INTERVIEW Gary Pisoni, Pisoni Vineyards & Winery, Gonzales, California
The Sommelier Journal
March 2009 Catherine Fallis, MS
Gary Pisoni is larger than life.
Meet him once, and you’ll never forget him. Apparently, I had the same effect on him. As we sat on the shaded deck and barbecue terrace at Pisoni Ranch in the southern Santa Lucia Highlands, he and his son Mark answered questions and kept my wine glasses full. There was no way I could keep up with Gary, but at least I didn’t lose face with his son. Mark had been up since 2 a.m. harvesting grapes, his exhaustion a slight handicap.
As we wrapped up the interview, Gary, an astrologist, psychologist, grape grower, winemaker, and bon vivant, was talking to me about organic grape growing. He mentioned something about the Taurus moon. Then he went on to recite my exact date of birth. I was shocked and asked him how he knew. He said, “You told me that when I met you five years ago. That’s the same birthday of one of my former girlfriends.” More proof of the effect of resveratrol on memory.
As relaxed as I was now, after a morning of laughing, listening, learning, tasting wines, and nibbling on homemade venison sausage, I was still a bit apprehensive about the “visit to the cave,” an official part of any “tour” of this remote landscape and the home of countless legendary assignations and parties. As I had heard, the big platform bed was the first thing I saw as my eyes adjusted to the black interior. As Gary went to flick on the lights, nothing happened. He cursed and said something about the generator being out. Oh, great—I bet he had used that one before. Then he led me down some winding steps to a large dining area, scattered with debris of the most recent party, to a terrace with some light. There, he gathered up a sawed-off shotgun that had a flashlight duct-taped to the barrel. I kid you not. He picked it up, pointed it ahead of us, and with all the infectious enthusiasm of a little kid said, “Let’s go. Now we can see.”
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, CWP
Your parents were originally vegetable farmers. How did you get involved in grape growing?
Gary: My father, Eddie, and I grew vegetables together. We were partners, but it didn’t seem like partners because we always had to do it his way. I had started collecting wine when I was in college in 1975—old Bordeaux, ’45s, ’47 Chevals, ’61s—and I was drinking my collection so fast I figured I better plant a vineyard. Our Pisoni Vineyard was originally a cattle ranch, but my cousins make wine in Italy, so I wanted to try and grow some grapes here. I planted a couple of acres, and I made homemade wine in 1978. Before we had our vineyards, I used to go get grapes for free from the locals who couldn’t sell all of theirs—I’d drive around, and the workers and I would pick the grapes, and we’d go home and make wine. I entered the wines into the local fairs—Monterey County and King City—and I’d win blue ribbons. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing; I just kind of felt the wine. My boys were little, and they used to help me make the wine, but I knew I didn’t understand the chemistry really well. I couldn’t look into a microscope and see if the yeast cells were still alive, and I didn’t know how to measure pH or sulfur dioxide, so I sent my younger son, Jeff, to school for it and my oldest son, Mark, to viticulture school.
I was also reading a lot of books and planting grapes and traveling all over the world to learn more about Pinot Noir, and I got this special clone from Burgundy that we planted down here, and it turned out to be very special—real tiny berries, real tight cluster morphology. So we planted that all over the ranch, and then in about 1996, when the wines were ready, I wrote letters to some of the best Pinot Noir producers in the state and asked them to come try the wine, or just come look at the berries and the vineyard. I knew I had some great Pinot because it was in brand-new Remond barrels, in Allier oak; I had made it in my garage at home. These winemakers started tasting it, and I said, “I’m just an amateur. Imagine what pros like you could do.” Then I started selling wineries my fruit. I copied the Williams Selyem style of vineyard-designates, and we started the Pisoni Estate label in 1998. My father would say to me, “Gary, aren’t you satisfied? We farm 1,000 acres—lettuce, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus. What do you have to go plant grapes in those mountains for?” I said, “Dad, have you ever been invited to a $250 black-tie lettuce tasting?” And then he got it. Dad lived to be 90 and passed away last December. He continued farming right up to his death. Mom is 83.
The Santa Lucia Highlands were virtually unknown as a viticultural area in the early 1980s when you started planting here. What challenges does this region present in terms of climate and vineyard management?
Gary: Well, the main challenge we had here at Pisoni Ranch was we didn’t have any water. I had to drill six wells before we had water, and once we had it, the challenge was that we had a lot of animals eating the grapes and the plants. We’re up in the mountains, 1,200 feet above sea level. Everything loves grapes—the deer, the pigs, the quail, the turkeys, everything. I tell the deer and the wild pigs, “If you eat my grapes, I’ll eat you!” Mom still does the hunting.
