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Gary Pisoni's Powerful Pinot
By Tina Caputo
May 12, 2009
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In a previous WRO column about vineyard-designated wines (August 2008), I highlighted three of California's star grapegrowers: the Sangiacomo family, the Duttons and Bien Nacido Vineyards.  This month, I'd like to shine a spotlight on another of the state's celebrity growers:  Gary Pisoni. 

Pisoni owns the Pisoni Vineyard in Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, which has become known as one of California's best sites for growing Pinot Noir.  Pisoni's parents bought the 280-acre property in the late 1970s as a cattle and horse ranch, and in 1982, at Gary's urging, they planted Pinot Noir vines on the property.  Not just any vines would do.  A self-proclaimed Burgundy fanatic, Pisoni brought his vineyard cuttings back from France. 

Although the mountainous site--located at an elevation of 1,300 feet--seemed ideal for growing Pinot, it did have one major drawback: no water source.  But rather than giving the land over to the horses, Pisoni trucked water up to the site until his well-drilling efforts finally paid off--some nine years after his parents bought the ranch.

Meanwhile, Pisoni had gotten it into his head that in order to achieve true Burgundian character, the Pinot vines had to be planted on their own roots.  Most of California's vineyards are grafted to rootstock--a precautionary measure against the devastating root louse, phylloxera.  It was this insidious vineyard bug that wiped out most of Europe's vineyards in the late 1800s, and it also resides in California, where it continues to threaten the state's vineyards. 

But not even the potential for total vineyard destruction could deter Pisoni from his pursuit of what he calls 'Old World flavors.'  Because of the Pisoni Vineyard's remote location and lack of surrounding vineyards, Pisoni was willing to bet that his vines would be safe--and so far, his luck has held out. 

In 1994 he planted his first own-rooted vines--a 4.5-acre plot called the Elias block--to complement the property's 35 acres of rootstock-grafted vines.  The experiment produced such fine results that he planted two additional blocks on their own roots: the Mommy's block (3 acres) and the Camper block (2.5 acres).  According to Pisoni, the own-rooted vines have an added dimension of flavor that grafted vines don't quite match.

What many at the time viewed as an insane undertaking turned out to be well worth the effort.  Today, Pisoni is one of the state's--and certainly Monterey County's--most sought-after Pinot Noir growers, and his name can be seen on the labels of top-scoring wineries like Siduri, Patz & Hall, and Tantara.  (Pisoni is also known for his larger-than-life personality--just about every vintner he works with has at least one funny, unprintable 'Gary Pisoni story.')

Because his fruit is in such demand, Pisoni is able to sell his grapes by the acre instead of by the ton (most grapes are sold by weight in California).  This gives wineries more control over how their grapes are farmed, and it gives Pisoni a fair price for his grapes--even when they're left on the vine for extended 'hang time,' which reduces their weight at harvest time. 

So what do Pinots made from Pisoni's grapes taste like?  The style of each wine, of course, is influenced by the farming specifications Pisoni is given by each individual grape-buying client, as well as on the treatment of the wine in the cellar.  But even so, Pisoni Pinots are known for being rich and powerful--often Syrah-like in character--packed with dark fruit flavors. 

This isn't everyone's idea of great Pinot.  In fact, Pisoni Vineyard wines have come to exemplify the ripe, sometimes arguably over-the-top style of California Pinot that inspires some wine critics to shake their heads and wonder where the variety's elegance and finesse have gone. 

Personally, I'm of two minds on the issue.  On one hand, I do prefer my Pinots to be on the more subdued side--with juicy red fruit character and bright, food-friendly acidity.  But I also appreciate a luscious, well-made wine as a pre-dinner 'cocktail'--and the Pisoni Vineyard wines I've tasted certainly fit that profile. 

Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the Santa Lucia Highlands style of Pinot, there's still much to admire about Gary Pisoni: his tenacity, his devotion to his vineyard, his zest for life and utter lack of pretension.

If you've never tried a Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir, Patz & Hall's is a good place to start.  It has plenty of that unmistakable Pisoni power, but with a little less brawn than some of the other Pisoni-designated wines I've tasted.  'Old World flavors'? I'm not so sure about that.  But it's a delicious wine all the same.