If you were to glance at almost any group of Pisoni family photos, chances are you would find at least one picture of Jeff and Mark as toddlers with their heads close together and their hands clutching bunches of grapes. “Dad says I’ve been making wine since I was three,” Jeff notes, laughing. In truth, “Dad definitely involved Mark and me with farming and winemaking at a very early age. Even before we went to high school, we would help out in the vineyards and with the wine he was making on the ranch. And we were stomping grapes almost as soon as we learned to walk.”
Though the brothers now live 175 miles apart—Mark near the family ranch in Monterey County where he works as vineyard manager, and winemaker Jeff close by Pisoni’s winery in Sonoma County—the two continue their close consultations over grapes. Jeff rarely lets more than two weeks go by before returning to the family’s beautiful vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands just south of Monterey to confer with his father and with Mark about tasks like composting, tilling, and canopy management. Mark is happy to return the favor, making the three-hour drive north monthly to help Jeff with tasting and blending up at the Sonoma winery.
During harvest, Mark’s typical pre-dawn awakening is pushed back to midnight. To keep the fruit cold, he works all night supervising the harvest, then loads up the grapes around five in the morning on a refrigerated truck destined for Sonoma county. Three-and-a-half hours later, Jeff receives the fruit at the winery, where he begins the all-day process of sorting it and placing it in fermentation tanks.
First and foremost for the winemaker as for the grape-grower are the rolling, windswept hillsides and valleys upon which the Pisonis grow the fruit that is transformed every harvest into nationally-recognized Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. “I’m extremely honored and humbled to be part of a family that can be considered one of the founders of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation,” Mark affirms. Gary planted his first wine grapes on what would come to be called Pisoni Vineyards in 1982. Nine years later, the region was approved as an AVA (American Viticulture Area). The area’s foggy mornings, cool climate, and long growing season help coax pinot noir—a notoriously difficult grape—to fruition. Situated at up to 1,300 feet above sea level in soils that are granitic and gravelly, the vines “have to struggle,” Jeff explains. Their small berries, rich in “flavor and texture,” produce wine with elegant, complex tannins.
Jeff and Mark grew up within a tight-knit community of farmers who continue to share equipment and exchange ideas about wine grapes. The family began to sell grapes to wineries in Sonoma county years ago, so it is perhaps no surprise that after Jeff finished school he chose to establish the family’s winery in this northern county so celebrated for its vinous culture—and in particular for its production of pinot noir. While he loves the rugged soil and spectacular vistas the Santa Lucia Highlands provide, he is equally attracted by the winemaking network in Sonoma. “All the labs and enology resources are close by,” he explains. “My evolution as a winemaker is faster here, because of the high concentration of other winemakers in the county and in neighboring Napa.”
Growing up alongside the inauguration of the Santa Lucia Highlands as an AVA may very well have helped encourage Jeff to become a winemaker and Mark to grow grapes. Their father’s generous, tolerant attitude did so as well. “He let us try things without being overbearing, and encouraged us to develop our own ideas,” Jeff recalls. Mark, who loved riding around the family’s vegetable farm with his grandfather, naturally gravitated to working with the soil and the vines in the highlands. As a child, Jeff was just as fascinated by chemistry. It turns out that working with a chemistry set to create hydrogen sulfide is not so very different from assessing wine in fermentation tanks he explains; since yeasts too, can when stressed obtain their nutrients from certain amino acids that in turn release sulfides.
Monterey County provides the Pisonis with excellent cool-climate conditions for grape-growing, and Sonoma County offers the family the perfect location for fermenting and cellaring the resulting wine. As wine professionals, too, Mark’s work as grower neatly complements Jeff’s work as winemaker. Each harvest when Jeff and his team assess and measure the fruit, they pass on the results of their evaluation to Mark. After Jeff evaluates the compounds in a given grape crop, such as color for instance, Mark can take this information into account the next spring to better decide how much leaf-pulling his team needs to do of the vines. And when Mark reports back on the particulars of canopy management, an activity that affects the phenolic compounds in the fruit, he provides Jeff with better information with which to decide upon the optimal fermentation technique and approach for the wine in barrel.
It’s rare that vintners and vineyard managers enjoy such a sustained and in-depth exchange of information and experience. But for Jeff and Mark it’s child’s play—and part of what each looks forward to during their twice-monthly reunions in Sonoma and Monterey.