The Wines Of Pisoni
Gary Pisoni's Pinot Noir grapes are on show at the Masters of Food and Wine.
Thursday, February 20, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell
Let''s face it, Gary Pisoni got lucky. His father Ed, who in 1979 was looking for a piece of land that would be suitable for raising horses, stumbled upon 300 acres of paradise (paraiso in Spanish) that someone couldn''t afford, and saw the perfect spot. It was hilly and rough, with beautiful vistas in every direction, east across the Salinas Valley to the Pinnacles beyond and west into the rolling hillsides that bordered what is now Los Padres National Forest. It was always a magical spot where local Indians gathered for its spiritual power. Water was a problem-there would never be any-but maybe Ed could make a go of it and cultivate a few prime quarter horses.
Little did he know that, three years later, his son Gary would plant world-class Pinot Noir grapes on that land, selling them first to other wineries and then, for the past three years, using them for his own private Pisoni label. That label, and the grapes that brought fame to the Pisoni name, will be the subject of a wine seminar Thursday morning at the Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn.
The Pisonis had been part of the central Salinas Valley area since grandmother Pura lived up in the Gavilan mountains near Gonzales, providing a rest stop for wandering banditos and other gold-crazed travelers. From rootstock like that blossoms the kind of spirited individualism and courage that grows into the likes of a Gary Pisoni, the likes of which few have seen.
To call Gary Pisoni "individual" is being unfair to the popular usage of the word, yet is closer to its exact meaning. One-of-a-kind would be more like it. Like a not-too-modern-day Pinot Noir poet, Pisoni prowls the canyons of his father''s former horse farm like a natural extension of the land itself, as if he was birthed out of the wild earth and vegetation wholly formed, dropping to the ground in mid-gallop. That he grows some of the planet''s greatest Pinot Noir grapes (Pinot Noir are the grapes used in heaven to make the wine for God''s special dinner parties) is no accident. That his grapes command some of the highest prices and are continually sought after by California producers like Peter Michael, Patz & Hall, Siduri and every other winemaker, fledgling or otherwise, with dreams of being Madam Lalou Bize-Leroy, is also no accident.
"I''ve been to every Pinot Noir region in the world and read every book about it," Gary told me as we sat in the cellar of his grandmother''s former house, hacking up pieces of fine cheese while sloshing great goblets of Siduri''s Winery''s expression of Pisoni Vineyard grapes. Actually, he didn''t just tell me, because he doesn''t speak like most humans do-he assaults the space around him with whole thoughts like a wall of ak-ak fire. "I was a winemaker before I was a grower so I wasn''t interested in how much-grape growing is not like lettuce growing, more is not better-but just in how to get the best quality."
Quality he does get. He signs no contracts with any of the producers that use his grapes and as long as the wines they create with his raw material live up to the standards of his grapes, they remain partners. If the quality falls off, the grapes stop coming. "I give a winery two years, since it takes a vintage to figure out the proper yeasts and how to work with the grapes (Pinot Noir is the most difficult grape to work with). If they haven''t figured it out by the second year, I don''t do business with them."
It is that single-mindedness of purpose, that commitment to quality that drives Pisoni one hundred miles per hour day and night. It is the wild boar toughness, combined with instinctive understanding born out of his closeness to the land. that drove him to find a special source of water on the property, despite five failed attempts by everyone from geological engineers to Indian diviners. Ed Pisoni, more a pragmatist, tried in vain to convince Gary that "there is no water on this land." But Gary found his water, a thousand-gallon per minute gusher-his "magic well"- that allowed him to build his own waterfall and reservoir. The Pisoni winemaking operation, already a cult classic, will soon be housed in newly-built caves, sustained by the on-location water supply.
With his two sons Mark and Jeff by his side, along with Ed and mother Jane to oversee everything, Gary Pisoni has converted an old horse farm in
Gary Pisoni will be at the Masters of Food and Wine today, Feb. 20, at 10:30am for a retrospective tasting of Pinot Noir from Pisoni. For a complete Masters of Food and Wine schedule, visit www.mfandw.com or call 1-800-401-1009.to one of the most important points on the world wine map.