Gary Pisoni’s Relentless Pursuit of
Water and Vineyards

Gary Pisoni overlooking his green vineyards.
Gary Pisoni treasures every moment among his grapevines. It took years of working up against many obstacles to find a water source and develop the mountain property.

Gary Pisoni is an animated guy, but when he describes the day he found water on his ranch, he gets as stirred up as if the discovery he made more than twenty-five years ago took place yesterday. And no wonder, because his “miracle well” changed his life forever. The water that gushed out of the ground and drenched him as the drill bit into earth was the hard-won, hard-earned, patient product of years of waiting, thousands of dollars, some sneaking around, and no less than six drilling ventures. No oil man hitting a geyser could have been happier. After all, for winegrowers in semi-arid regions like Monterey county, finding a reliable source of water is pay-dirt.

For five long, arduous years after he planted his first vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands and before he trained someone else to do the job, Gary trucked up water for the vines himself. He knew every inch of the land, having fed the cows on the cattle ranch his father Eddie maintained. Loading up a jeep with massive water jugs every week and trucking the heavy, sloshing liquid up the slope of the hill was as demanding as taking care of cattle–and not at all what Gary itched to be doing. Naysayers raised their eyebrows or shrugged their shoulders when they learned he was growing grapes in the hardscrabble soil Steinbeck made famous in much of his writing. “I knew it was a great site,” Gary always insisted about the land he had planted in vines. But without water? People sometimes asked him. “I’d have to sell this desert,” he’d concede affably, his optimistic energy undimmed.

Pisoni Family Vineyards aerial view
Pisoni Vineyards is nestled up against the Santa Lucia Mountain range, far from the Salinas Valley's main agricultural water source.

Others might wonder or worry. Not Gary: in his mind, there wasn’t a ghost of a chance he’d come up short. Cheerful iconoclast and stubborn as the soil, he kept hauling water up the hill. The first two drilling ventures came up short–a painful proposition at $25-$30,000 per attempt. “I know there’s water on this ranch. We just haven’t found it yet,” Gary would repeat as the drill ground excruciatingly slowly through earth. When the drillers hit granite, their drills seized. Eddie, who had been dubious from the beginning, threw up his hands. “Are you satisfied now?” he demanded. “People go broke drilling for water!”

Rather than quit, Gary bided his time. He also got stealthier. “My mom was my partner in crime. ‘Don’t tell your dad,’” he remembers her saying when he arranged for another drilling company to make its way up into the highlands. “‘Now’s the time to get a rig up there,’ she’d tell me when they were about to leave to go on vacation.”

So in 1987, absent his parents but with more cash in hand and lots of hope in his heart, there was Gary, standing alongside the drilling equipment in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, waiting for water. The third and fourth attempt at drilling produced two wells. One gurgled up two gallons of water a minute; the other burbled like a sluggish water fountain, providing about a gallon each minute. “I can pee faster than that!” Gary jokes of these less than fantastic water sources. Still, if these small wells weren’t enough, “they helped.” Rather than truck up a thousand gallons of water each week, he could cut back on the number of jugs he carted up the hill.

Gary Pisoni poses with his mother at the Pisoni ranch.
Gary with his mom (and partner in crime), Jane, who supported the well drilling endeavors.

Lively even when things look bleak, Gary came across a dowser–an old local–at a bar a year or so later. On a trip to the beach you may have come across a person waving a metal detector back and forth in search for coins in the sand. Dowsing looks a little like this. The dowser extends a forked stick or two wire rods. When the bottom of the stick swivels downward, or the wires cross, water is presumed to be underground. Controversial this practice remains–but it’s less expensive than calling out the heavy equipment and waiting for the drill to inch through ground at the achingly slow pace of two or three feet a day. Gary and the man traded stories as they drank. “I can ‘feel’ water,” the dowser kept announcing. Gary drained his glass and clapped the man on the back. “Ok, let’s go FEEL it!”

A fifth well-digging effort turned out as poorly as the first two, leaving Eddie shaking his head and Gary tossing and turning at night. At a meeting of lettuce farmers a year or so later, Gary talked with another dowser. Once again, this time in the company of a well-driller known for his expertise drilling wells in remote mountain areas, Gary stealthily moved equipment up the hill. On this portion of the ranch and just eight feet from the surface, soil gives way to solid granite–the same material that bubbled up 80 million years ago and that hardened into the plutons from which Yosemite’s Half Dome rises. Rejecting conventional drilling equipment, the mountain well driller chose to use a hammer drill equipped with industrial diamonds. Driven by compressed air, the percussive mechanism of the hammer bit slowly pulverized the rock it worked through.

A drill bit used to drill the wells on the Pisoni property, and crushed granite from the soil.
Left: Example of a drill bit used to cut and grind through several hundred feet of rock in the search for underground water.
Right: Fractured bits of granite and quartz that surface as the drill shaft inches through the rock.

Well driller Gary Stooksberry has since become one of Gary Pisoni’s best friends. Along with his namesake’s crew and equipment, Gary had brought up the dowser. “Once he walked the land,” Gary recalls of the water-finder, “he told me with absolute certainty that there was water. And he knew exactly where it would be:  250 to 350 feet below the highest section of the ranch. Not the lowest area, where you’d expect, but the highest point,” Gary emphasizes, retelling a story he has told hundreds if not thousands of time, but always with equal passion.

Months of hard work succeeded this announcement–months of working and waiting as the well was completed–in part because of all that granite and it part because the walls of the well kept caving in. In the end, the crew went down to 440 feet, grinding slowly past granite and fractured quartz. Each day Gary would cook up near the drill and watch the bit. “I feel water up here!” he’d say as they worked.

This is the place in the story where Gary becomes most fervent. “‘You’ve got all kinds of water here,’ that guy told me. He took a wire and counted it off, and just where he said we’d find water, there was water! A geyser of water sprayed up!” He laughs. “I had promised him that if I found water, I’d root in it like a wild hog. And I did! I jumped into the water like a wild pig. I even washed my hair in it,” he cackles.

Finding Water While Drilling a Well
Water gushes from the drill site at Pisoni Vineyards.

Making good on his bet turned out to be a breeze. A nearby hotspring suggested that the water would be warm, and so it turned out to be. At a relatively balmy 70 degrees, Gary could luxuriate as if he were home in his tub. He had also vowed to the driller that he’d build a waterfall. This, too, he made good on: visit the ranch, and you can watch warm water burble and play upon the stone ridges and pools he put in.

“That day we found water was probably the happiest moment in my life,” Gary always finishes in triumph.

Water fountains and pools at Pisoni
Upon finding water, Gary fulfills his vision of developing waterfalls at the vineyard site.