Few wineries in California grow Zinfandel and Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio at the same location, and do it well. Fewer still have five acres of imported Italian olive trees that they harvest to produce olive oil. And only one has California's famed San Andres Fault running through the property. But Pietra Santa Winery in Hollister, California, a mere 25 miles inland from Monterey, is a unique and unusual location.
I recently sat down with winemaker Alessio Carli at the Waterfront Restaurant in San Francisco to discuss grapes, oil and earthquakes. Carli, originally from Sienna, Italy, came to Pietra Santa sixteen years ago after abdicating what might have been a promising career as a winemaker and olive oil producer in his homeland. “American has been very good to me,” he said with a captivating accent. “In Europe, it’s more traditional, there’s not as much opportunity.” What he means is that in many wineries, tasks are passed down from generation to generation, regardless of the inherent talent with the new winemaker.
But with his arrival in the U.S., Carli has found something approximating home. “I love Italian varieties,” he says, as he dips bread into one of his own olive oils. “Sangiovese, dolchetto, pinot grigio. In California, you get much riper fruit than the leaner Italian styles.” But isn't it advantageous to have lower alcohol levels like the Europeans than a 15% wine from California, I ask? “If the fruit is ripe, even though the alcohol is higher, as long as it’s a balanced wine, it doesn’t really matter.”
Because the San Andreas Fault runs through the property, it has created a unique topography, a geographically diverse orientation where the subterranean shifts have filled the soils with granite and limestone. It’s here, amid these rocky, desolate soils, that Pietra Santa’s vines are stressed and where the microclimates allow for the growth of diverse wines. “All of our wines have a unique fingerprint because of the soils,” Carli says. He uses French oak and is becoming more of a fan of American barrels. "I like American oak, it's gotten much better and so have the coopers." He doesn't do field blends and, if he blends at all, will only do it right before bottling.
The proof of Carli’s talent is to taste through the portfolio at their winery. The new facility, built in 1998, is a brick “mission” style building that houses a bell tower that chimes real bells as you taste. There are three different labels; Pietra Santa, Vache, a high-end line up of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot, and Sacred Stone, an everyday red blend which is the English translation for Pietra Santa. You can also sample the olive oils that Carli has made. “You treat oil just like wine,” he says. “You keep the lots of oil separate from the light and the heat.”
Imported from Pistonia, Italy are 5,000 olive trees, containing five different olive varieties. Their signature blend, an extra-virgin oil called Olivita, is their estate oil. Carli has been making both wine and olive oil since before he left Italy. He grew up watching his own father make Chianti, therefore Carli has the experience and know-how to produce wonderful flavors, which express the fundamentals of site.
Carli loves to experiment. “I want to try new things. I have two barrels each of cabernet franc and petite verdot that I plan to use.” He's also got a little Gewürztraminer on his hands. His experimentation includes other wines and spirits and he’s genuinely enthusiastic to grow as a winemaker, husband and father. He relies on years of intuition to guide him. “I don’t have a recipe in winemaking. Things change each season and you change with them.”
Pietra Santa wines are available nationwide which causes Carli to comment, “It’s very gratifying to see my wines in the marketplace." With attention to detail and a unique terroir, the “sacred stones” that make up Pietra Santa Winery ensure consistently good fruit, both grapes and oil.