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Tons of Great Pinot at Pisoni

The Pisoni Vineyards include several discrete vineyard blocks, all of which sit high in the hills at the southern extreme of the Santa Lucia AVA. Altitude, latitude and proximity to the ocean work together to ensure that the grapes get plenty of cooling to complement the plentiful sun. The resulting wines are generous and fruit-forward, neither overblown nor flabby. Many top winemakers who would happily enter into a UFC cage match for rights to these grapes which are provided only to select wineries, including Siduri, Peter Michael, Miura and Kosta Browne.


The Pisoni family offers its own wine under three different labels. The Pisoni brand is used for just one wine, a luxury Pinot Noir made from Pisoni Vineyard fruit. The Lucia label includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rosé made from grapes grown either at Pisoni Vineyard or Garys’ Vineyard (which is farther north in Santa Lucia and is partially owned by the Pisonis). The Luli brand of wines, selling for around $20, are based on grapes sourced from Santa Lucia vineyards not owned by the Pisoni family. The vineyard management and sourcing is handled by Mark Pisoni. His brother, Jeff, does all of the winemaking. Gary, their father and originator of the Pisoni vineyard and wine projects, guides and evangelizes the overall business.

I recently had the good fortune to stand around drinking freshly-squeezed Chardonnay juice (Yum!) while Jeff Pisoni and his band of assistants busily tended to the last 2009 Pinot Noir grapes and first Chard coming into their Santa Rosa winery from the Pisoni vineyard. These grapes were picked in the early hours of the morning and, by about 5AM, were all in a sealed truck compartment, kept at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and on their way north. Once the happy grapes arrived, fork lifts lifted, destemmers destemmed and hard-working interns made sure the tons of delicate berries were properly coddled. I “supervised,” trying to stay out of the way.

At some wineries idle gawking might get you sprayed with a hose or buried under a pile of stems. There were only smiling faces at the Pisoni Winery though. They’ve just received marvelous reviews for their recently released 2007 wines and the large 2009 crop was as close to perfect as anyone could hope for.

There were other benefits to being at the winery that day, beyond snapping pictures of the first phase of the grapes’ transformation from fruit to wine. Proprietor Gary Pisoni and his wife Margarette were there as well, along with some of their friends and associates including Ulises Valdez of Valdez Family Winery and Lester and Linda Schwartz of Fort Ross Vineyard There was a lot of friendly conversation that was only encouraged by the Pisoni’s legendarily gregarious hospitality.

Margarette got up at 4AM to put together a fabulous lunch for the workers and guests. Juicy roast turkeys had been joined for their last moments in the pan by wine grapes grabbed right off of the truck. There were mounds of luxuriously-rich stuffing and plenty of fresh heirloom tomato salad. Countless cheeses. Dried meats. And there was wine.

I was asked to dive into the winery’s cellar and pull out bottles to accompany the lunch. Smiling, Jeff said, “You’d better pick good wines or Dad will be disappointed!” The pressure was on but I think I did okay. I grabbed a 2003 Williams Selyem to show how well top California Pinots age and then filled my arms with just released 2007s from great wineries.

Here’s the full roster of what we tried (in no particular order). It’s a list to envy:

2007 Lucia Garys’ Vineyard (Santa Lucia) Chardonnay:

This is a lovely wine and highly recommended. It sees 100% malolactic fermentation but oak is used with moderation. The result is a gentle and delicious wine of good acidity with a lot of tropical and citrus fruit flavors accented by mineral and a touch of vanilla. 340 cases, $40.

2007 Baton Wines Charles Heintz Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) Chardonnay:

This is the second vintage from Baton which was founded by former Peter Michael Winery General Manager Bill Vyenielo and his wife Cathy. Jeff Pisoni is the winemaker. I tasted this wine in barrel last year and thought it was killer. Now, after some time in the bottle, it’s vibrant peach, apple and tropical fruit has moderated just enough to reveal mineral, spice, and nut flavors that will continue to unfold with the extended cellaring this wine can easily handle. That said, it’s so good now it would take a lot of restraint to let it sit in the cellar for long. Highly Recommended. 314 cases.

2007 Pisoni Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir:

Simultaneously powerful and complex, richly viscous but firm and with sufficient acid to be food friendly, it’s a basket of crushed black cherry/berry fruit laying in a recently planted bed of flowers being watered by a Coca Cola sprinkler. This may be the best “Pisoni Pisoni” yet and got 96 points from Robert Parker. Very Highly Recommended and Cellar Worthy. 615 cases, $65.

