopped and listened. They wanted to hear what he had to say. He was a person of direct eye contact and real vigor and energy. And he was happy. He had a sense of integrity about what he said. People were drawn to him."

He is survived by his wife, Blanche, five children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.