After that, the main thing was proper canopy management. Now, everything is vertical-shoot positioning, so we have no lazy leaves. They all conduct photosynthesis, sunlight to sugar to wine. We pull all the leaves off on the sides with the morning sun, so the grapes are sun-kissed. That’s what we believe gives all the special phenolics and flavors that make our wine special. We drop a lot of fruit; every year, we drop maybe a ton and a half per acre to concentrate flavors. My father used to say, “What the hell are you doing? You’re throwing money on the ground.” I said, “Dad, this is how we make the vineyard famous.” You know, we’re farmers. Farmers usually want the highest yield they can get, which does not make the best wine.
We typically have a very good set, and we rarely get any rainfall in September or October. No bunch rot, no botrytis, never any powdery mildew; I mean, the grapes are so clean. Everyone who buys our fruit—we have 12 different wineries that we work with on our home ranch—say it’s some of the cleanest Pinot Noir they’ve ever seen in their lives. I’ve been to Tasmania, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Burgundy, South Africa, and people say, “You’ve got the perfect spot. How’d you find it?” and I say, “Well, it’s the only place I’ve got, man.” It really is.
Mark: One of the things about the terroir here in the Santa Lucia Highlands that is overlooked is our consistency. Typically, our yields average between 2 and 3 tons per acre, which works for our vines. We’re very fortunate. Dad likes to say, “Every year is a vintage year,” or, “It’s the vintage of the century,” and it comes from the reliability of our region. We are a little biased, but we firmly believe that the SLH is one of the top cool-climate grape-growing regions in California. The SLH has a very long growing season; we have earlier budbreak and more moderate summer temperatures than some other cool-climate growing regions. We’re close to the ocean, and every afternoon we have vicious winds that roar down the Salinas Valley and beat up our vines and grape skins. Summer mornings are cool and blanketed by fog. The soils are very well drained, which really stresses our vines.
And those cool winds give you the ability to maintain natural acidity in your full-throttle Pinot Noir?
Mark: My brother likes a lot of acidity in our wines. We work very hard to make balanced, food-friendly wines.
Gary: We could pick really ripe and get even bigger wines, but we really want that balance. We don’t want too much fruitiness, wines that are too over the top. There were a couple of years where we picked too late on certain lots, and we learned from that. What we want to show is the typicity of the vineyard. Every vintage should be identifiable, where you see a common thread that shows that the fruit came from the Pisoni Vineyard. We want to show an expression of this place. We don’t want to go to a late-harvest Pinot Noir.
How did you get involved with Gary Franscioni in your joint vineyard?
Gary: I’ve known Gary all my life, since we were kids. Our parents were best friends, and we went to high school together. I always told him, “Let’s do a joint venture together.” He had some land and I had this clone, so in 1997, we planted Garys’ Vineyard. He’s an excellent farmer and the best partner I’ve ever had. The Garys’ site is 8 miles north of Pisoni Vineyard and about 400 feet above sea level, whereas the Pisoni Vineyard is about 1,200 feet. The soils are different as well. The Garys’ is cooler and in the fog more, so it is a prettier, more aromatic Pinot Noir. Gary Franscioni, whose label is ROAR, owns the Rosella’s Vineyard, a little North of the Garys’.
You’re known as something of a contrarian for planting own-rooted vines instead of grafting onto rootstock. What is your rationale?
Gary: Most of what is here is actually on 5C rootstock. But you know, the old-timers who used to plant grapes in Burgundy would say, “Sonny, you should’ve tried the wine before the phylloxera came in—Old World flavors,” and I’d be salivating like a Pavlovian dog. Of course, I wanted to try anything, especially with Old World flavors, so I wanted to plant own-rooted. It’s all virgin ground, nobody’s around me, so I just planted it—two 1½-acre fields. I took the canes and just popped them in the ground. I put two canes in each hole in January, and I had a nearly perfect stand come springtime. I said, “Look, Dad, free grapes!” I didn’t have to pay a nursery for vines or rootstock. I waited four years and tasted the fruit and thought, “Wow, they do have different flavors. Maybe not better, but they’re different.” Donald Patz of Patz & Hall was picking in the vineyard, and I said, “Come over here and taste these, and see what you think.” So he tasted them, and tasted them again, and his tongue hit the ground. He said, “Pisoni, can I have some of these?” “No, I just wanted you to taste them, man.” I wasn’t trying to tease him, but it looked like it. Most of that goes into what we keep for our estate wine, the Pisoni Pisoni. It is a massale selection—maybe 20 different clones in it, maybe more. Pinot Noir mutates in the vineyard. You can see when you look at cluster morphology how one cluster is bigger, one smaller, and that is what makes it special, too. It adds complexity, I think.
Mark: We really notice differences between the vines planted on their own roots and the vines on rootstock; they grow differently and require different farming practices.
