The History of Soberanes:
Crossing Paths with the Portola Expedition
When Gary Pisoni’s great grandfather Geremiah Pura left Switzerland for California in 1868, the new state was still a teenager. One of Geremiah’s pleasures, recalled in documents the Pisoni family still keeps, was to look down upon the Salinas Valley from a lofty perch in the coastal mountains. Each spring, great swaths of mustard blanketed this valley, adding to the existing palette of rich browns and deep greens a vibrant canary yellow the painter Paul Gauguin might have envied.
You’ll recognize these contrasting colors in the landscape if you’ve spent time in California’s wine country, where the Pisonis craft their signature Estate Pinot Noir alongside Lucia Pinots, Syrahs, and Chardonnay. You’ll recognize the same brilliant color if you’ve wound your way through the beautiful AVA known as the Santa Lucia Highlands, whose rugged slopes fall away toward the Salinas Valley. Long a favorite cover crop for vintners, mustard blooms gold here in spring, when its flowers paint the hillsides with a neon visible during the day.
Mustard has flourished alongside vineyards in these regions since the Spanish colonized California. In the mid-eighteenth century, about one hundred years before Geremiah settled in the area, the Franciscan padres planted mustard in their gardens for seasoning and cultivated grapevines to produce wine for mass in the Soledad Mission, one of twenty-one such structures that eventually stretched along El Camino Real from San Diego de Alcalá in the southernmost part of the state to Sonoma’s Mission San Francisco Solano.
Just like Geremiah and his descendants, José María Soberanes must have been both hardworking and adventurous. At only sixteen years old, the Portola Expedition of 1769 brought him north from Baja, and eventually, after weeks of riding, into the valley of Salinas and the green slopes of mountains wreathed in fog funneling in from the Monterey coast. Soberanes, whose name rolls off the tongue best when pronounced the Spanish way (“SEW-bear-on-ace”), may well have brought both mustard and vines along with him on the pack animals the colonial military used to haul freight.
It was on this expedition that Soberanes witnessed his first glimpse of what would become the Soledad Mission Ranch—the eventual home to generations of his heirs, and now the site of Soberanes Vineyard. In his own time as tourists and hikers do in ours, he surveyed the lay of the land, as well as the water that churns and froths on the rocky coast of central California. Married in Carmel, José would spend the rest of his life in Monterey County, some thirty miles from the ranch Geremiah Pura’s kinfolk continues to tend to this day.
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When Geremiah surveyed the Salinas Valley’s gold and green, he was contemplating a region that the hard work of ensuing generations—his own grandson Edward (Eddie) Pisoni and wife Jane Breschini Pisoni not least among them—would eventually transform into the famous “salad bowl,” recognized for its tremendous production of lettuces and other produce. Following the transition to vegetable farming, Eddie and Jane’s son, Gary, would take the gamble of planting Pinot Noir grapes in the rugged hillsides above the farm on Salinas Valley floor.
After Eddie returned from World War II, he and his wife Jane transformed the 171-acre Pura ranch into a successful vegetable farm. Not far from this was a 194-acre ranch purchased in 1909 by Bernardo Breschini, another Swiss immigrant, and great-grandfather of Jane. Beautiful vegetables, including ample heads of cauliflower and romaine, are also still grown on the Breschini ranch and managed by the family. In fact, at present, Mark—Pisoni’s vineyard manager and son of Gary Pisoni—lives on this ranch (also known as Pisoni Farms) with his own family. Here, by the grapevines Mark walks daily, he also tends fruit trees of all varieties, with Soberanes Vineyard just in view at the feet of the Santa Lucia Highlands.
The Soberanes Vineyard, planted in 2006 in the granitic soil above Mark’s home, lies only 30 miles as the crow flies from the spectacular Monterey coast José Soberanes must have marveled at in his own day. Big Sur is southwest of Soberanes Vineyard and Carmel-by-the-Sea due west. Pebble Beach, the premier public golf course in the country, sits a few miles north of Carmel. These days, meandering along state Route 68, you can follow the flanks of the Santa Lucia Mountains before you meet the coastal Highway 1, which leads you south to Point Lobos, where you can file past sea lions nursing their pups before driving a few miles more to picnic or walk at Big Sur.
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Like José María Soberanes, Gary Pisoni is part dreamer and part rebel. How else to explain the risk he took when planting his first vines in the hard-scrabble soil above the farm his predecessors had tended for nearly a century?
The gamble Jeff and Mark’s father made has paid off in spades. It took Gary Pisoni and his partner Gary Franscioni to intuit the character of Soberanes Vineyard, a place that has long been in the care of these two families. Today, both Jeff, the family’s vintner, and Mark, its vineyard manager, continue to study this land as they craft successive vintages of Lucia Pinot Noir. The coastline and cliffs on the Monterey coast where José Soberanes settled are as large an influence on Soberanes Vineyard as is its rocky soil. The combination makes this site perfect for Pinot Noir. Good sun and temperatures kept cool by the coastal winds that funnel off Monterey Bay lengthen the growing season. Grapes linger longer on the vines, developing complex tannins and crisp acidity.
Still, on occasional afternoons, Mark and Jeff sometimes make the hour-long trip to the coast that must have taken José Soberanes much of the day. As if to follow the path the fog takes back to its origin in Monterey Bay, the two Pisonis walk the loop trail to Soberanes Point and Whale Peak, or take the longer Soberanes Canyon Trail that rewards hikers with a cascading waterfall and breathtaking views of the coast. Like Geremiah, Eddie and Jane, and Gary before them, who occasionally stopped working to take in the yellow mustard blanketing the hillsides, the brothers can’t help but steal an hour or two in order to breathe in the spectacular beauty of their part of the state.