An LA Lunch with Jeff Pisoni

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Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Pisoni, winemaker for Pisoni Vineyards and son of Gary Pisoni, Godfather of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. If you are a fan of California Pinot, no doubt you are familiar with the name. Gary Pisoni is iconic—for his personality and for his wines (both big on charisma). He became the defining force in Santa Lucia Highlands viticulture when, back in the 1980s, he convinced his family that planting grapes in the dry Santa Lucia Mountains was a good idea. Spoiler: it was.

Since then he’s supplied grapes to some of the biggest names in Cali Pinot (Kosta Browne, Peter Michael, Siduri), while crafting his own deep, sensual wines. His two sons are the current generation at the helm: Jeff makes the wine and Mark grows the grapes. As inheritors of Gary’s trademark passion, with a lifetime among the vines and some serious university training between the two of them, Jeff and Mark are taking the wines to a level where they’re achieving even more balance and complexity, while maintaining that concentration of fruit.

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Part of their evolution has been in the vein of less intervention. Mark is farming organically, and Jeff is not filtering or inoculating with commercial yeasts. Jeff loves information and measures everything. He says, “If you don’t inoculate, the fermentations start more slowly and you get more complexity. Mark started using more compost so we get a healthier must and more yeast, so we never get stuck fermentations.” Gary’s in favor of all the changes the two have made over the years. He’s the visionary but they are the fine tuners.

At the City Club, perched high above Downtown LA, we drank rosé around a long table filled to the brim with stemware, looking out at a floor-to-ceiling view of the city. Then I sat with other wine folks and we all had lunch with Jeff. It was a wonderful opportunity to taste through the Pisoni and Lucia wines, while learning about the region his family has been intertwined with for more than a century. The Pisonis came from Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century as dairy farmers before they began with row crops in the 1950s (they still farm 600 acres of lettuce and broccoli), but Gary was a wine collector and saw SLH’s potential for viticulture. He famously told his dad that you can’t charge $250 for a lettuce tasting. And thus the story goes: he called in a water witcher* when his parents were out of town (they were skeptical of his designs on making wine) and, at the sixth attempt, Gary found a water source at 380 feet deep, into solid granite.

This water discovery has given the Pisonis the unique advantage of, well... water. In California, and really, much of the vinous world, water is one of the major factors shaping the fruit and the future of viticulture. But their constant supply, coupled with the marine soils and coastal fog, has given them an ideal spot for Pinot. What I discovered at this luncheon was that they’re knocking Chardonnay and Syrah out of the park as well. I had no idea that they were even making Syrah, and loved it. In fact, they only have three acres planted to Syrah. We tried their 2014 Susan’s HIll Syrah—floral and seductive and balancing on its tiptoes.

Actually, Jeff’s favorite grape to work with is Chardonnay. He likes it because it’s their underdog, since they are known for their Pinot and especially since there’s an ocean of generic Chard in California. But his real appreciation for it is in the symbiotic relationship Chardonnay has with its lees and barrel, and he gets animated when explaining it: “The grape needs the lees and barrel, and the barrel needs the lees. With new oak you have to ferment in the barrel first because it needs the lees in order to harmonize. Reduction in Chardonnay is based on how you manage your lees; you need to stir to lose the reduction. It’s all a complex relationship.” Their 2016 Lucia Chardonnay and Soberanes Chardonnay are both bright and lifted, with the former in a more luscious style and the latter presenting a more minerally, racy profile.

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Jeff says his family are farmers, that’s their identity. It’s not hard to romanticize that connection to the land—that’s what us wine geeks go in for, right? The beauty of how a glass of wine connects us to the weather and the soil and the people? But there is something so rooted and real about this family in this place. It’s a different California wine story than, say, much of Napa, where people came from elsewhere to stake their claim on winemaking. The Pisoni story happened from the ground up: a family already connected to the land with one visionary and a crazy idea. They’ve helped show the world what Santa Lucia Highlands can do with the right grape. And when I ask about the future, Jeff says he hopes to be able to keep doing what they're doing; fine tuning, continuing on their path. They’ll always have new projects but the foundation is there, and it's deep.

Jeff is a warm and genuine guy who has two young boys the same age as mine, and it was great to chat with him about balancing the wine life and the parent life. His wife, Bibiana, is a talented winemaker as well, producing her own labels, Cattleya, Wayfarer, and Shared Notes. They’re busy for sure, but Jeff finds time to make pancakes for his kids every morning. And that’s modern life, right? Finding a balance between doing what you love and loving your people. From what I can see, he’s doing both with a helluva lot of heart. And the wines have that heart, too. In spades.

*What’s a water witcher, you ask? I did too. It's a specialist who uses two rodsthey can be sticks or coat hangersto divine where water is hiding underground. Apparently, it works!

- Kate Soto