Artisan Pinot Noir in Santa Lucia Highlands
The Santa Lucia Highlands of California’s Monterey County lie in what is often called
‘Steinbeck Country,’ named after the celebrated 20th-century writer, John Steinbeck. His
novel, Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939 and won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel
Prize has become one of the most widely read and discussed novels on college campuses
throughout the United States. The title is an indirect reference to a passage in the Bible
(Revelation 14:19-20) that speaks to deliverance from oppression.
Steinbeck noted that the Santa Lucia Highlands “was like Heaven.” Others tabbed it Eternidad
Paraiso or eternal paradise. In 1982, Gary Pisoni realized that the area was a perfect home for
Pinot Noir and he planted five acres on mountainous terrain at 1,300 feet, overlooking the
Salinas Valley floor that extends from Monterey Bay to Paso Robles. The land had once been the Pisoni family’s cattle ranch. At the time, Pisoni had not even found a water source but five dry wells later, he tapped into
springs that generations of American Indians valued for their healing qualities and that the Spanish used to irrigate
their vineyards. Shortly thereafter, Pisoni planted another forty acres. Conditions here were perfect for cool
climate varietals such as Pinot Noir, with morning fog followed by warm days, tempered by afternoon breezes.
It didn’t take long for Pinot Noir grapes from the Pisoni Vineyard to be among California’s most sought-after,
and the Santa Lucia Highlands soon took on the moniker, “Pisoni Country.”
The introduction of vinifera grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands dates to the 1790s when Spanish missionaries
arrived. In the early 1970s, the modern era of winegrowing began with the plantings of Rich
and Claudia Smith at Paraiso, Nicky Hahn at Smith & Hook, the McFarland family at Sleepy Hollow, and
Phil Johnson at La Estancia. Early growers often reached for high tonnage and sold their wine in bulk
to other counties. The Santa Lucia Highlands was designated an American Viticultural Area in 1991,
and with this came an increased emphasis on premium Pinot Noir production. Currently, there are
4,700 acres of vineyards, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A vineyard map is on page 3.
The appellation is located 10 miles from Monterey Bay as the crow flies. The vineyards are planted on
the southeast-facing Santa Lucia mountains range looking out toward the Salinas River Valley. Vineyard
elevations range from 200 ft. to 1,500 ft. above sea level. The soils are a combination of well-drained
shallow sand and loam that possess poor fertility and cause the vines to struggle. Long summer
days may reach over 80 degrees in temperature, but the evenings often swing into the high 40s.
Gentle afternoon coastal winds toughen the grape skins, adding flavor. Rainfall averages only 10-15
inches per year, so the vines are judiciously irrigated.
Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands will vary from site to site. For example, the southern reach
of the appellation is cooler and the north portion is warmer. In general, the wines are known for their
opulent and lush dark fruit (plum, blackberry, blueberry, black cherry), spice, and earth-inspired
flavors. They are remarkably distinctive and can be exemplary of the New World or Caliesque
style of Pinot Noir. I think Paul Root said it best in 2004 in one of his e-mail missives (perhaps a bit
exaggerated but very funny nonetheless: “The common theme which weaves its way through the SLH
efforts is this: Nearly all we’ve tasted have been HUGELY extracted, powerfully fruity, muscular yet
balanced and intensely flavored. Colors range from deep purple-blue to pitch black. They are near
cloying in their viscosity and weight, and most importantly, they are a KICK to drink. An experienced,
Burgundy-loving ‘Franco File’ would either be utterly awe-struck at the dimension of these wines or
simply pass out in a foggy blur when pressed to compare them with their precious ‘terroir-infused,
obscenely priced ‘Cote de Frou-Frou’ dust-covered jars in their ‘cauve’ back home.”
Wineries and growers in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation formed an
organization in 2005: Artisans of Santa Lucia Highlands. Currently there
are 29 member growers including Bianchi, Boekenoogen, Estancia,
Fairview Ranch, Gallo, Garys’, Hahn Estates, Highlands Ranch, Hillside,
Kelly’s, La Estancia, La Reina, Lucia Highlands, Manzoni, McIntyre Vineyards,
Mer Soleil, Morgan Double L, Olson Ranch, Paraiso, Pessagno Vineyards,
Pisoni, R&D, River Road, Rosella’s, Smith-Lindley, Talbott, Tondre
Grapefield, Vine Monte Nero and Vinco. Many wineries that are outside
the Santa Lucia Highlands source grapes from within the appellation including
Arcadian, August West, Bernardus, De Tierra, Hope & Grace, Joulian,
La Rochelle, Loring, Miner Family, Miura, Novy, Patz & Hall, Pelerin,
Peter Michael, Pinder, Siduri, Sonnett, Testarossa, and Tudor.
The official launch of the Artisans of Santa Lucia Highlands took place on
Saturday, May 19, 2007, at Paraiso Vineyards. The media and trade were
invited for an in-depth educational session examining the vineyards and
personalities of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, a luncheon among the vines, and a tasting with
the winemakers of the appellation. The public was treated to a tasting of the Santa Lucia Highlands
wines later the same day. I could not attend as I was at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival the
same weekend, so my friend, Laura Ness, covered the event and submitted the following report. Laura
is a well-known wine writer who covers the Santa Cruz Mountains for Appellation America and serves
on many tasting panels. Occasionally you will find her pouring Pinot at Burrell School Winery as well
The Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisan Organization Debuts
“All Hail the Highlands” Laura Ness
While the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation has been in existence for over 15 years now and has
already garnered its fair share of acclaim as a Pinot Noir growing region, the winegrowers in these
rugged mountains thought it might be a good idea to introduce themselves. Officially. They did so in
a stylish and hospitable fashion befitting their homey and friendly nature on Saturday, May 19, at
Paraiso Vineyards. Not only was the debut a chance for consumers and the trade to meet the local
growers as well as the winemakers who are sourcing their fruit here, but it was also an opportunity to learn first
hand the unique features of this winegrowing region.
If you live in California and have traveled the Highway 101 corridor between San Jose and points
south, say, Paso Robles or Los Angeles, you have passed through this vast agricultural region known as
the Salinas Valley. Acres of brilliantly-colored baby lettuces shoulder up to bench lands bearing broccoli,
cauliflower, cabbage and onions. It is truly the salad bowl of America. To the west, the hills rise
up sharply, a windbreak to the Pacific Ocean that lies less than 15 miles away. From Highway 101,
your eyes take you across fields of laborers, picking lettuce and tending to row crops. Up the hills, the
grapevines begin, climbing up to elevations of 1,500 feet.
The Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is distinctly drawn on the face of this mountain range. When
you look at the outline, the sheer verticality reminds you of a ski resort map. From these steep hillsides,
the view to the east is mesmerizing. The greens and yellows of the cropland and grassland
sweep away from the river valley, becoming bleached and blond only to climb to yet another set of
mountains to the east. There is almost no hint of civilization as most of us know it who live in the non-agrarian
areas of California. Not a strip mall in sight. Not even a truck stop. At Paraiso Vineyards,
where the inaugural Wine Artisans event took place, there is nothing but the sound of the wind, the
endless waving of grasses, and the almost painfully beautiful blueness of the sky. The temperature is
perfect. It is always perfect. Perfect for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Perfect for growing
lettuce, apples, prickly pear cactus and asparagus. It makes me healthy just thinking about it. Imagine
living in a place where the land you are standing on has changed a few hands since the Spanish
relinquished their stronghold upon losing the war. The sense of history, of continual connectivity to
the land, is palpable. It is what makes this group of people so special, so congenial, and so proud to share
the bounty of their little piece of agricultural paradise.
History of the AVA
The historical overview of the Santa Lucia Highlands was presented by Rich Smith, a Board Member of
the Artisans organization. The initial proposal for the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation (AVA) was
drafted in 1988 with the help of winemaker Barry Jackson who makes sparkling wine in the Santa Cruz
Mountains. The AVA officially was established in 1991. Although grapes were grown here as early as
the 1790s, serious commercial wine grape growing really started in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Growers Rich and Claudia Smith (photo bottom left), who own Paraiso Vineyards, as well as half a dozen other
vineyards in the AVA (they farm a total of 3,000 acres), began planting their first vineyard in 1973
along with neighbors Hillside, Estancia, Sleepy Hollow and River Road. These winegrowers were
followed by Smith & Hook and Lone Oak in 1974. Now there are 4,700 planted acres of vines in the
AVA. Smith still has 50 acres of Martini and CV1 clones which were planted on their own roots back in
1973. What little acreage in the AVA that is not under vines is planted to pear cacti, lemons and
avocados. Smith noted that he had just finished planting another 25 acres this past year and said “the
place is pretty much fully planted at this point. I’m about to throw the frogs out of the pond.” From the
very northernmost vineyard, Mer Soleil, to the southern end at Pisoni Vineyard, there are about 33
named vineyards. The Wine Artisans of Santa Lucia Highlands organization is headed by a winemaker
Dan Lee of Morgan Winery (photo below right). Smith concluded his remarks by saying, “We’re giving you
the facts today. We’re the people, this is the place, and these are our products.”
It’s the Weather, Stupid
What exactly makes this land, this place, this terroir, so distinctive? Not content to say, “taste
our dirt, please,” the Artisans of Santa Lucia Highlands Board of Directors invited two experts to speak
to the primary factors that define the terroir of this region. Climatologists Dr Mark Greenspan of the University
of California Davis and Dr Alfred Case, a soil scientist, both gave detailed and informative
presentations that were convincing and educational. Their complete presentations will be posted on
the Santa Lucia Highlands website (www.santaluciahighlands.com).
Dr. Greenspan, an expert in wine grape irrigation and crop load management, believes that climate is
an important part of terroir. He began by quoting Mark Twain who said, “Climate is what we expect;
weather is what we get.” In addition to climate, terroir is made up of many other factors including
vineyard design, viticultural practices and soil. However, climate plays the biggest role.
In a nutshell, there are two major climatic influences at work here: precipitation and diurnal temperature
variation. Basically, this area barely gets enough rain to grow grass and struggles to get warm
enough to ripen a cherry tomato (don’t bother). However, this dearth of precipitation invites grapevines
to grow strong and thrive in the absence of disease. Greenspan presented statistics for annual rainfall
in several major Pinot Noir growing regions for comparison: Santa Lucia Highlands 13 inches, Santa Rita Hills 13 inches, Santa Maria 13 inches, Burgundy 28 inches, Willamette Valley 38 inches, and Russian River 42 inches
Equal in importance to the amount of rainfall is the timing of the precipitation. In Burgundy, rain may
occur all through the growing season. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, as in Santa Rita Hills and Santa
Maria, rain is pretty much confined to wintertime. Fortunately, for the Santa Lucia Highlands, water
resources are plentiful and growers can control precisely the irrigation of their vineyards.
The fog contributes another moisture factor to the Salinas Valley, causing both warming and cooling.
Fog means warmer nights - in the mid-50s - and cooler days. The temperature rarely rises above 80
degrees in this area. Ripeness and flavor development in grapes are related to temperature, and the
more consistent the temperature, the more likely you are to achieve maximum flavor development at
optimal sugar levels. Greenspan presented statistics on Heat Summations. The figures are determined
by the number of days multiplied by degrees over 50F:
Burgundy 1982, Willamette Valley 1924, Santa Maria 2201, Santa Lucia Highlands 2206, Santa Rita Hills 2420, and Russian River 2580.
These figures give you the data, but do not quite give you all the clues. You would expect the ripest
flavors to come from the Russian River and Santa Rita Hills, and the least ripe from Burgundy and
Oregon. This is the case. But the crucial element of flavor concentration is reflected more in diurnal
swings in temperature. Looking at the average daily temperature variation for the month of September,
Burgundy has a swing of 50 to 78 degrees, Santa Lucia Highlands 52 to 75 degrees, and Santa
Maria 50 to 73 degrees. With regard to the diurnal temperature swings (from the daily lows to the
daily highs) from August 15 to October 15 (the peak ripening months), the data shows: Santa Lucia Highlands 18 degrees, Gonzales 22 degrees, Santa Maria 25 degrees, Santa Rita Hills 26 degrees and Russian River 33 degrees.
Aha! You say it’s clear to me now. The fact that the temperature in the Santa Lucia Highlands traverses
such a narrow range creates ideal climatic conditions for the long, slow ripening of fruit, and tremendous
flavor development, typically at lower Brix. The longer the vines stay “stoked,” the more slowly and
evenly ripening can occur. Vines shut down when they are too warm or too chilly. If the temperature
does not fall below 52 degrees at night, there is more ripening happening while the grapes are
dozing. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, these small diurnal swings are due to the maritime influence of
the Pacific Ocean. The fog and the wind, both daily love letters from the ocean, mitigate temperatures,
creating an ideal climate for the ripening of Burgundian varietals grown there.
But the Dirt Matters Too
Soils make a difference also, says Dr Cass. (Warning: the following is for the geekiest of pinotphiles
only). He feels soils are “the Cinderella of the wine industry.” Many factors affect vine performance
and ultimately fruit quality and these can be studied ad infinitum. Speaking of the soil, what is it about the
dirt that defines the quality of the wine from this region? Simply put, Chualar Loam, of which just under
half of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA finds beneath its feet. This ancient glacial alluvial soil turns out
to be very conducive to vines. There is little need for extreme ripping, or digging up of the soil. It is
of good quality and rates an 8 out of 10 on a soil ranking scale. The other major soil types in the region
are Arroyo Seco, which also rates 8 out of 10, Placentia (7/10), and Gloria Sandy Loam (5/10) which has
a significant hard pan. Whatever the dirt, the ability to water the vines here with precise control overrides
the exact soil type.
A Few Words from the Growers
The growers who spoke at the event strive to keep vineyards farmed as close to perfection and as
perfectly organic as possible. Grower Steve McIntyre, who preaches sustainable agriculture, farms 60
acres, plus tends to Hahn Estates and Smith & Hook. His vineyard team developed a self-assessment
tool regarding sustainability 10 years ago that the state of California has now implemented. He intends
to have a totally green environmental facility by 2009. “It is in our roots,” he says, “We opt to use
herbicide and one pass with one tractor, rather than three passes with three tractors to perform
mechanical tillage for weed control. This avoids costly erosion. We are hoping for new organic herbicides.
His business is Monterey Pacific, and he has been managing well over 800 acres of vineyards
since the mid-1980s. He attests to the overriding influence of the wind: “I was driving from Salinas to
Soledad last summer, and I had to keep riding the brakes to keep from exceeding the speed limit.”
Most of those in attendance from out of the area did not get this joke, but the locals most certainly did.
On the popularity of Pinot Noir, Steve had an anecdote about managing a vineyard called Vento back
in 1987. It was planted with the Gamay clone at a time years ago when clones were not important. The
owners were lucky to sell the fruit for $300 a ton. It proved to be a good grape for sparkling wine and
was sold to Scharffenberger, Jepson and J. The vineyard has subsequently been redeveloped, and
because clones DO matter now, has been replanted to Pinot Noir Dijon clones 115 and 777. Like many
growers, Steve established his own label (McIntyre Vineyard) and began making his own wine in
2000 saying, “The idea of producing one’s own wine is strong.”
The next speaker was Gary Franscioni who farms Garys’ and Rosella’s Vineyards. (A word of explanation
here to clarify the confusion about Garys in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Gary Pisoni teamed with
Gary Franscioni to plant the 50-acre Garys’ Vineyard in 1997 - hence the two Garys. Franscioni’s
Rosella’s Vineyard is his own project and is named after his wife. Gary Pisoni produces Pinot Noir
under the Pisoni Estate and Lucia labels, and Franscioni has his own label, Roar. One gets the impression
that Gary has a little too much social exposure, and doesn’t relish it. He likes to present himself as a farmer and a third-generation one at that. He very simply and believably stated, “Farming is in my
blood.” His grandfather came here in 1886 and his family has been farming ever since. Gary noted
that he sells grapes to about 40 wineries. The expectation of quality is huge. How does he deal with it?
“We have a budget,” Franscioni shrugs, “In all honesty, we spend between $3,000 and $5,000 per acre
on labor. We believe in delivering perfect grapes to wineries. Whenever a winery representative
comes to visit, I take them out into the vineyards and tell them that this is my house, this is where I live.
My vineyards are spectacular.”
The final speaker was Gary Pisoni, the ebullient and charming guy who in his own words “had the first
great clone in the first great place that was perfect for growing Pinot Noir.” Like Franscioni, he also
comes from generations of farmers who tended row crops long before he was born. Enthusing the
positive energy that has made him a household name among Pinot circles, Pisoni recalled how much
he enjoyed drinking and collecting fine French wines while in college. When he graduated, he was
anxious to find a way into the wine business. When he told his father he wanted to plant grapevines
instead of lettuce on the family acreage, he was met with several objections, not the least of which was
the cost. Gary countered to his father, “Have you ever been to a $250 lettuce tasting?” His father relented
and a legendary vineyard was born. Pisoni concluded by quoting Louis Pasteur who said,
“Wine is a most healthful and congenial beverage.” To which Pisoni added his own quote, “Santa Lucia
Highlands Pinot is a necessity of life!” (Gary and son Mark Pisoni below).
Now Let’s Taste Some Wine!
All of that talking and note-taking made people thirsty. The attendees adjourned to a gourmet luncheon
hosted by Chris and Claudia Smith of Paraiso Vineyards, prepared by Chef Cal Stamenov of
Bernardus Lodge, accompanied by no small amount of delectable Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs
from Paraiso Vineyards. The 2005 Paraiso Estate Pinot Noir ($25) was easy to love with its bright
cherry and plum fruit, a nice touch of baking spice and sweet oak, and good acidity. The vista from the
Smith’s charming and well-decked home sweeps across the entire Salinas Valley and is crowned by a
stunning view of the Pinnacles perched in the blond hills to the east. After lunch, the serious wine
In all honesty, I have had quite a number of wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands before, and have
found some to be a bit over the top in winemaking style. Consequently, I started the tasting with an
open mind and will report on the Pinot Noirs that were my favorites.
It is hard not to begin with Pisoni. There is something purely magical about the fruit from the Pisoni
clone. Reputedly a suitcase clone sourced from cuttings from the Domaine Romanee-Conti Romanee-
Conti Vineyard, Pisoni’s vines seem to exude fruit with a very dark soul. We sampled the 2005 Pisoni
Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) which was aged in 50% new French oak and fermented with natural
yeasts. The big wood aromas were accented by cinnamon and clove, and the flavors of rich and ripe
plum and raspberry made this a big wine in the mouth. The acid was very pleasant. Yes, I could drink this
one easily. I especially loved the 2005 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir ($60) which was aged in 60% new
French oak. The oak added lovely vanilla notes to the brilliant dark cherry, earth and spice flavors. The
finish of licorice and chocolate was pure decadence. A+! I would be happy with a case of this resting in
my cellar. (Note: at this point, I began to see the dollar correlation between new French oak and the
retail price of wine). Pisoni Winery & Vineyards: www.pisonivineyards.com.
The 2005 Belle Glos Los Alturas Vineyard Pinot Noir was a blend of 2A. 6, 9. and some Dijon clones.
It was quite earthy and Burgundian in character. Belle Glos: www.belleglos.com. The 2005 Bernardus
Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50) had a shy nose, but some wonderful wild berry flavors, especially
leaning toward the strawberry side of the jam aisle. The acidity was satisfying and I gave it a solid A. Bernardus
Lodge & Winery: www.bernardus.com.
The wines from La Rochelle (formerly Mirassou) were all very distinctive.
