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Vertical Tasting of Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir

Several years ago, there was a unattributed quote on the back label of a bottle of Tantara Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir: “On some other planet encircling one of 200 billion stars in the Milky Way there may be intelligent life that has not heard of Pisoni Vineyard, but not on this planet.” There cannot be any pinotphiles who have not heard of and sampled a Pinot Noir made from Pisoni Vineyard grapes.

In 1982, Gary Pisoni, who had come from generations of farmers who tended row crops long before he was born, realized that the Santa Lucia Highlands was a perfect setting for growing Pinot Noir and planted six acres of Pinot Noir and other assorted varieties on his father’s 280-acre ranch. He was not the first to plant wine grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands, but he was to bring the region notoriety unmatched by any of his winegrowing colleagues before or since.

Gary was a true visionary, planting Pinot Noir in a cool climate region that wine experts in the early 1980s considered only appropriate for grape varieties such as Riesling, Gamay Noir and Pinot Blanc. He had developed an interest in French wines in college and read any books he could find about Burgundy and Pinot Noir. After receiving his degree, he immediately headed for Europe, experiencing his wine epiphany over a Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Legend has it that he surreptitiously brought back cuttings from that esteemed estate, rumored to be La Tache, and established what would become known as the “Pisoni clone” or more correctly, the “Pisoni selection,” in the decomposed granite and sandy loam soil on the ranch that his parents, Jane and Eddie Pisoni, had purchased in 1979. The exact source of the Pinot Noir scion material remains subject to speculation.

The release of the 2012 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir coincided with the thirty year anniversary of the original plantings, and the offering of that wine contained the following depiction by Susan Pisoni Tavernetti:

    “With his heart set on growing the heartbreak grape, Gary planted finicky Pinot Noir in the virgin ground among a small assortment of varieties. The rest of the story is the stuff of legend. Daily treks with a water truck from the Salinas Valley floor to irrigate the tender vines. Eight years of water witches and the drilling of five dry wells. On the sixth attempt, the drill bit penetrated seven feet of soil before grinding through 490 feet of solid granite to the elusive water source. Soon Pisoni Vineyards was designated on the labels of artisan California winemakers, touted as one of America’s ’10 Great Vineyards,’ and crowned the ‘the grand cru site of the Santa Lucia Highlands’ by Robert Parker.”

The original plantings were situated at an elevation of 1,300 feet above the Salinas Valley (one of the highest elevation vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands) at the southern end of what is now the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. Once a water source was located, an additional 40 acres of Pinot Noir were planted in several blocks ranging in size from .5 to 16.8 acres with different trellising and vine spacing, using both own-rooted and grafted vines. Eventually 30 individual different blocks were established among 36 acres, each with distinct soil compositions and microclimates, but all benefiting from the fog and afternoon breezes that flow in from nearby Monterey Bay contributing to the area’s cool mornings and nights. The vineyard is 100% sustainably farmed.

When Gary stepped into winegrowing in 1982, growers in Monterey County often reached for high tonnage and sold their wine in bulk to other counties. Gary chose the tack that predecessors at Chalone, Calera and Sanford had shown to be promising, that is, an emphasis on meticulous farming, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Gary’s son, Mark, was to become the manager of Pisoni Vineyard. With a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of California at Davis and a Master’s Degree in Farm Business Management from Cornell University, he was able to bring out the best in the site and foster the development of premium fruit that is among the most highly prized in California.

Gary’s other son, Jeff, a winemaker who is a graduate of the Enology program at California State University Fresno partnered with Mark to create the Pisoni Estate label. The first Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir debuted in 1998. Early vintages were crafted at off site wineries by Marc Aubert and Vanessa Wong. Jeff became the winemaker for the Pisoni label in 2002 and the wines have been produced at a winery in Santa Rosa. The photo below shows (L to R), Jeff, Gary and Mark.

Jeff is also the winemaker for the family’s second label, Lucia, meaning “light,” that debuted in 2000. Some of the grapes for the Lucia wines are sourced from the Pisoni Vineyard, Gary’s Vineyard and Soberanes Vineyard. The Santa Lucia Highlands bottling is made up of grapes from younger Pisoni Vineyard vines and blocks situated in valleys or lower lying areas along with some fruit from Garys’ and Soberanes Vineyard. Pisoni fruit usually makes up about 50% of that blend. The valley blocks have more approachable tannins that is normally a great fit for the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation bottling.

The Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir is known to Pinot geeks as “Pisoni-Pisoni’ to differentiate it from Pisoni Vineyard designated bottlings from other California Pinot Noir producers. The grapes for the Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir bottling are all “Pisoni clone,” and are usually sourced from Big Block, Elias Block, and Lino Block. These blocks are primarily on ridges of the ranch, with vines planted in rockier, leaner soils that yield more structure and acid in the resulting wine.

I asked Jeff to outline the winemaking regimen for Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir.

    “Part of our philosophy is to always push ourselves for improvement. Most years we bottle several cases of trials and experiments that are in consideration for long term tasting evaluation. Wood tanks were incorporated as part of the fermentation regime a few years ago. A small amount of reduction is encouraged during aging, not enough to be a stylistic change, but to give the wine a greater aging trajectory. Malolactic fermentation is now allowed to go through at colder temperatures so it progresses more slowly. Medium toast has replaced a large portion of heavy toast in our barrels. Heavy toast is still important and works well with the uniquely high tannins that we have in the Pisoni Vineyard, but it is no longer a majority.”

On the farming side, Mark has instituted a number of changes as well and the brothers are able to bounce ideas and make steady suggestions for improvements. Both Mark and Gary are vineyard managers.

    “We re-select our ‘clone’ for newer blocks, alter irrigation, canopy management and vine spacing and change how we work the soil of the vineyard floor. We are currently developing an insectary with native plants to increase the number of beneficial insects on our range. We take sustainability very seriously and this benefits grape quality both directly and indirectly. We have always been one of the earlier ones to harvest at the ranch. This is still the case, but we now also pick over a wider range of days and and maturity levels, depending on the block. We do this to really fine-tune vineyard sections within a given block based on soil type and it also gives a bit more diversity in blending.”

I have been allocated Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir for a number of years and decided to taste an 11-year vertical from 2004 to 2014. These wines have all been perfectly stored at 55ºF since release in my own wine locker. The wines were tasted upon opening, 6-8 hours later, and the following day from previously opened and recorked bottles because sampling the wine the following day tells you plenty about age ability of the wine. Tasting a vertical is very instructive for it allows one an opportunity to: (1) Observe the aging curve of the wines, (2) Appreciate vintage differences, (3) Understand a stylistic continuum, and (4) Realize subtle changes in the wines due to farming and vinification methods. Each review is accompanied by brief comments by Jeff about the vintage, admittedly quite general, but may provide some insight. I added reviews of a few aged Pisoni Vineyard designated Pinot Noirs from other producers as well.

The mailing list to obtain Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir is filled and there is a wait list of several years. The winery is not open for tasting, but visits to the vineyard can be arranged by appointment. If not on the mailing list, look to auctions or the secondary market for the wine. Annual production ranges from 500 to 800 cases and the wine is currently priced at $80.

While not the Pisoni Estate bottling, there are a number of select California wineries offering Pisoni Vineyard designated Pinot Noir and these wines are more readily available. These are remarkable wines in and of themselves, and my experience over the years of tasting multiple bottlings is that these wines rarely disappoint and almost always score in the 93-95 point range. These producers include Bernardus (last vintage 2016), Capiaux, Kosta Browne, Miura, Patz & Hall, Paul Lato, Peter Michael (not vineyard designated but labeled “Le Moulin Rouge”), ROAR, and Testarossa. The reliable Lucia wines are widely distributed or obtainable through an open mailing list. A very limited amount of Pisoni Estate Chardonnay is also produced. For more information about Pisoni Vineyard, visit

I can offer some general impressions from my tasting. The Pisoni Estate Pinot Noirs are powerful, potent and tannic wines, offering soaring aromatics that elevate over time in the glass and bottle. The tannins tend to be more noticeable in years with lower pH. The fruit core is uncommonly concentrated and ripe and is able to balance the tannic load in most vintages. The grapes for this bottling are farmed for good acidity, meaning these wines have excellent food compatibility, and in fact, these wines need to be drunk with and compliment substantial food. Over the vintages tasted, there was a tendency to have less oak overlay, presumably due to the decreased use of heavily toasted barrels, and the tannins seemed to be more refined and less aggressive. There was considerable vintage variation in the wines, a credit to the winemaker in expressing the terroir without sacrificing the expression of the vagaries of each vintage. Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir is a true California treasure that is a singular wine unlike any other Pinot Noir currently produced in the state.

As far as age ability of Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir, this depends on the person doing the estimating. Jeff recommends that the wines be drunk between 10 and 20 years after the vintage, although he points out that this will depend on personal preferences. He suggests that if someone buys several bottles, open one early around five years and spread them out from there to following the aging curve. I found that all wines from 2004 to 2013 could be enjoyed now, with the 2004 and 2005 vintages expiring. The 2013 and 2014 vintages require at least another two years for adequate approach ability. My estimated drinking window for all the wines is included with the reviews.

The Pisoni family recommends serving Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir within a range of 55º-60º F. They also encourage decanting for 30 to 60 minutes. I did not encounter any sediment in the wines but this would be another advantage of decanting.

2004 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.7% alc.. · “A warm vintage but many blocks were harvested before the heat waves. The wine had great acid levels and concentration.” Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Upon opening, the wine offered a profusion of delightful aromas including blackberry, cassis, spice, vanilla and violet. However, the following day, the aromatic profile became much less charming, dominated by aromas of prune and very ripe fruit. On the palate, the mid plus core of black raspberry and blackberry fruit was concentrated and lush with a matching firm structure that was not imposing. The fruit was very ripe (surmaturité) and somewhat sweet and complimented by subtle spice and oak notes. The fruit seemed a bit tired when tasted the following day and the finish was slightly bitter. Drink up. Score: 89

2005 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.3% alc.. · A cold year with a late harvest. Average crop levels and very slow development, but harmonious wines.” Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Shy, but pleasant scent of black fruits, potpourri and vanilla. Rugged and unyielding on the mid plus weighted palate, becoming somewhat more giving and softer over time in the glass, yet still displaying noticeable tannin. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, oak dominated the fruit on the nose and palate. Much more enjoyable upon opening than when tasted the following day. Drink up. Score: 88

2006 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.5% alc.. · "A cool year with very high yields. A lot of fruit was removed to reduce the vines’ tendency for high yields. Tannins were firm and hard and the wines took considerable time to fill out after bottling.” Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Upon opening, the aromas of black cherry, plum pudding and spice were quite appealing. The mid weight plus core of black cherry and blackberry fruit flavors were charming yet confronted by substantial tannins. Not overly sweet, with some length on the astringent finish. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the fruit had faded on the nose, the tannins had moderated some but still overwhelmed the fruit. Drink now to 2020, but will always be a tannic wine. Score: 89

2007 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.7% alc.. · “Cool season and average yields. A harmonious vintage.” Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Brooding, but pleasant aromas of slightly roasted blackberry fruit along with notes of oak vanillin, and tar. Full-bodied, with an attacking and expanding core of very ripe, even prune-flavored fruit on the palate. Noticeable oak contribution, with a slight sense of heat on the modest finish. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine was unchanged, offering roasted fruit flavors including prune backed by modest tannins. Drink now to 2020. Score: 87

2008 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.2% alc.. · “A very wet spring led to poor set and reduced yields along with considerable millerandage. The wine had more fine and supple tannins (less seed occurrences of millerandage). The season turned warm in August leading to an earlier harvest.” Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. The nose opened nicely over time in the glass, revealing aromas of black cherry, black tea and herbs. Full-bodied, with a very ripe core of plump blackberry and cassis flavors framed by substantial tannins. Earthy, primal, smoky, and herbal with a touch of iron and oak in the background. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine had mellowed, offering more expressive black cherry fruit aromas and a soothing texture. Drink now to 2024. Score: 90

2009 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.2% alc.. · “A cool year with an exceptionally long growing season leading to very dense wine. Tannins were the highest among the 2004 to 2014 vintages.” Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Aromas of black raspberry, blackberry jam and earthy flora lead to a dramatic onslaught of black cherry and blackberry fruit flavor. Very sleek on the palate, with corralled tannins, a touch of spice, and a juicy, fruit-driven finish of impressive length. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the fruit had faded a bit on the nose, replaced by aromas of nutty oak and earthy flora. The fruit load sustained on the palate with balanced tannins. Drink now to 2024. Score: 92

2010 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.3% alc.. · “The first half of the growing season was cold and late. There was concern about reaching enough degree days for ripening, but hot weather appeared in July and August bringing harvest in early.” Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. The aromas appeared slowly over time in the glass with swirling, offering notes of dark cherry liquor, nutty oak, spice and mocha (primarily oak-driven aromas). More integrated on the mid weight palate, with flavors of muddled black cherry and brown spices. Silky, with very modest tannins and some finishing power. The lightest in weight of the wines tasted in this vertical. Easy to drink now, but with too much oak overlay for full enjoyment. Drink now to 2020. Score: 89

2011 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.3% alc.. · “Similar start to the growing season as in 2010. The second half of the growing season brought moisture and an even later harvest. A very challenging vintage that required extremely slo and patient vineyard work. Many passes were required through the vineyard with small scissors clipping out botrytis on a berry-by-berry basis. The preceding winter was also very wet which necessitated extensive canopy work.” Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Highly aromatic, with appealing scents of spiced plum, black raspberry and hazelnut. Very easy going with impeccable balance, offering mid weight flavors of blueberry and black raspberry, robed in relatively tame tannins and supported by complimentary oak in the background. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the aromatic explosion persisted and the wine offered remarkable pleasure. Drink now to 2022. Score: 93

2012 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.2% alc.. · “A very moderate growing season with few weather challenges.” Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. The aromas arrive slowly over time in the glass, revealing an array of black fruit goodness. Full-bodied, with a perfectly ripened core of blackberry, boysenberry, black tea and oak spice flavors in dancing in harmony. Tannins are evident but not intrusive, the texture is seamless, and the fruit-filled finish is remarkably long and intense. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine had maintained its excellence indicating a long life ahead. Drink now to 2026. Score: 95

2013 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.2% alc.. · “The influence of warm winters and drought began to show. Ideal spring weather led to good fruit set. High potential yields required additional fruit thinning. The vines were more stressed, producing dense, but mature tannins.” Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Shy initially, but extremely inviting over time in the glass. Aromas of black grapes, blackberries and spice with cigar oak in the background. Intense on the attack, expansive in the mouth, with a luscious expression of blackberry and cassis flavors. Concentrated and bold, yet offering admirable balance of acidity and tannin. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the tannins were more imposing indicating the wine needs more time in the cellar to integrate the tannins and allow the fruit to fully rouse itself. Drink 2018-2026. Score: 93

2014 Pisoni Estate Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 780 cases, $80. Released September 2016. 24% whole cluster. Aged 11 months in selective French oak barrels, 61% new. Unfined and unfiltered. · “Early bud break from warmer winter. Fruit dropping required due to high potential yields. Harvest was early, but total days of fruit development was still long, with the growing season more ‘shifted’ from the early bud break as opposed to the season being ‘cut short’ by warm weather late in the season.” Moderate dark reddish purple color in the glass. Lovely aromas of black raspberry juice, Bing cherry, vanillin and pain grille. The mid weight core of gorgeous black cherry and black raspberry fruits arrive with notice, expanding in the mouth and finishing with remarkable length. The wine seems crisper and less concentrated in this vintage, to the better, with a compliment of toasty oak in the background. The tannic structure holds the fruit in check, and the texture is appealingly silky. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine was still captivating and quite approachable. A reference wine for Pisoni Vineyard. Drink 2018-2028. Score: 95

2007 ROAR Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.9% alc.. · Dark reddish purple color in the glass. The nose is quite pungent with aromas of Band-Aid and sweaty horse (Brett). Dense and boldly concentrated, with a core of purple and black fruits that veer to the very ripe side framed by muscular tannins. A bit flat on the palate, with a compliment of nutty oak and some length on the sweet-fruited finish. Drink up. Score: NR

2009 Paul Lato “Lancelot” Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.8% alc.. · Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Brooding aromas of blackberry syrup, dark chocolate and porto. Dense and rugged on the palate, with a mid weight plus essence of ultra-ripe dark fruits. The tannins are aggressive, making the wine unpleasant to drink on its own and needing a big steak to mollify. Drink up. Score: 84

2012 Siduri Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., screwcap. · Dark reddish purple color in the glass. Little aromatic discovery, offering muted aromas of dark fruits and bark. Big, bold and masculine, with an array of sweet black fruits tempered by muscular tannins. Silky in the mouth, with a generous, fruit-driven finish of notable length. Drink now to 2020. Score: 88

2012 Kosta Browne Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.8% alc.. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Engaging nose that draws you in with aromas of black cherry, raspberry and spice. Beautifully composed, with middleweight flavors of black cherry and black raspberry balanced by tame tannins. Nicely spiced with giving oak in the background, and seamlessly composed. A terrific wine that can be thoroughly enjoyed now but will age magnificently. Drink now to 2026. Score: 94

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