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Michael Bonaccorsi, 43; Rising Vintner, Former Sommelier

January 17, 2004|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Michael Bonaccorsi, a rising young winemaker and the former sommelier at Wolfgang Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago, has died. He was 43.

Bonaccorsi died Wednesday night, apparently of a heart attack, according to Jannis Swerman, a spokeswoman for Puck. The vintner's body was discovered Thursday at his condominium in the Santa Barbara County town of Buellton, where he lived while attending to business for Bonaccorsi Wine Co., a boutique producer of pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah wines.

Bonaccorsi, who also had a home in Santa Monica, had been scheduled to present some of his wines at a tasting Thursday night in Los Angeles, and friends and family became alarmed when the meticulously on-time Bonaccorsi did not appear. Local authorities were alerted and found his body.

His death shook Los Angeles' close restaurant and wine community.

"Here he is, finally doing what he always wanted to do and having such success," said Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila. "I saw him at Brothers Restaurant in Los Olivos and he was looking so happy -- he was like a kid."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Bonaccorsi obituary -- An obituary of Michael Bonaccorsi in Saturday's California section misidentified Gary Fishman of Wally's Wine & Spirits as David Fishman.

She said Bonaccorsi was "very knowledgeable and very serious -- he had an incredible palate, and he was very sure about what he tasted. And he brought all that to bear in making wines."

In a statement issued Friday, Puck lamented "the loss of this gifted man and his potential."

"His talent, wit, intelligence and passion for his work made an indelible impact on all of us who knew him," the restaurateur said.

Bonaccorsi, who managed Spago's wine cellar and oversaw wine service there for a decade, had also consulted and performed staff training for Puck's other restaurants, including Chinois on Main in Santa Monica and Granita in Malibu.

The winemaker was accredited as a master sommelier by the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers. In 2000, New York Times writer R.W. Apple Jr. called him "possibly the best young sommelier in the country."

Bonaccorsi's boyish good looks were far from the cliche of a sommelier, which he once drolly described as "an old guy in a tuxedo with a tastevin" -- a small saucer for tasting -- "around his neck."

Asked a few years ago by the Los Angeles Business Journal whether he ever wore a tastevin, he replied: "Never in my life. Don't have one."

A few years ago, Bonaccorsi decided to try his luck at winemaking. One of his partners in the endeavor was heart surgeon Gregory Fontana.

"At the time he died, he was at the top of his game," Fontana said. "Everything had come together: coming through the ranks, learning how to make wine. He was just nailing it."

David Fishman, domestic wine buyer at Wally's Wine & Spirits in West Los Angeles, described Bonaccorsi, whom he had known for several years, as a humble man with a warm personality.

"I keep in my drawer a photograph, taken at the first World of Pinot Noir in 2001," Fishman said, referring to an annual wine event held in Shell Beach, near San Luis Obispo. "He was debuting his first-ever pinot, and Aubert de Villaine came over." As wine buffs know, De Villaine is managing director of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, the fabled Burgundy estate in France.

"Michael was nervous as a cat.... He poured the wine for Aubert, and I saw his hand shaking a bit," Fishman said. "I captured a photograph of Aubert sipping, and the expression on Aubert's face said it all -- he was giving Michael a thumbs-up with his eyes."

Fishman added, "To see Michael go on after that to have such success was so heartwarming to everyone who knew him."

Bonaccorsi's newest pinots, from the Santa Rita Hills west of Buellton and the Santa Maria Valley, earned outstanding reviews in the Dec. 18 edition of Wine Spectator Weekly.

Wine Spectator Online writer James Laube, who posted an obituary Friday on Bonaccorsi, quoted the winemaker as saying in the wake of the reviews: "I get the feeling my life is changing. My website lit up like a Christmas tree this afternoon and the phone won't stop ringing."

Bonaccorsi was born Nov. 16, 1960, in Chicago, one of 12 children, and earned his undergraduate degree in business from the University of Illinois. He got interested in wine while working for a restaurant in Champaign-Urbana, where the university is located, according to a 2000 interview with the Los Angeles Business Journal's Elizabeth Hayes.

"I was basically busing tables, but there were a few people there who knew about wine, and I just got interested," he said. "There was a good wine shop across the street, and this waiter captain and I used to spend half our tip money checking out French, German and California wines."

In his 20s, Bonaccorsi moved to San Francisco to be closer to where wine was being made, eventually becoming sommelier at Masa's in that city in 1988. He also worked harvests at wineries in Sonoma County and, in the late 1990s, in the Burgundy region of France for Domaine Georges Roumier.

He told Laube that at some point it dawned on him that "there seemed to be so much potential to be realized" in making pinot noirs in Santa Barbara County, particularly the Santa Rita Hills.

Two years ago, Bonaccorsi married Jenne Lee, maitre d' at Spago in Beverly Hills, in a vineyard in Burgundy.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his parents, Ralph and Lois Bonaccorsi; brothers John, Rob, Rich, Joe, Jim, Bill and Tom; sisters Mary Bonaccorsi, Jean Shelton, Patty Thompson and Cathy Layton; and 18 nieces and nephews. All reside in the Chicago area.

Services are pending.

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