“Wine is both a reflection of the people who make it and the region that produces it.” – Emile Peynaud
It’s not just every day that you meet a true visionary, someone with the unwavering conviction to pursue their passion when all logic and reason dictates otherwise. Luckily for fans of California Pinot Noir, passion and persistence are hardwired into Gary Pisoni’s DNA. During a recent visit to the Santa Lucia Highlands, I was able to spend some time with the region’s vinous legend.
Born into a farming family to parents Jane and Eddie, Gary Pisoni caught the wine bug while attending college and quickly developed a passion for some of the world’s finest, namely Burgundy and Bordeaux. As his vinous penchant grew, he began making wine from grapes sourced from friends and eventually asked his father to plant grapevines in addition to their many other crops. In keeping with their tumultuous relationship, Dad initially said no, however, Gary finally won his father’s approval by appealing to his vanity, posing the question, “Dad, have you ever been to a $250, black tie lettuce tasting?”
Even armed with his father’s consent, challenges lay ahead, not the least of which was finding an adequate water source. After numerous, unsuccessful water studies over more than ten years, it was a Native American’s uncanny talent with diving rods that finally located the spring which made Pisoni Estate possible.
Today, Pisoni Vineyards is the Santa Lucia Highlands’ benchmark for Pinot Noir. Their wines are opulent in style, yet simultaneously balanced and elegant. The Pisoni wines are very much an artisanal product, hand crafted by Gary’s two sons: winemaker, Jeff makes the wines from grapes sustainably farmed and grown by brother Mark, the estate’s Vineyard Manager. The Pisoni family views themselves as “custodians of the land,” taking as hands-off an approach as possible to winemaking, using only native yeasts when possible and bottling their wines unfined and unfiltered. Their Pisoni Pinot Noir is highly allocated and only available by mailing list and to very high-end restaurants and retailers. Lucia is the sister label of their Pisoni Estate wines and while made alongside them, represents the collection of vineyards the family farms.
I must admit, I had heard tales of Gary Pisoni’s, ahem, “eccentric” nature and I’m here to tell you…it’s all 100% true! But beneath the wiry, salt and pepper tresses; Hawaiian shirts; and larger than life personality lies a heart of gold; a generous, free spirit; and a deep love for his family which is clearly the foundation of the entire Pisoni operation. Gary’s pride is especially evident when it comes to his sons who were indoctrinated into the wine world from a very young age. As if according to some master plan Gary laughs, “Mark grows the grapes, Jeff makes the wine, and I drink for a living!”
We arrived at Pisoni Ranch on a beautiful, sunny Santa Lucia Highlands day. On our drive through Salinas, the region’s nickname as “the country’s salad bowl” certainly rang true as we passed Earthbound Farms and mile after mile of vegetable crops. After passing through the bustling valley we were soon headed up the mountain into a remote part of the landscape where our cell phone service evaporated and our heretofore accurate GPS in our rental car simply scratched its head and gave up. We arrived at our destination only after being guided via cell phone by Mark Pisoni (GPS alone NEVER would have found it!) and found the entire Pisoni clan en residence including Gary and his sons Mark and Jeff, as well as Jeff’s wife Bibiana Gonzalez Rave (Consulting Winemaker for Pahlmeyer and Founder and Winemaker of Cattleya Wines), and Gary’s wife Marguerite.
A camera crew was also there, photographing beautiful culinary vignettes in the spacious, al fresco dining area, a rustic, homey outdoor kitchen overgrown with errant grape vines. The scene was busy yet welcoming and the Pisoni’s flair for hospitality was quickly evident as we were greeted with chilled glasses of their Luli Central Coast Rosé and a delicious array of charcuterie featuring the family’s homemade deer and wild boar sausage. The local wildlife provides an ample source for such culinary endeavors which are governed by the Pisoni mantra, “You eat my grapes, I eat you!” The Luli wines are a collaboration between the family and Master Sommelier, Sara Floyd with the goal of creating affordable, high quality wines from California’s Central Coast. The refreshing rosé had lovely notes of red berries, peach and citrus which paired perfectly with the delicious charcuterie.
As we made our introductions and polished off our rosé, Gary quickly refilled our glasses with their Lucia Pinot Noir and offered to give us a tour. Just up the hill from the outdoor kitchen we encountered a beautiful waterfall cascading down the side of the mountain into a rugged stone pool – clearly a celebration of the discovery of the well that made this all possible. “My father thought I was crazy digging all those wells,” Pisoni shared. So what was his father’s response when he finally found THE well? “He said, ‘Hey, we did it!’ Can you believe that?” he chuckled. Around the corner from the pool was the entrance to Gary’s infamous “Bat Cave” and with an impish grin he invited us in. Carved into the mountain was a man cave of epic proportion. As our eyes adjusted to the dim light we could see an assortment of mattresses, a pool table (said to have once belonged to Al Capone), and tables littered with empty wine bottles and remnants of parties gone by. “We have some really great parties here!” he said, impish grin on full display. As we emerged from the Bat Cave, Gary asked if we’d like to take a tour of the property before lunch, who were we to say no?
What Gary failed to mention was that we’d be taking the tour in his Jeep…his seatbelt-less, windshield-less, door-less, manual transmission, circa 1960’s Jeep. I toyed with the idea of mentioning I suffer from severe motion sickness, but instead I clambered into the Jeep, grasped my glass of Lucia Pinot Noir tightly, and said a quick prayer that I’d live to tell about the experience. Little did we know we’d end up wearing more of that Pinot Noir than we actually drank but as we made our way onto the path I instantly (and thankfully correctly) knew the experience would be well worth it.
