Block by Block: Farming Pisoni Vineyards
If you were to take a ride in Gary Pisoni’s jeep over the steeply-pitched roads that wind through Pisoni Vineyards and make the daily rounds of this land alongside Gary and son Mark, the family’s viticulturist, you would find yourself on a course that curves around corners and zigzags up and down from valley to plateau to hillside ridge and back again. Here, rows of vines do not roll out in steady monotony across a flat plain. The contours of the rugged acres upon which the Pisonis grow Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay are neither smooth nor straight, but the landscape is all the more beautiful for its range and diversity of features.
It is also very challenging terrain to farm. The twelve blocks that constitute the family’s forty acres lie at different altitudes and stretch across a dynamic and changing topography. To varying degrees, these vineyards are windswept and fog-laden. But what makes their collective picturesqueness at once rewarding and demanding to cultivate is the diversity of their soils and microclimates. Some, like the block Gary named “Elias” to honor the man who has for more than forty years not only carried out much of the initial planting of the vines but remains Pisoni’s main irrigator and right-hand-man to Mark, are laid out along ridges. Others, like “Mommy’s,” which pays court to Gary’s mother, as well as the “Hermanos” block some distance below high-flying Susan’s Hill, occupy valleys. One block lies at nine hundred feet above sea-level, while another sits a full four hundred feet further up the foothills. Since vines planted in the thin topsoil of ridges are more stressed, they tend to produce wines with more structure and tannin; wines that age beautifully. Vines planted in valleys, on the other hand, where greater runoff and erosion deposit more topsoil, yield fruit that results in wines with softer, more approachable tannins. These vines also weather drought conditions particularly well, thanks to deeper water profiles.
How to coax the very best from such variegated soils and shifting topography? The Pisonis answered this question early on by practicing adaptive, highly flexible farming. Mark tailors irrigation procedures, soil spading, the choice of cover crops, and other farming practices, to the specific requirements of each block as well as to the distinct requirements of the varieties the family harvests from them. As an example, take the block Gary named “Susan’s Hill” after his sister and which like “Mario Alto,” which honors Pisoni’s crew foreman, lies high above the remaining blocks. “Susan’s Hill” in particular is subject to strong winds, so it was here the family chose to plant Syrah, a sturdy grape that can withstand such fierce gusts. The more delicate Pinot Noir grapes, Gary knew, would do best in firmer, rocky soil that challenges the vines in just the right measure to enhance this delicate wine’s complex structure.
Each block is planted in one varietal. But soil composition varies almost as much within blocks as between them. By subdividing every block into farming units, the family fine-tunes its attention to the way each variety responds to the particularities of the terrain upon which its vines root. It is really at the level of these small farming units rather than the level of the block that the Pisonis concentrate their decisions about how best to coax the vines to fruit.
It is really at the level of these small farming units . . . that the Pisonis concentrate their decisions about how best to coax the vines to fruit.
As on the first day Gary surveyed his acreage, the Pisonis continue to approach their land just as they walk it—foot by foot. The keen, continuous attention the family gives to every inch of their acreage deepens their attachment to each hill and valley and every vine, flower, and tree. From the start, Gary’s focus on adaptive farming encouraged this deep connection to the collection of vineyards that make up Pisoni Vineyards. But ownership has for him always involved a special respect for the land—a respect his children have inherited and which he gave voice to in the names he assigned each and every block. While most wineries designate blocks by number, Gary baptized each of his, assigning them names that honor the relationships between this terrain and the people who work upon it. Just as “Elias” pays tribute to Gary’s and Mark’s right-hand man, and “Hermanos” gestures toward the close tie between Mark and Jeff, Pisoni’s winemaker, Gary named “Lino” after Pisoni’s hard-working tractor driver. And just as Paris’s oldest bridge across the Seine is known to tourists and locals alike as “Pont Neuf” (“New Bridge”), a replanted section of the original five acres are designated as “New Block.”
The wine that Jeff crafts for the Pisoni Estate is the product of fruit from several blocks. A means to establish the perfect structure for each wine, yes—but perhaps also a testament to the affection the Pisonis have for their land—each block individual, just as children are, and no block less important or worthy than any other.