Stirring the lees… with Jeff Pisoni, winemaker at Pisoni Estate
The Pisoni family’s property in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County is one of the most celebrated cult Pinot Noir vineyards in California. Perched above the Salinas Valley at an altitude of 1,300 feet, “Pisoni” is set on undulating east-facing slopes with sandy, decomposed granite soils and a cool maritime-influenced climate.
Winegrower Gary Pisoni comes from generations of farmers who tended row crops long before he was born. His parents, Swiss-Italian immigrants, Eddie and Jane Pisoni, began farming vegetables in the Salinas Valley in 1952. Gary planted his first 5 acres of Pinot Noir vines there in 1982. The original vines are rumoured to be from suitcase cuttings from a famous domaine in Vosne-Romanee, now called the Pisoni clone or selection.
Sons, winemaker, Jeff and vineyard manager, Mark, are continuing the family tradition. They created the Pisoni label, releasing the first estate Pinot Noir in 1998. A second label, Lucia, debuted in 2000.
Here we take 5 minutes to ask Jeff Pisoni about he and his brother Mark’s first introduction to the world of wine, what they’ve learned from their father and their most memorable Pisoni wines.
Is there a particular wine that made you both decide to pursue your careers in the family wine business?
There were a lot of them! We were fortunate that our father had been an avid wine collector, so while growing up we tasted a great assortment of wines. He loved the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Germany, so we had some beautiful wines from the 70s and 80s of those regions. Drinking those wines was combined with early work in the vineyard with our family—all factors that inspired us to continue this path.
Who had the biggest impact upon you both when learning winemaking?
Our biggest impact when learning winemaking was our father. My brother and I both went to school and received degrees in agriculture or winemaking, but so much still came from our father, Gary. He instilled in us much technical ‘know-how,’ but most importantly, “respect” for wine. This was significant in how we approach wine and the vineyards as viable beings, and not just creating a beverage.
His passion and the wines he shared with us also gave us an introduction to the style of wine we love—classically made wines that represent their vineyard source.
When my brother and I were little, our father even used to ask us to run down to his wine cellar to find wine for him. He would call out the wine and vintage, and we would have to find it. The cellar was quite a labyrinth and we would sort through many bottles—this was one way we used to learn about all the different wine regions. The most challenging was when he asked us to find the German wines with long names. For a 10-year old, it was a big task!
What makes the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA so special to you both?
The Santa Lucia Highlands is a unique piece of geography on the California coast that allows us to grow amazing cool-climate varieties. In addition to that, our region has been a farming community since the beginning of the 20th century. It still is very much still dedicated to farming, which is rare for California. It’s beautiful and still preserved because the region respects the farming that has been going on for generations.
What sustainable strategies are you practicing at Pisoni right now? What prompted the action towards this change?
We practice a lot of sustainability in our vineyards. Our father always instilled in us that all decisions should be in the best interest of the wine. We have extended this to include a timeframe—so that we have the same goal, but also over a long-term basis. That is where our sustainability program comes in.
We practice a lot of things, such as growing specific plants around the vineyard and cover crop for soil health (and in turn having bee hives to sustain these supportive plants), using soil compost instead of synthetic fertilizers, rootstock species that support longevity and drought tolerant conditions (our weather is cold, but dry without much rain), insectaries for biological pest control, movement away from synthetic herbicides, strict erosion control, etc. Our sustainable program even ties in to our employees and paying competitive wages for an all-around program.
Finally, if you could pick three vintages of any of your wines to drink on a special occasion, which ones would you chose and why?
We would start with the 1998 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir. Our first vintage of producing wine will always be a special wine for us—and it’s still young and tasting wonderful.
The 2002 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir was the first vintage where I was officially the winemaker—after years of training, studying and internships. Being fully responsible for the winemaking was an incredible experience (especially since I was only 23 years old at the time!). It was a great vintage, and needless to say, it was very memorable, too.
Finally, 2011 Lucia Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay was an early vintage from a younger vineyard that we had planted. It was a new location with rocky soil that brought a beautiful expression of chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands. A great wine to add to the lineup.
Above image: Mark Pisoni checks the Pisoni Vineyards fruit for signs of veraison on his foggy early morning walk. Photo by @danquinonesphotovideo