As we bumped and bounced along the dirt path in the Jeep, Pinot Noir sloshing about, the view of the Salinas Valley at 1,200 feet was breathtaking! Not surprisingly, Gary made an excellent tour guide, regaling us with jokes, stories and anecdotes delivered in his quirky and halting yet impassioned speech pattern. He shared stories regarding the vineyard names, which were largely inspired by friends, family members, and those near and dear to the family. These included: Mommy’s vineyard named for Pisoni’s mother, “My Mom is my best friend” he added lovingly; Marguerite’s vineyard named for Gary’s wife; and the Elias vineyard named for Pisoni’s long time employee who planted it, “My niece wanted me to name it after her but she didn’t have anything to do with it!” He also confirmed the origin of the famed Pisoni Pinot Noir vines which actually did come from a certain storied Burgundy estate, “I snipped the buds off some cuttings and smuggled them home in my underwear. At the airport they asked me about the bulge in my pants and I said, ‘I’m Italian, wanna check?'” And to anyone thinking of pilfering any precious Pisoni Pinot Noir vines, Gary’s been expecting you, “People who want to steal my vines are gonna pick the first ones they come to, but it’ll take them a while to realize these vines [on the outskirts of the property] are Merlot!” In his defense he adds, “It’s really good Merlot!” and shared the name of the producer from which these “decoy” Merlot vines were obtained. Definitely not a bad consolation prize!
The Pisonis also share their grapes with some of the best Pinot Noir producers in the state, “I share my grapes with my friends, [including] Patz & Hall, Roar, Siduri, Peter Michael…” When asked if there’s any competition among the producers? “We’re a team and we all compare notes and share ideas so we can make the best Pinot!” This spirit of collaboration has certainly contributed to the popularity of the Santa Lucia Highlands and it’s Pinot Noir reputation which has come a long way just in the past decade. Pisoni does have three caveats to an ongoing relationship with other winemakers, “You have to be my friend, make good wine, and pay your bill!”
The Pisonis also subscribe to some rather unconventional vineyard practices including the use of own-rooted grapevines which have not been grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. As a fan of Burgundy, Gary wanted to experience the flavor profile of non-grafted vines after hearing about it from old-school Burgundy purists. To satisfy his curiosity, he took the risk and planted a few blocks of the non-grafted vines. So is there a discernible difference? “I think so! There’s a depth of flavor to those grapes which definitely brings complexity to the finished wine.” Is he afraid of getting phylloxera? “This is virgin land up here and there’s nobody around me. We also use only our own equipment and are really careful about what we bring into the vineyards.” The Pisonis also have many acres of grafted vines which provide security in the event the little louse ever does show up.
As we headed back towards the ranch I began to count my blessings the ride in Gary’s iconic Jeep had been relatively tame; I’d honestly been too enamored of the view and everything Gary had to say to even think about getting car sick…until now. As if reading my thoughts, Gary punched the gas pedal and the Jeep lurched forward and started fishtailing in the deep sand. As it hit firm ground we zoomed ahead for what seemed like an eternity and went screaming (literally) into the driveway, coming to a screeching, dusty halt exactly where we boarded the Jeep a short half hour ago. With a chuckle, Gary sprang from the Jeep and went in to check on lunch while we maneuvered our Pinot Noir-drenched selves to the table on our Jell-O legs.
Thankfully our condition was short-lived. Gary’s wife Marguerite had prepared a beautiful spread of locally inspired dishes including juicy heirloom tomatoes with basil and burrata; fresh caught, local fish in a rosemary, caper, and lemon sauce; and a slow cooked bean and rice dish that was a Pisoni family tradition. As if that weren’t enough, we were able to sample a selection of the Pisoni wines with our meal and Gary’s son Jeff, winemaker for the family operation, joined us and was happy to answer some of my pressing questions (pun intended).
Dressed conservatively in jeans and a white polo shirt, the clean cut, soft-spoken Jeff Pisoni seemed the antithesis of his father. What was readily apparent, however, was their shared passion for wine and when asked his opinion of the 2014 vintage Jeff replied, “We’re already done with our harvest which is the earliest ever! It was a great year overall and we’re really happy with what we’ve got.” Does he implement or take inspiration from Old World/Burgundian techniques? “We do use whole cluster [fermentation] when appropriate, it varies, but first and foremost we’re expressing our own vineyard and terroir and that’s really our first priority.” The alcohol debate is very popular right now and some wine industry folks are critical of California Pinot Noir over 14% abv, your thoughts? “We make wines that reflect the Santa Lucia Highlands and who we are and our goal is to make balanced wines. The acid, tannin, and alcohol should be in harmony and alcohol alone doesn’t dictate that. There is also a diversity of styles out there and for someone to say all wines should fit one profile, I just don’t agree with that.” On being married to a winemaker, “It’s definitely crazy during harvest since we’re both focused on our own projects but we make it work and it’s alot of fun being able to work on projects together such as Shared Notes.”
As we lingered over the remains of our delightful lunch, the conversation turned to all manner of topics including astrology (another of Gary’s talents…what can’t the man do?), horoscopes, our respective families, and of course, wine. Before we knew it it was late afternoon, and the fog was creating a surreal scene as it rolled through the peaks and valleys of the majestic highlands. Our day spent with the Pisonis certainly provided us with a greater understanding of the Santa Lucia Highlands as well as the power of one man’s vision and its enduring vinous legacy.