On a sunny day, before 2020 went to hell in the proverbial handbasket, I've reached the highest point in a beautiful terraced vineyard. At roughly 1,600 feet, I can see the Monterey Bay off to the west. To the south, there’s a distant peak that I’m informed is a limestone outcropping and in the background there’s a dolomite quarry also rich in limestone.
I’m with Christian Pillsbury at Eden Rift Vineyard which he purchased in 2016. He’s the seventh owner of this vineyard which was established in 1849 and throughout its ups and downs, has been in continuous operation ever since. Around 1860 a variety referred to as “Black Pinot,” likely the first Pinot Noir planted in California, was added.
As we head back to the winery, Pillsbury stops to chat with vineyard guys and points out the different varieties and training methods. At the lowest level, he pauses before a block of head-pruned Zinfandel vines planted in 1906. This block and the adjacent home turned office are named after the 4th owner, John Dickinson.
During my day-long visit, I got the feeling each owner has left a mark on this vineyard.
Located in the remote corner of San Benito County, the once fairly well-known Cienega Valley is now a wine trivia question. Writing in 1992, Matt Kramer called the Cienega Valley “a ghost AVA.” Pillsbury is determined to revive the AVA through the estate wines.
Eden Rift has a lot going for it other than its history. Its neighbor, Calera Wine Co, is 2 miles away and shares the same climate, calcareous soils and terroir. Eden Rift’s winemaker, Cory Waller, a holdover from the previous owner, was assistant winemaker at Calera. In fact, his brother, Mike, has been Calera’s winemaker for many years. Both have worked Pinot Noir harvests in Oregon and New Zealand.
After we saunter through the winery and pass by the olive presses, we are joined at the tasting table by both Mike and Cory. After being taken aback by the size and beauty of the vineyards, I’m in for more surprises. This is not a typical winery visit. Before me are three Pinot Noirs...from Calera. Seating opposite me is Gillian Enz, and we are before too long tasting a Rickford Zinfandel from her family’s vineyard in the nearby Lime Kiln Valley. At some point, someone opens a serious and rich Pinot Gris from Eden Rift grapes made by Ian Brand. An unusual beginning, but the entire visit turned out to be unusual in the good sense.
Though he admits he never heard of the Cienega Valley before starting his search for vineyard land, Pillsbury read about it in a bio of Paul Masson who was exploring the Valley before launching his Masson brand in 1852.
Cienega Valley became an AVA in 1982, mainly through the efforts of Almaden, then the third largest USA wine producer. As part of a major vineyard expansion effort to upgrade its varietal lineup, Almaden went to San Benito County to snap up the historic vineyard and eventually developed 4,600 acres, making it one of the largest holdings under single ownership at the time. By the end of the 80s, Almaden was slipping in the market and eventually abandoned San Benito. To be kind, let’s just conclude that Almaden did not help the Cienega Valley’s reputation.
As a history buff who’s also a John Steinback fan, Pillsbury says he was also drawn to this region because it was mentioned and described in detail in East of Eden.
A San Francisco native, WSET educated and also a former wine merchant, he represented Coravin in Asia and other markets before purchasing Eden Rift. He happily recalls learning about wine during a stay in France. And, no, he is not part of the Pillsbury corporate family.
“Eden” is a tribute to Steinbeck. The “Rift” in the Eden Rift name is also easy to explain: the property straddles the middle of the San Andreas Faultline. In fact, the original winery was literally divided by the fault line and moved in opposite directions when major earthquakes occurred.
A mover & shaker himself, Pillsbury immediately focused on the vineyards, and he has been one busy guy. After identifying the 6 different soil types, his team began by removing unsuitable heat-loving varieties like Sangiovese and Merlot planted by owners #6. Under those owners many vines were pruned and trained for large crops, and that only added to the major vineyard makeover that was needed. So, during the first three years, the Eden Rift team grafted over 72 acres and added 30 new acres.
Eden Rift now consists of 90 acres of Pinot, 20 of Chardonnay and a smattering of others including that patch of head trained Zinfandel planted in 1906. Pillsbury went with the proven clones for the area which for Pinot included Mt. Eden, Swan, