Monday, June 18, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 15

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

His legacy lives on: Future winemakers and grape growers benefit from the Michael Bonaccorsi Foundation


Spago’s former wine director, master sommelier, and Santa Barbara County winemaker Michael Bonaccorsi passed away in 2004 at age 43.

After a glorious morning walk in the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria, Michael Bonaccorsi and I sat down outside the historic adobe to open a couple of bottles of his Bonaccorsi pinot noir and chardonnay.

While interviewing him for my wine-themed television segment at the time, I asked Michael to give my viewers a lesson in ordering wine at a restaurant.

He was the perfect expert to ask, being that in 1992 he was just the 20th American to be accredited as a master sommelier. The Master Sommelier Diploma is the ultimate professional credential anyone can attain in the service of wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages.

To this day, only 211 people on earth have passed the exceedingly difficult exam and have thus been bestowed with the prestigious title.

Michael worked at Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, Spago, in Beverly Hills as director of wine. His dream, however, was to make his own wine, and so in 1999 he started Bonaccorsi Wine Company, focusing on pinot noir.

Not long after our visit in the vineyard, I was saddened to learn of his unexpected death in 2004 at the age of 43.

Michael was brilliant, elegant, and approachable—just like his wines.

His wife, Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, worked with Michael at Spago, where she was maitre d’.

“When Michael passed away … we were getting a lot of flowers and condolences and I just thought instead of having this houseful of flowers … we should make it a donation,” Jenne said. 

Michael had many friends in the restaurant and wine industries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and here in Santa Barbara County who wanted to give something as a memorial.

With all of the generous donations, Jenne and Michael’s family were able to start the Michael Bonaccorsi Foundation that same year.

Bonaccorsi Wine Company produces handcrafted pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah. Visit for more about the Buellton-based winery.

They began with a one-time scholarship to a winemaking student at UC Davis. The scholarship fund has since grown to more than $300,000.

Jenne, who continued Michael’s passion of making wine at their Buellton-based winery and now lives in Solvang, has decided to also assist students in Santa Barbara County.

“For our wine area, it really is our future. The young kids who live in our area want to stay in our area and cultivate it, so we’re really investing in our future,” she shared with me.

In 2011, the Michael Bonaccorsi Endowment was established at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria to support students in the viticulture and enology programs. 

“Last year we were able to give two $500 scholarships to Hancock, and so we just want to keep it growing,” Jenne said.

On Aug. 12, World of Pinot Noir board members presented a check for $4,000 to the Michael Bonaccorsi Foundation to go toward the endowment established at Hancock.

On Aug. 12, World of Pinot Noir event organizers presented Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi (far right) with a $4,000 donation to the Michael Bonaccorsi Foundation’s scholarship program at Allan Hancock College.

“Michael was just a wonderful guy—a great winemaker. He had a wonderful palate. His passion just kind of rubbed off on everybody and anybody,” World of Pinot Noir President Norm Yost said.

“The [foundation] is so excited to receive funds from the World of Pinot Noir to continue the legacy of contributing to a future winemaker,” Jenne said. “Having a scholarship at Allan Hancock makes perfect sense; to encourage our local students who have a passion for winemaking, to continue striving for their dream, as Michael did. It was really generous and surprising and a great thing for the scholarship, but also for the college.”

Enrollment in Hancock’s wine program has doubled to more than 500 since Alfredo Koch, the college’s coordinator of agribusiness/viticulture and enology, came on board seven years ago. The community college has its own four-acre vineyard, greenhouse, and tractor.

“Our enology and viticulture program continues to expand at the college, and students in the program are gaining more exposure to the art and science of fine wine,” Koch said. “It’s wonderful that the Bonaccorsi family included our program in their endowment, and it’s great that the World of Pinot Noir is helping a local, community-based school. Perhaps our students will someday be pouring their wines at this prestigious event!”

After 13 years based in Shell Beach, World of Pinot Noir is moving to Santa Barbara County for next year’s event, which will be held at the Bacara Resort and Spa near Santa Barbara on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2014.

World of Pinot Noir tickets on sale
The 14th World of Pinot Noir will be held at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2014. It is two days of tastings, seminars, and dinners, all revolving around pinot noir. For details and to buy tickets, visit

More than 2,000 guests attend the weekend events that feature pinot noir from 200 wineries from around the world, including Bonaccorsi Wine Company.

A portion of the proceeds from the event’s silent auction will support the Bonaccorsi Foundation again in 2014.


Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell’s favorite varietal just happens to be pinot noir. Contact her at

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