2007 Lucia Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir:

A medium plus to dark ruby red wine with ripe blackberry and sweet dark spice on the nose. Flowers and dried herbs add interest. The palate coating fruit is accompanied by smooth tannins and plenty of acidity. Drink over the next six years.  Highly Recommended. 730 cases, $50.

2007 Valdez Lancel Creek Vineyard (Russian River Valley) Pinot Noir:

As can be expected of a recently-bottled, not-yet-released wine, the nose on this one was a fairly closed. Time and/or some decanting will surely remedy that. Having neither of those, I went straight to tasting and enjoyed black cherry and blackberry fruit framed tastefully by oak and highlighted with vanilla. Those familiar with the excellent Valdez Family Zinfandel wines from the Rockpile AVA know that they are often over 16% alcohol. However, the Valdez winemakers know that Zin isn’t Pinot and this wine is listed at 14.5% which is in the middle of the scale for Russian River Pinot Noir these days. Recommended. This wine is not yet released.

2007 Siduri Sonatera Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) Pinot Noir:

This wine presents a combination of black cherry, blackberry, black spice, earth and other accents and is as fascinating as it is delicious. I wish I could have let this one linger in the glass for an hour or three to follow its development. However, I was very happy with the quick sips I took which displayed exactly the kind of complexity that one hopes to find in single-vineyard wines. Highly Recommended and Cellar Worthy. 700 cases, $

2007 Kosta Browne Garys’ Vineyard Santa Lucia Pinot Noir:

Another pre-release wine, this has a strong core of red fruit with floral and spice notes beginning to emerge. A good representation of both Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir and the consistent quality that allowed Kosta Browne to recently sell controlling interest in the company for $40 million despite not having any estate vineyards. That kind of thing doesn’t happen without strong product, branding and supplier relations. Recommended. This wine is not yet released.

2007 Roar Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Pinot Noir:

Roar is the winery of Gary Franscioni, Gary Pisoni’s partner in the Garys’ Vineyard. The wine is made in San Francisco by star winemaker Ed Kurtzman. This was a powerful wine full of dark berry, cherry, plum and spice. Highly recommended and Cellar Worthy. (If you don’t want to take my word for that, I just discovered the wine has gotten 90 points from Connoisseurs’ Guide, 91 from Wine Spectator, 94 from Wine Enthusiast and 96 from The Wine Advocate.) 650 cases, $50 and, unsurprisingly, already sold out at the winery.

2006 Donum Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Estate Grown:

I don’t know whether it’s due to the extra year of age, the particular vintage, or both, but this wine carried itself more delicately than most of those above. Some might call it more feminine. Pretty essences of just about every red and black fruit you could name are complemented by understated cedar and beautiful mysterious dark spices. Highly Recommended and Cellar Worthy. $65 and sadly sold out. 95 points in Wine Spectator will do that.

2003 Williams Selyem Peay Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir:

I recently read that there’s something magical about good California Pinot Noir at 6 years of age. While I haven’t made a study of that myself, I can say that this wine certainly supports his thesis. A very good wine upon release, it’s outstanding now. The black fruit boxing glove has transformed into a velvet pillow spritzed gently with spicy, woodsy perfume. Very Highly Recommended... if you can find it. Drink in the next two or three years.

We also opened a 2002 Kachina Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek that I had brought with me. This first ever vintage of Kachina is drinking beautifully now, silky and richly complex. Gary kept referring to it as the “SuperCab.” That’s high praise from someone who has tasted a stunning variety of the best Bordeaux and California have to offer. Congratulations to Greg and Nancy Chambers on an excellent wine! I’m delighted I’ve got another half case of it in my cellar. And the new Kachina Vineyards winery building should be open soon. Be sure to check that out.

I think the day was a perfect combination of the best things about wine. Friends and family, winemakers, farmers, interns, expert tasters and passionate consumers were brought together. Beautiful wines complemented delicious and lovingly-prepared food, encouraging laughter, stories, gossip and probably a business deal or two. The diversity of terroir and winemaking styles were in evidence and up for discussion, but did not get in the way of the pleasure of drinking the wine. And we were all able to appreciate the results of past years’ efforts while looking forward with hopeful anticipation to the great 2009 vintage that lay in front of us.

This article is original to Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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