IntoWine recently caught up with Pisoni Vineyard's winemaker Jeff Pisoni to discuss wine making and his thoughts on current trends in the wine industry.

What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career? 

 Both my brother and I were fortunate to grow up around it. We were both very young when our father was already making wine and started planting vineyards.  When only a few years old, Mark and I would “make wine” in mason jars and stomp grapes in old redwood fermentors that belonged to our great-grandparents. Seeing all this at a young age gave us an appreciation for winemaking and a desire to work with the family.  I had always been very driven to the winemaking side, whereas my brother felt closer to the farming side. Now Dad watches over things but leaves the winemaking up to me and the viticulture to Mark.


Describe your winemaking philosophy:

The legendary winemaker Emile Peynaud once said that wine is both a reflection of the people who make it and of the region that produces it. We want to capture this. If someone visits our vineyards and meets the family, I want them to be able to see and taste the connection to our wines.

We feel our vineyards are very special, and we want each one’s character to show through. As for our family, the vineyards were a product of the passion for wine started by our father, Gary, and the love for the land and family traditions instilled by my grandparents, Eddie and Jane Pisoni. My father is very outgoing and has a big personality. My brother Mark and I are more reserved. We balance each other out as a family, and we seek this same sense of balance in the wines between bold and nuanced flavors.

What are you most proud of so far in your winemaking experience?

I am most proud of how well we all work together as three generations of family. I have seen some family businesses where people go separate ways, but we are lucky that we all have the same goals and are happy to work towards them together. We have always seen the beauty of working hard to support each other: I remember my grandmother always having piles of paperwork in her house, yet somehow still finding time to go deer-hunting, bake pies or can peaches. At eighty six, she may not go hunting anymore, but she is still cooking, making sausages for us to barbeque at the vineyard and staying up late doing bookwork for the ranch. Also, our assistant winemaker, Mike Zardo, is one of my best friends and has been working with us for almost ten years now. Having a consistent team working together for this long puts us in a great position to use everything we have learned over the years to improve steadily. 

Tell us about the people who influenced or mentored you as a winemaker?

When I started making wine for the family, my father had already been selling grapes to a number of wineries. I was just out of enology school and had done a couple internships, but realized I still had a lot to learn. The winemakers who buy fruit from us were very gracious and always open to help me. I was, and still am, very lucky to be able to work amongst this ”round table” of vintners:  James Hall from Patz & Hall, Adam and Dianna Lee of Siduri, Sean Capiaux of Capiaux Cellars, the Luc and Nicolas Morlet from Peter Michael, Gary Franscioni of Roar, Jeff Fink of Tantara and a few others, as well. They have each been very inspirational in a unique way.   

Tell us about your wines:

To start with, all the fruit for Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir is from our Pisoni Vineyards, and the Lucia wines are sourced from Pisoni Vineyards and the Garys’ Vineyard, which we own and farm in partnership with Gary Franscioni.  

Lucia is a collection of the various varieties we farm: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and a Lucy Rosé of Pinot Noir. 

Our wines are characterized by an intensity of flavor, bright aromas, high acid/tannin structure, balance and the ability to age.  Much of this comes from the regional influence of the Santa Lucia Highlands. The AVA has one of the coolest and longest growing seasons, the combination of which allows us to get maximum fruit development at moderate sugars. Since alcohol content is a popular topic at the moment, it is worth noting that some think our wines achieve their deep color and concentration due to excessive ripeness. This is not the case. Our wines can have these characters simply because our vineyards are farmed in the mountains and have very low yields, which is not the norm for California Pinot Noir. 

What is next for Lucia and Pisoni Wines?

Soberanes Vineyard. This is a new vineyard that we planted in partnership with Gary Franscioni.  It is a beautiful spot, and we planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, using a great selection of old and new clones. 2010 was the first vintage. Our first production will be a small eight-barrel lot of Chardonnay, and I am very excited about it. In fact, our assistant winemaker has been teasing me because I walk by these eight barrels almost every day to check on them!  