Winemaker Tom Stutz explained that he is making “wines of place,” that
is, seeking out only the very finest and well-managed vineyards that will
yield the most distinctive of wines. The 2005 La Rochelle Santa Lucia
Highlands Pinot Noir ($42) is a blend of fruit from several vineyards
aged in 40% new oak. The wine is pleasingly spicy and complex with generous
fruit and reigned in acidity and tannin. I gave it a B+. Tom said he expected this Pinot to have
broad appeal, after all, “Pinot Noir is a fashion business.” The 2005 La Rochelle Sleepy Hollow Vineyards
Pinot Noir ($40) is aged in 60% new oak and comes from Block A of Talbott’s vineyard which
sits at 700 feet elevation. This wine is big, dense and filled with great blackberry, minty chocolate and
spice. It could just be that blackberry pie in a bottle you have been seeking. I gave the wine an A-. The
winner in the lineup was the 2005 La Rochelle Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45). This comes from
a vineyard managed by Rich Smith and partners. The nose is divine and alluring, with “come hither and
dig deeper” aromas typically associated with a fine Burgundy. On the palate, it delivers minerality,
cherry flavors, a fabulous structure, and a huge, everlasting finish. Another solid A effort. The 2006 vintage
will be released this Fall. Also coming from La Rochelle is the 2005 La Rochelle Garys’ Vineyard
Pinot Noir. La Rochelle Winery: www.lrwine.com.
The 2005 Morgan Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir ($55) earned a solid A with its
rich nose, great promise of long-term aging, and zesty spiciness to complement the
great raspberry and cherry flavors. The complexity, balance, finish and hint of pepper
made this a standout. Winemaker and owner Dan Lee has quite a good Pinot
Noir lineup. The 2005 Morgan Double L Vineyard Pinot Noir ($59) was earthier
with definite hints of root vegetables. Morgan Winery: www.morganwinery.com.
Winemaker Tony Craig, owner of Sonnet Wines, was pouring several Pinot Noirs from Tondre Grapefield.
2005 Tondre Grapefield Pinot Noir ($43) is made specifically for owners Joe Tondre and Penny
Alarid by Tony. Big, spicy and filled with brambly fruit. I loved the baking spice and slightly peppery
core. Grower Joe said the optimal Brix for picking Santa Lucia Highlands fruit is between 26 and 27.
2004 was the only year he has seen it picked higher, and by and large, the 2004 vintage was a bit
flabby, as an extremely hot August caught many growers and winemakers by surprise. Tondre Grapefiled
was planted in 1997 and supplies grapes to multiple producers including Bernardus, Cima
Colina, David Bruce, De Tierra, Morgan, Silver Mountain, Sonnet, and Tudor. Tondre Winery & Vineyards:
Winemaker David Fleming of Paraiso poured the 2003 Paraiso West Terrace
Pinot Noir ($40). This wine was made from the best blocks of the estate vineyard.
It sports a very Burgundian nose and delivers big-time on the palate with a wonderful
texture that positively fills the mouth. This is a wine for those who like ‘em lush
and lavish. Paraiso Vineyards: www.paraisovineyards.com.
Bill Brousseau from Testarossa wines was pouring the 2005 Testarossa
Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir ($59) and the 2005 Testarossa Garys’
Vineyard Pinot Noir ($59). They both exhibited great spice, which seems to be a
recurring theme in Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs. Testarossa Vineyards:
The last wines in the lineup were Gary Franscioni’s Roar label Pinot
Noirs. The 2005 Roar Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir had a distinctively
Burgundian nose, with fascinating notes of violets, lavender and cherries. A
pleasant hint of chocolate rounded out this wine. I gave it a B+/A-. The last
wine of the day for me was the 2005 Roar Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir. I wrote “I LOVE it!” in my
notes. This is a big, rich and lush Pinot, with oozing flavors of cherry and blackberry and a solid spicy
core. Roar Wines: www.roarwines.com.
The Final Word
Pisoni Estate released its first Pinot Noir in 1998. At the time, the wine retailer, Marin Wine Cellar,
posted a piece on their website about the Pisonis. I was searching to purchase the inaugural vintage
back then and kept this article because of its humor and historical significance. I wanted to excerpt
this piece here because it makes good reading.