Do you find the own-rooted vines are more susceptible to disease?
Gary: Yes, they are susceptible to phylloxera, and I will probably have to rip them out someday, but it is a risk I wanted to take on a small block or two. I planted some own-rooted Cabernet in 1982, and they are still fine. There are no vineyards around us. We use our own tillage equipment, we are careful not to bring anything into the vineyard, and, hopefully, they’ll be fine for a long time.
You mentioned Château Cheval-Blanc and all those great Bordeaux. Why Pinot Noir? Isn’t it one of the most difficult grapes to work with?
Gary: All through history, Pinot Noir has been the most respected grape in the world. Plus, Pinot is just perfect for this area because it’s a cool climate, and it is so approachable, so easy to drink. I tell people you can have it with fish, meat, or in the bathtub. Maybe it is difficult when it is planted in the wrong location, spots that are too hot or the dirt is too rich. If you have it in the right site, it’s not that difficult. What do you think, Mark?
Mark: It’s all we work with, so we don’t have anything to compare it with, really. We have a small amount of Chardonnay and a small amount of Syrah on this ranch as well. Maybe it’s because, like Dad said, people aren’t farming it correctly. Over the years—we’ve been doing this for 20-plus years—we’ve found a system that works on our ranch.
What’s your experience with other grape varieties in the Santa Lucia Highlands?
Gary: Pinot Noir is first, then Chardonnay, but Syrah loves this climate as well. My sister is a college professor in the San Francisco Bay area, and we just planted her Susan’s Vineyard Syrah here. We’re really happy with the Syrahs from this ranch. One of the Syrah clones is the Bien Nacido clone from Estrella River.
Mark: I think Syrah definitely has promise in this area. Pinot and Chard get all the attention, but Syrah also does well. People are experimenting with other varietals, too. There is a decent amount of Riesling and Viognier in our area. We’re still a very young region. It’s only in the past 10 years that this region has gained some attention. Before that, there wasn’t nearly the amount of grapes planted, and a lot of it was Cabernet Sauvignon. Unfortunately, Monterey County was known for vegetal Cabernet for years. It takes a long time for a region to figure out which varietal works.
Why would a sommelier be interested in anything but a Pinot Noir from here? What makes the Chardonnay and Syrah unique?
Gary: Jeff has a real good feel for making these wines. He’s been making wine since he was a kid, so I always tell people it’s about time he figured it out! I used to bring him milk, now he brings me wine. And he’s worked with a number of great Chardonnay producers, including Bernardus and Peter Michael, who both do a great job with their Chards.
Mark: I think sommeliers like our wines because they are very food-friendly. They are high in acidity, they are bright, they are crisp. Another thing unique about us is that we are in this for the long term. We own our vineyards, my brother is our winemaker, Dad is the boss, and we are not going anywhere. We are able to make difficult and, oftentimes, expensive decisions that we feel will help us make better wines in the future. We don’t have to listen to short-term demands of shareholders.
You’ve been missionaries for wines from the Highlands. Has it been a hard sell, or do you think these wines are coming into their own?
Gary: It’s never been a hard sell. We’ve always had small production, and it has worked out really well because we’ve got these wonderful wineries that we work really well with. We don’t compete with one another; we compare notes, and we all do the best we can to make a great Pinot Noir. We keep about 20% of the fruit for our label. All the other wineries we are partnered up with put the Pisoni name on the label, so they’ve brought a lot of reputation to the vineyard and to the region, and they’re our very good friends. People like James Hall, Sean Capiaux, Adam Lee, and others helped us out a great deal over the years. I always tell them, “You guys are my buddies, and as long as you keep making good wine, I will keep giving you grapes.” Well, actually, there are three prerequisites to working with me: you have to be my friend, you have to make good wine, and you have to pay your bill.
Mark: These winemakers helped us before anyone had ever heard of us. They taught us a lot about things in the vineyard and in the cellar. And it’s fun to try all these different wines from the vineyard. We often do horizontal tastings to note each winemaker’s personal style or to touch on our grapes. We are kind of a big team, and, hopefully, we all learn and get better along the way.
After your success in growing grapes for top California wineries, what made you decide to start your own wine production?
Gary: That’s really why I planted the grapes. I had been making wine since 1978, and I really wanted to have a commercial label. Everybody wants a winery. It is just so much fun.
Mark: Dad loves wine so much. He brings back the “fun-ness” of wine, not taking it too seriously: relax and have fun with it. He encourages people to drink wine and to not be intimidated by it. He is a firm believer, and I have heard him say many times, that “the best way to learn about wine is by drinking it.”
How has your viticultural experience influenced your winemaking decisions?
