Winemaking is Farming.
Floods, drought conditions, blistering sun, hard frosts: working the land is not just a noble occupation, but a challenging one. “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer,” humorist Will Rogers often quipped. Growing requires faith and patience and a great deal of fortitude, especially when a difficult growing season results in a scant crop. Most of us understand the role our constantly-changing climate plays in shepherding fruits and vegetables to our plates. It’s easier to forget that vintners face the same challenges.
Farmers and winemakers for three generations, the Pisoni family possess the fine-tuned awareness of sun and season necessary to coax plants to bear the fruit that eventually pours like rubies and liquid gold into our glasses. The happy results of this transformation are as beautiful as they are palate-pleasing. Yet while “grape growing is often romanticized,” vintner Jeff Pisoni insists, “we should remember that winemaking is farming, and farmers work at the mercy of the weather.”
Growing up next to the vegetable farm established by their grandparents in the Salinas Valley and the vines father Gary planted in the Santa Lucia highlands, gambling upon the arid soil in this range, Jeff and brother Mark are intimately familiar with the risks and rewards of working in partnership with Nature. Observing how their family rotated short-term crops such as lettuce and broccoli allowed the brothers to study how vines—plants, after all—are best cultivated. Watching vegetables root and flower encouraged Jeff and Mark to grapple early on with complex growing issues of irrigation and sustainability.
As winemakers, the brothers have followed their father’s lead in growing a more enduring crop. “… volgoque veritas iam attributa vino est”—“In wine, there’s truth,” naturalist and writer Pliny the elder avowed in his first-century AD Natural History. One of the truths Jeff Pisoni knows first-hand is that vines are abiding presences on the land. “This understanding often leads vintners to see vines as kin to people,” he muses. “We keep the grapes we harvest in trust for wine and then hold the wine in cellars for years to age.” In this sense, the fruits of the vine cue memory, the dates vintners record on barrels much like the height marks parents keep to record their children’s progress toward adulthood.
When Nature Challenges Winemaking.
While it’s tough to lose any crop, the long-term connection vintners have with their land and vines can be sustaining during low-yielding seasons. Jeff recalls one of his father’s favorite stories. “The first time Dad ‘dropped fruit’ (to reduce the yield in an otherwise high-yielding vintage), my grandfather came to the vineyard and was shocked to see bunches of grapes on the ground. It took him a long time to accept the idea that this kind of cutting would create a better fruit, because he came from a lifetime of farming produce that was rewarded by yield.”
Weather can play a part in cutting yield, too. The 2015 season will long be remembered—across all of California—for the meagre crops it produced. In cold, coastal parts of the state such as the Santa Lucia highlands, the grape yield was especially lean. Mark comments, “2015 had some of the lowest yields we’ve ever seen on our ranches—about half of what we normally obtain.” “People sometimes expect farming in California to be very consistent,” Jeff adds, “but we have our weather swings too, especially in areas impacted by the coast.” The 2011 growing season, which was cold and came late, was particularly challenging. The following three years saw much more consistent weather, and the Pisoni vines produced average yields from 2012-2014. But in the spring of 2015, Jeff explains, “we were deluged with wet and windy weather, which drastically limited fruit flowering.”
Coulure—the vines’ metabolic response to weather conditions that discourages grapes from developing properly—or “shatter,” as it’s frequently called in English—occurs most often in spring, and can be triggered either by abnormally high temperatures or cold, inclement weather. Vines with coulure produce substantially smaller yields. The cloud cover that hovered over the Santa Lucia highlands in the spring of 2015 resulted in coulure, as well as the disproportionate shedding of berries that follows on the heels of shatter.
But there’s a silver lining to the vintner’s cloud, because small vintages often produce very high quality wine. “When vines have less fruit,” Jeff explains, “the plant can focus more of its energy toward ripening, which allows fuller development of the grapes’ tannins, and more concentrated flavor.” Low yields are also more gentle on the vines. Scanter fruit, as in 2015, can be emotionally and financially challenging, but the light harvest allows the vines to rest and regroup. A “lean year” in fruit production is part of the intricate self-regulating system of the vines, much the way a leaf infected with insects prompts the release of pheromones that allow the plant to defend against attack.
This fine-tuned response to Nature’s unpredictability provides a consolation to wine drinkers as well. When you uncork a bottle of one of the Pisoni family’s 2015 Soberanes Vineyard Pinots, Syrahs, or Chardonnays, and admire the jeweled color in your glass, remember that its rarity will be more than equaled by the arduous tale it beautifully conceals.
SOBERANES VINEYARD SELECTIONS
A vibrant greenish-gold color in hue, the Soberanes Chardonnay harmonizes restraint and intensity. Its aromatics, soft at first, deepen into orange blossom and yellow peach. Undertones of minerality showcase the loamy, rocky soils of Soberanes Vineyard, whose bracing, chilly mornings show in the wine’s freshness. We used a light hand in the winery to foster its development, stirring the lees as little as possible during this vintage’s 15-month aging process. The result is a wine of great density and structure on the palate, with a holistic balance of fruit and texture. Great tension in its broad, expansive finish will lead to excellent cellaring for several years to come.
Perfumed aromatics unfurl from the glass like blooming flowers. Here, cassis, red fruits and incense meet undertones of wet forest floor. We included whole clusters during fermentation to add the exotic spice that composes the background of this bouquet. One of our lowest yielding sites in 2015, Soberanes Vineyard produced fruit with a big tannin profile that is at once mouth-coating and firm. Thanks to its more robust tannins and acid, the wine will age beautifully through the next decade.
From the granite-laced soils of Soberanes Vineyard, this Syrah is as refined and delicate as it is intense. Nimble floral aromas lead over a core of slate, peppercorns and blackberry. Layered spices integrate a rich dark fruit, which, slightly stringent, offers hints of how gracefully the wine will age. This vintage, the vines produced a tiny yield of less than one ton per acre. The resulting wine was fermented with 100% whole clusters and aged in 60-gallon and 132-gallon barrels that will contribute to a slower evolution, along with great oak integration. On the finish, pleasing acid complements firm tannins in a wine which will cellar beautifully for decades.
SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS CUVÉES
In this delightful combination from the Soberanes and Pisoni vineyards, lower yields culminate in fruit with intensity and focus. Racy aromatics of green apple and Meyer lemon interweave with spring flowers and wet stone. This chardonnay’s crisp acidity and purity of expression opens seamlessly on the palate. A long, lingering finish, combined with minimal oak, allows a multitude of options when paired with food.
This wine showcases a combination of fruit from the Pisoni, Garys’ and Soberanes vineyards, where yields were generally 50% lower than normal. Despite its youthfulness, the Lucia Pinot Noir already shows signs of finesse. The fruit offers a gorgeous balance of acid and sugar levels, the result of cooling ocean breezes and foggy mornings in the vineyards. Once poured, the wine releases elegant aromas of raspberry, violets and crushed rose petal that linger in the glass. These floral notes also persevere in the mouth, producing a rich, elongated finish. Suave, layered tannins deliver great texture and length.
In the glass, the copper-strawberry color of this Lucy Rosé beckons with beautiful aromas of white peach, nectarine, grapefruit and rose petal. Created from both whole cluster pressing and saignée of Pinot Noir, the wine’s character is clean and pure, its soft texture coaxed from the neutral barrels in which we fermented and aged it for three months. We utilize barrels of at least a decade in age so they are truly “neutral.” This heightens the texture while minimizing the flavor impact of the oak. The happy result is a wine of delightful crispness and energy.