Tucked away above what otherwise would be known as a vast, heavily planted landscape of mixed
produce, carved out with great passion and years of hard work by Mr Pisoni, Sr., whom I should refer
to as “Mr Happily Generous,” because he practically wanted me to take the farm home with me, lies
tiny Pisoni Winery. Tiny only describes its case production. The words “big/great” should be used to
describe the zest and the gusto with which Gary (son) and Jeff (grandson) envelope you when they
talk to you about their venture.
I recall with great fondness the time I spent with Gary and Jeff and their parents one day - and a great
day it was! Punctuated with great-tasting wine, humor, food, and of course good company. While
much food was eaten that day, the clear favorite was the venison sausage, served two ways, pan-fried
in a sourdough sandwich, and air-dried with cheese. In my travels, I have had some fabulous sausages
and I have to say unequivocally that these venison sausages were some of the best, if not the
best I have ever tasted. What made these sausages so outstanding was that, like all great Italian food,
Mama made them.
Ahh, Mama Pisoni, the effervescent 76-year-old matriarch who not only made the venison sausage,
she bagged the deer herself!! When it was time for me to depart, I hitched a ride with her from the
vineyard back to where my car was parked. Now, I know that familiarity with those skinny dirt roads
in the foothills enables one to drive a tad faster than normal, but as I sat there in the front passenger
seat, I couldn’t help but have sly admiration for her, while I braced myself, as the needle clipped 70
mph at times! Mama Pisoni’s energy is clearly passed on to Gary.
You certainly need energy to plant a vineyard the way Gary did - by hand - in an area not known
back then to be grape-hospitable. After chowing down at his ranch house (on those delicious venison sausages, etc.), Gary, Jeff and I shot the breeze and had a blast of a time. When Gary gave me free
rein in his cellar, I picked out a few excellent bottles and, well, we just drank ‘em up and continued
to have a good time.
Gary draws you into a ground swell of genuine hospitality, excitable energy, zest, and a feeling that
you’ve known him all your life. After the ‘banquet-size” snack at his house, we moseyed on up to the
vineyard where the cave was under construction and where more food was waiting. So to make
room, Gary was, uh, shall we say, exercising it off. If you can call front and back flips off a 10-foot
dock into a huge pond full of catfish exercise. That’s the kind of energy you can expect from Gary.
It’s a good thing that Jeff is around. He is the ying to Gary’s yang. Though young in years, Jeff has
had plenty of exposure to the biz. He has worked the vineyard, and the crushes, and has been involved
in the winemaking to the point where he is now the winemaker. He is most definitely enjoying his
job, and who wouldn’t if you can work with the kind of fruit they have? The grapes have long been
known to produce great wine; no wonder the likes of Peter Michael, Flowers, Miner Family, Patz and
Hall and a slew of others crave these grapes.
Now, what makes the grapes so good? LOCATION (foothills), LOCATION (soil), and LOCATION
(France). France? But of course, mon ami. The Wine Spectator ran an article in 1999 on Pisoni.
In the article, it was mentioned that the vineyard is planted with La Tache cuttings grafted onto other rootstocks. The article tells of the ‘colorful’ way Gary got them back here. But that only tells half the
story. While all those other wineries are clamoring for that fruit, it is Pisoni’s own section of the vineyard
that is truly the gem. And why is that, you ask? Because in this section he didn’t graft them onto
some obscure rootstock. He took those La Tache cuttings and stuck them in the ground and they took
to the soil and grew. So what he now has is La Tache cuttings on its own rootstock! Own-rooted La
Tache, you can’t get much better than that. It is this fruit that goes into the Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir.
A scant 130 cases were released of the 1998 debut vintage ($149 on the secondary market at the
time). It was said to be absolutely delicious with a depth one rarely finds in California Pinot Noir.
The 14.1% alcohol was referred to as “heady,” but relative to today’s standards, that alcohol level
was quite modest. The 2004 harvest offered 643 cases of Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir ($65) which were
sold in 3- and 6-packs to eager consumers lucky enough to be on the mailing list. The website is
www.pisonivineyards.com. Jeff Pisoni is considered one of the hottest young winemakers in California,
and Gary’s other son, Mark, is the winery’s talented business manager-grape grower. A second
label, Lucia, debuted in 2000: www.luciavineyards.com.