Gary: I think my viticultural experience is very important, because wine is made in the vineyard; nature makes the wine. So how we drop fruit, pull leaves, drop the wings, color-thin, we do everything we can to grow the best Pinot. We want to give wineries the best fruit to work with.
Mark: Being so connected with what’s going on in the cellar with my brother has been a huge benefit to our grape growing. Jeff constantly has different lots, different experiments from different parts of the vineyard, and we taste them, constantly evaluating them. These rows were grown differently than these rows, for example, and we find out exactly how the wines turn out. So we can see how what we’re doing in the vineyard is affecting the wines. It is so nice to be able to get that instant, honest feedback from Jeff. Sometimes we’ll say, “Well, this worked last year, and let’s try it on some more rows this year.” We can do as much or as little as we like. It is also nice that we own our vineyards and farm them ourselves, and we are very lucky that we have had the same employees for a number of years. We have some outstanding men and women who help us in the vineyard—extremely hard workers—and without their help, we would not have any of this great juice. This consistency really helps us in the vineyard, because we have the same crew of 15-20 people each year who really develop a relationship with our vines and work with us through the entire growing season and over a number of seasons.
How has the Pisoni label evolved over the past decade or so?
Mark: This is a very small ranch. It is planted out, and Pisoni Vineyard consists of about 45 planted acres. Pisoni Estate is one wine from one ranch, Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir. Our wine production has grown to include our Lucia line, using fruit from other vineyards in the region on ranches we own. Our main Lucia wine is our Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir. We also do a Lucia Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, which is 50% Garys’ and 50% Pisoni. We have a Lucia Chardonnay, which comes from Pisoni Ranch; we’re going to make a Pisoni Estate Chard in the next couple of years. We have two Lucia Syrahs, Garys’ Syrah and Susan’s Syrah. So all of our wines are made with grapes grown on ranches we own and farm.
We’re planting another vineyard, Soberanes, adjacent to the Garys’ Vineyard; it is one of the last spots in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and we are partnering up with Gary Franscioni on the project. A lot of the wineries we’re working with want to grow their brands, so we’re looking to find other properties in the Santa Lucia Highlands that we could use to help them do that. But I don’t see us becoming a big winery or a big vineyard company. We’re really tiny, and we’re able to focus on making the best wines. We like being like that—we have free time to meet with producers and the wineries we work with. It’s nice to hang out with you today. Dad always likes to say if you get too big, it is more and more difficult to maintain quality.
Gary: And we don’t ever want to lose quality. That’s the main thing I tell the kids: go ahead and experiment with other projects if you want, but just keep the quality up.
You’re a three-generation operation; how gratifying is it to have your kids involved?
Gary: It’s wonderful. It’s less work for me. The kids went to school for it. They know things that I don’t know. We’re a better team together. They are so conscientious. One kid makes the wine, the other grows the grapes, so I drink for a living. People ask me if I tell them what to do. I say, “No, they’re doing so great, I just stay out of their way.” My mom, Jane, is my best friend, too. She’s so cool. I planted this one vineyard for her, and I said, “Mom, should we name it Jane or Mommy’s?” She said, “Well, just name it Mommy’s,” and I said, “Just think, you’ll get all the money off it,” and she said, “It’s all my money anyway.”
Mark: My grandmother is a very strong woman, very friendly, and very involved. She still does the payroll; she writes checks for 50-75 guys a week, balances all of our books, keeps us in line, and still has lunch ready if we ever pop in. We are very fortunate to have had our grandparents involved. Additionally, my wife, Quinn, who heads our winery office, had a baby boy, Davis Edward, in January. We are quite excited about the baby and look forward to having another generation potentially involved.
How important is it for your wines to work well with food? Are there food pairings that you’re particularly fond of?
Gary: Pairings are easy because Pinots work well with everything. These venison sausages that my mom made are very strong, very spicy, but the estate Pinot goes well with them. The Garys’ Pinot is a little bit more delicate. It’s a pretty Pinot Noir, more fruit-forward.
Your wines are rich, intense, and highly regarded by the wine press. But where do you stand on this debate about wines getting so ripe, so oaky, so alcoholic that they really are unpalatable at the table?
Mark: Dad likes to say, “If no one buys the wine, I’ll drink it all myself.” If you make wines you don’t like, then what is the point? Our wines are made with good acidity; they are not overly ripe. People can drink them now, or they can hold onto them for a number of years because they age gracefully. Good farming practices, picking at the right time, give us the ability to have natural acidity along with opulent fruit. Acid is a necessary backbone. We pick by flavor.
Gary: We don’t care about scores. We want no part of that. We’ve never been there, and we’re not going there. We really want balance. If we can’t sell it, we’ll have a party or something. Don’t worry, we will drink it. It won’t turn to vinegar.