The Pisoni Family, Winemakers

Pisoni wine cellar

SIP_ad_smAs we sit in the Pisoni family’s wine cellar in Gonzales, the littlest Pisoni runs across the floorboards above our heads, the pounding of his amateur footfalls signaling his new experience with walking. Mark Pisoni smiles at the sound of his boy discovering the possibilities of legs and feet. We’re sitting around a homemade table in the dirt-floored cellar waiting for his dad Gary to join us for some tasting and conversation about family, wine, and the connections between. Gary soon joins us in this rustic cellar, constructed (or deconstructed, as it were) over the course of one weekend while his parents Eddie and Jane were away.

Click to listen: “Dad likes to think big.
The Pisoni family wine cellar

The Pisoni clan arrived in the Salinas Valley a few years after the turn of the century and started farming in the Gonzales area in 1946. While the Pisonis have for years raised vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli, celery, and cauliflower on their 1,000 acres, it was only in 1982 that Gary took his own first steps into wine-grape growing. “I’ve been happy every since I started growing grapes,” says Gary, who left the vegetable growing to his dad when he embarked on the challenge to grow wine grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Although the elder Pisoni had reservations about Gary planting grapes in the hills on their old cattle ranch, they eventually came to an understanding about growing ultra-premium wine grapes when Gary asked his more conservative father, “Have you ever been to a $250 lettuce tasting?” Unlike the uniformity of vegetables, wine grapes invite those who make wine to add their own colors and energies first to the fruit and then to the wine.

Becoming a Vine

Gary Pisoni

Without formal training but with an intense passion, Gary began to make wine and grow grapes. He remembers, “I didn’t know what I was doing but I felt the wine.” The early years presented real challenges, such as an increasingly serious and expensive search for water. Luckily, they finally hit water on their sixth attempt, which made possible the vineyard plantings they now cultivate, manage, and protect. “The first 8 or 10 years of grape growing, I had to fake it,” confesses Gary. “But finally, I became a vine. And then I got to know a lot of winemakers and got them drunk to learn all their secrets.” Given Pisoni’s award-winning wines, this tipsy approach appears to have worked.

“We’re crazy for Pinot Noir!”

Almost thirty years after he started, Gary now collaborates with his sons Mark and Jeff to produce exceptional Monterey County wines. Gary’s extroverted personality balances against the quiet friendliness of his sons, vineyard manager Mark and winemaker Jeff who, as Gary notes, has been “making wine since he was three years old.” While Mark manages their vineyards in Gonzales and Jeff vinifies their wines at a winemaking facility in Santa Rosa, Gary laughs and says his job is to drink the wine. Jeff’s talents as a winemaker have been an unexpected gift and include an attention to detail that helps them discover how things work in the wine and what they might do to improve every barrel and bottle. With unmistakable pride in his sons, Gary knows that it takes every member of their family to produce award-winning Pisoni wines.

A Family Affair

Gary Pisoni cruises the vineyards

While family businesses can sometimes breed conflict, the Pisonis have discovered how to make it all work. “It’s special to work with the family,” says Gary. “We decide everything ourselves. My mom is in her mid-eighties and still does the payroll and makes out the checks and my sister Susan writes the newsletters.” Mark agrees: “We get along really well. A family rule is that, whenever we fight, we come to the cellar to figure it out.” “We usually decide by two bottles,” says Gary, “we’ve never had to go to three.” He smiles when he talks about how his mother Jane is always willing to help whether by making a delicious homemade pie or a well-timed witty remark. Mark smiles as he describes how his dad Gary and grandmother Jane were “partners in crime” and worked together to make the vineyard and wine business as real and viable as the family’s vegetable business.

She’s so witty!

