Like any rough-cut diamond, this legend is multifaceted. On the one hand there’s the legend of
the man himself, Gary Pisoni. On the other hand there’s the legend of the product he produces,
namely Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir grapes. Then there’s the Pisoni family label of wines
including Pisoni Estate and Lucia. Well, since Pinot Noir grapes aren’t indigenous to the Santa
Maria Valley appellation and someone had to plant them there, I’ll start with the man himself.
The tale actually starts a generation earlier with Jane and Eddie Pisoni who first started farming
vegetables in the Salinas Valley in the mid 1940s. Fast forward to the early 1980s when son Gary
decides that instead of simply collecting great Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region in France,
he takes the leap to produce his own Pinot Noir. It initially started with just 5 acres of land.
And this was land at the 1300 foot elevation with no real water source so Gary had to truck
water from the Salinas Valley floor just to keep these vines alive. And the story of these initial
vines itself is a whole legend unto itself. Urban legend or not, supposedly young Gary Pisoni
smuggled vine clippings from the famed vineyards of La Tache in Burgundy, France (bottles of
La Tache routinely sell for $300 plus) back to the States in his underwear. Whether these vine
clippings were provided via Hanes and Jockey or not, he eventually expanded another 40 acres
to the present 45 acres of Pisoni Vineyard designated Pinot Noir. And he also did eventually
find a natural water well on the property to eliminate trucking the water in on a regular basis.
--- My Dad asked me why I wanted to suddenly start growing grapes instead of continuing the
family farming “When was the last time you heard of $250 per head lettuce tastings”? ---
Of course Gary Pisoni the man himself is just as intriguing! With a wild frock of hair, an
omnipresent mischievous grin and a character larger than both, the man himself may actually
be larger than the legend. Imagine an amalgam of “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future, Leo
Getz from “Lethal Weapon” and Professor Irwin Corey all rolled into one!
Because the vineyards are situated over 1000 feet above the Salinas Valley floor and the cool
Pacific fog rolls in from Monterey Bay on a daily basis, the grapes are allowed a longer hang
time to physiologically ripen as opposed to simply sugar ripening. This allows crucial acids to
form and phenolic flavor compounds to develop which ultimately leads to a more complex
finished wine. And though the initial vines may have started out as La Tache clippings, they
have taken a life of their own. It’s known that Pinot Noir is genetically unstable and after 7
years or so will mutate based on the surrounding environmental conditions like soil hydration,
sunlight exposure, temperature, soil nutrients and the like. Therefore what Gary Pisoni grows is
uniquely his own. You can find Pinot Noir 115, 667, 777, Dijon or Pommard clones in most of
the major labels but the Pisoni clone of Pinot Noir is the only Pinot Noir clone that’s marketed
with a single person’s name attached to it.
Because the Pisoni Vineyards are limited to the initial 45 acres planted back in the 1980s and
because Gary Pisoni has roughly 17 annual contracts to provide Pinot Noir grapes to other
wineries, the Pisoni Vineyard designation on the label does come with its fair share of cost and
scarcity. If you run a simple web search, you’ll find that Pisoni Vineyard designated Pinot Noir
is usually one of that specific winery’s more expensive bottles. From Patz & Hall to Roar to
Siduri to Ojai to Testarossa, the Pisoni Vineyard bottle is either the most or the second most
expensive. Why? Great grapes tend to make great wines! What they all have in common (other
than a high price point) is ripe red fruit sometimes almost bordering on black fruit with loads of
spices, both Asian spice like star anise and five spice to cinnamon and clove with very good
concentration on the palate and a long finish. Like blending finesse and muscle into one wine.
Like Catherine Deneuve with muscles.
The Pisoni Wines
- I’m often asked which of my wines is my favorite… “The one that’s in my glass right now”! -
Since 1998, the Pisoni family has been making their own label of wines; Pisoni Estate and its
sister label Lucia. They also bottle a Rose under the Lucy label and donate a $1 for every bottle
sold for breast cancer research. I was fortunate to attend a simple wine dinner hosted by the
HASR Wine Co in Honolulu featuring the wines of the Pisoni family.
Lucy Rose 2009
With a nose of strawberry, red fruit and a touch of candied orange peel, this summertime sipper
had enough Pinot character to even stand up to roasted poultry or pork but nice acidity to
cleanse the palate.
Lucia Chardonnay 2009
Stone fruit, citrus and slight minerality on the nose with a full body and a nice balance of
vanilla, fruit and acid on the palate. For medium to heavier seafood and roasted white meats.
Lucia Pinot Noir 2009
The nose was still a little closed but it offered dark black fruit and concentration beyond what’s
normally found in Pinot. Almost Syrah-like on first impression with a concentrated palate and
very long finish. Would probably let it settle for several years before uncorking… unless you’re
Lucia Syrah, Gary's Vineyard 2008 ~ 95 points
With classic black and dark red fruit on the nose with hints of grilled meat, stone and vanilla.
Surprisingly not really heavy on the palate with a nice balance of fruit and tannin and a very
Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir 2008 ~ 98 points
Also a bit closed right now but with loads of Asian spice and dark red fruit. Concentrated on
the palate but not heavy with a very long finish. Would also let settle for a couple of years
before uncorking… that is if you can find a bottle since Robert Parker gave this wine 98 points!
After finally meeting the man, the legend, the myth himself I can say that he is all of the
above. Throughout dinner he would stand and call everyone’s attention to tell another story
about the wine, the vineyard, his wife, etc every 20 minutes or so. And while recounting these
stories, his arms and hands would be wildly flailing in the air to emphasize each point. It is
evident that he has a passion for grape growing and wine making. Hopefully we all find that
same passion within ourselves in whatever we do.
The Legend of Pisoni