If Gary Pisoni had followed the common wisdom, he and sons Mark and Jeff would not be celebrating three decades of farming cool-climate grapes and the beautiful vintage of 2012 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir, Pisoni Estate Chardonnay, and Lucia Susan’s Hill Syrah.
Gary had a dream about growing Pinot Noir grapes. Everyone told the visionary of Pisoni Vineyards that he was crazy. In 1982 then-popular varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were being planted all over California, irrespective of climate. Many vintners discovered that the present-day boundaries of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, a Region I climate, were far too cold for those varieties. Wine experts recommended planting Riesling, Gamay Noir and Pinot Blanc in such areas.
Obsession met opportunity on a rugged, wind-whipped mountain thrusting 1,300 feet above sea level. Peppered with granite, the flinty soil would have exceeded the expectations of the dean of American winemakers, André Tchelistcheff, who predicted that “poor, gravelly slopes” were absolutely essential to making great Pinot Noir in California. But grapes need water. The property that would become Pisoni Vineyards, purchased by Jane and Eddie Pisoni in 1979, only had two small natural springs from which water barely dribbled—yet hope sprung eternal.
With his heart set on growing the heartbreak grape, Gary planted finicky Pinot Noir in the virgin ground among a small assortment of varieties. The rest of the story is the stuff of legend. Daily treks with a water truck from the Salinas Valley floor to irrigate the tender vines. Eight years of water witchers and the drilling of five dry wells. On the sixth attempt, the drill bit penetrated seven feet of soil before grinding through 490 feet of solid granite to the elusive water source. Soon Pisoni Vineyards was designated on the labels of artisan California winemakers, touted as one of America’s “10 Great Vineyards” and crowned “the grand cru site of the Santa Lucia Highlands” by Robert Parker.
Viticulturist Mark Pisoni does not rest on past laurels. Producing premium fruit at the mountain vineyard poses many obstacles, including wildlife that loves grapes as much as humans. With some blocks hugging the hillsides and others contoured to the curves of the land, the soils and microclimates are diverse. Mark gives personalized care to the vines of the 25 individual blocks and their sub-blocks. The isolated, high-altitude site offers unique challenges for successful farming, stewardship and sustainability.
Gary works and walks side-by-side with Jeff and Mark (right) to maintain their long-term commitment to Pisoni Vineyards. There’s nothing crazy about that—or celebrating 30 years of cool-climate grapegrowing with the special 2012 vintage.
The Pisoni Family
This benchmark estate in the Santa Lucia Highlands is run by the Pisoni Family, ...Jeb Dunnuck, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate
...a fabulous balance of power and nuance.Antonio Galloni, Vinous Media, on the 2012 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir
A very special year and a very special wine. The 2012 vintage has a way of conveying great intensity and delicacy at the same time, as evidenced in the Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir. The wine is deep in color and effusive in aroma: violet, boysenberry, sage, fresh lavender, wild strawberry, pomegranate—an enticing array. Texturally, the wine feels multi-layered with fine-grained tannins that move across and fill the palate. The length and complexity of the wine runs deep, a reminder of the cool, slow-developing growing season. The acid and tannin structure of the wine ensure up to 20 years of aging.
The Pisoni Estate Chardonnay is a very limited barrel selection that displays the complexity of our mountain-grown Chardonnay. The aromas are a bright display of Bosc pear, nectarine and crushed stones combined with the freshness of ocean air and the vibrancy of key lime. On the palate, a broad texture stretches out with notes of brioche and peach skin. The structure gives tension, indicates the longevity of the wine and then transitions into a suave and elegant finish. The moderate use of new oak integrates seamlessly with the extended aging of 16 months in barrel.
Opaque purple in the glass, the Lucia Susan’s Hill Syrah hails from a windswept hillside at Pisoni Vineyards. The site delivers naturally low yields of fewer than 2 tons per acre, and the resulting wine has a characteristic intensity. The nose is explosive and displays dark fruits, spice and dried rose petals with undertones of soft leather. While the color and tannins are dense, a bright high-tone character lifts and focuses the wine. The tannins are firm in their youth and will enjoy many years in the cellar.