Gary’s Mommy

Each generation of the Pisoni family has also left an imprint on their land holdings. What started as a cattle ranch evolved into a Pinot Noir vineyard under Gary’s influence that continues to reflect more changes and creativity from Jeff and Mark, who have each planted their own special blocks of vines. While respecting the efforts of other family members on this landscape, every generation of Pisonis has worked the land in a way that leaves their indelible mark. Because the Pisonis have winemaking not only in their blood but in their DNA (their cousins in Italy’s Dolomites region also make wine), they commit to working this land and these vines in a way that builds toward the future when the two-year old grandchild might one day carry on the Pisoni winemaking tradition. The extended Pisoni family includes not only winemaker friends but also consumers whose love for these wines inspired connections to the winemakers and nurtured genuine friendships. The team who work the Pisoni’s vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands have worked for the family for many years and are extremely proud of the fruit they helped produce. These relationships, inspired and often fueled by wine, demonstrate the power of the grape to connect people and make everyone laugh.

A Sweet Spot for Pinot Noir

Fog in Pisoni vineyards

When people ask him “What’s this year like?” Gary grins and always says “Vintage of the Century!” because, compared to France, California rarely suffers a bad year. Compared to the challenges presented in other Pinot Noir areas, you can’t beat Central Coast Pinot Noir. No need to chaptalize the wine as in Europe because California enjoys enough sunshine to fully ripen the fruit to preclude having to add extra sugar. In California, there’s much less risk of mildew and other moisture-related problems in the vineyard than winemakers grapple with in Oregon. The coolest regions of California wine country inflected with marine influence such as the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA and the Santa Maria Valley AVA present ideal climates for producing world-class Pinot Noir.

Vintage of the century!

Vintage of the century!

“Pinot Noir is so approachable, seductive, sexy and easy to drink,” says Gary “I tell people that you can have it with fish, meat, or in the bathtub.” He goes on: “Pinot Noir is not just good barrels and grapes: there’s a lot of little things you have to do. Now, we start to pick grapes at night to keep the fruit cool. I tell the kids, ‘We’ll do every little thing we have to make good Pinot Noir and, if we find another one, we’ll do that, too.’ Because wine begins in the vineyard, we pay a lot of attention to canopy management, leaf pulling, thinning fruit, working the soil, everything. We love trying to do the best we can.” When you taste Pisoni wines, you reap the benefits of this family’s commitment to producing great wine by flavors, not numbers.

“We pick by flavors, not just by numbers.”

We pick by flavors

Pisoni Philosophy

Mark Pisoni with harvest cleanup

The Pisonis agree that they want to make great wine approachable and you can’t really do that if you’re charging $1000 or $3000 a bottle. “Wine is for everyone,” says Gary, but you wouldn’t know it by the prices some winemakers charge. He dislikes the trend toward higher and higher prices for ultra-premium wines because this only serves to intimidate new wine enthusiasts. “My dad is a great advocate for the wine industry,” says Mark: “He’s a big fan of not just our wines, but all sorts of wines. Wine has been such a huge part of his life: he want to encourage other people to drink wine, whatever wine you like.” Gary agrees: “I love growing it and when I drink it, it loves me back.”

For those who might be intimidated by wine, relax.

Intimidating wine?

As proud as Gary is of his sons, the family, and their vineyards, he’s less impressed by those ego-driven winemakers who want the glory without the work or who make calculations rather than connections with the land. Spending millions of dollars on property, rootstock, and tasting rooms cannot guarantee the production of fine wine and high-tech monitoring systems will never replace the value of walking the vineyards trying to anticipate problems and listening to the grapes.

“The grapes are talking to me: you guys just can’t hear them.”

The grapes talk to you

The Pisonis channel their energies into achieving efficiency, increasing quality, and collaborating with each other to make a great product with a long-term, multi-generational view of the land and their work as a family. There are no shortcuts to creating quality wine and, as Gary notes,“You only get about 35 vintages in a lifetime so you don’t want to goof one up.” The Pisonis pour themselves into the challenges of farming and the pleasures of improving relationships over a glass of wine.
Pisoni Vineyards

An arial view of Pisoni vineyard blocks

photos: Pisoni Vineyards

cellar photo: CCFoodie

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