When it comes to winemaking, what's one thing you know now that you wish you had known before you started? 

One thing we always wish we had more info on is exactly which clones and rootstocks—and combinations of—are best to plant. After planting vines, one has to wait three to four years for the vines to bear any fruit. Then another two to three years of time making the wine before being able to evaluate which vineyard blocks are the favorites. We are lucky that our father started with a very good clone of Pinot Noir, yet we constantly use new clones and selections. As you can imagine, this process takes a great deal of time, sweat and investment—and you want to have as much information and experience as possible before planting. When we plant a vineyard block, we don’t just think of it as a simple planting but at least a fifty-year commitment.

A hot topic in wine circles is the "Parkerization" of wines. Some people claim his 100 point scoring system has been an enabling factor for consumers as they navigate the endless array of brands from which they can choose. Others claim his influence has negatively impacted wine quality as producers are increasingly crafting their wines to earn a high score from Parker at the expense of making the best wine they can with the fruit and resources they have available. Given this, what are your thoughts on Parker and the 100 point scoring system? 

Robert Parker is an incredibly experienced taster. A thorough look at The Wine Advocate will show that he does, in fact, appreciate a wide variety of styles. There will always be groups that disagree with any one critic, and there are more critics of Parker because he is so influential.  However, he achieved this status by being objective and independent for his thirty-odd years of tasting. I think most critics can see through when people manipulate their wines to try to suit a style, and the best thing any producer can do is exactly what you said: Make the best wine with the fruit and resources that you have. That focus and passion will ultimately result in quality. 

The 100-point scale favors the consumer. Sometimes people in the industry speak as if everyone is already an expert. This system is consumer-friendly and has given people fewer reasons to be intimidated by wine—encouraging the consumer to drink wine and to become educated about all the choices available to them. I believe this is why the 100-point scale is now being used by many other reviewers, such as The Wine Spectator, International Wine Cellar, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines, The Tasting Panel, Burghound, Wilfred Wong at BevMo, Pinot Report and many others. It is hardly debatable that this is the best way to reach consumers.  Ultimately, though, one should read the full text of the review, as well as the score, then taste the wines and compare the reviews with their own thoughts 

How have the points systems like Parker’s impacted you as a winemaker/producer? 

As a winemaker, he has not influenced us at all. Our wines and winemaking goals have been the same since before Parker or anyone else had reviewed our wines. 

As a producer, the difference we see is in how fast people hear about our wines. We are a small winery, and most people find out about us from word-of-mouth. When far-reaching publications review our wines, we get calls from all over the world.  

Rising wine alcohol levels are a hot topic these days in wine circles.  What are your thoughts on the subject? 

It sure is a hot topic these days. First of all, the goal should always be to keep the alcohol, tannin, acid and the other important elements in harmony. There are many complex components to each wine and alcohol content alone doesn’t determine balance. 

I actually think the alcohol levels in wine may have peaked around 2001-2004. Rarely noted in an alcohol debate is the fact that these were very warm years in California, with higher sugar levels in the fruit and elevated alcohol levels. 2005-2010 were much cooler. These cooler years yield more ripeness at lower potential alcohol levels. This is one reason I see a curve with higher alcohols from the ’01-’04 vintage, and lower alcohols in the subsequent years. Regardless, the top producers who have control of their farming should be able to produce balanced wines every year. 

Either way, the most important thing for consumers is to taste as many wines as they can from various regions and decide for themselves what they like. The diversity of styles is one of the great things about wine. Some try to be critical and say wines should fit a certain profile. I do not believe in this, and I think any time spent criticizing how other people make wine would be better suited to actually working in one’s vineyard or cellar.  

Lastly, where can your wines be purchased? 

The easiest way is to call or write us at 800.270.2525 or [email protected].  We sell most of our wines by mailing list, but they are also available at high-end restaurants and select retailers.  However, some of our wines are more limited and have a waiting list for purchase.  Either way, we are always happy to take calls or emails and add wine lovers to our mailing list or refer them to a local wine shop.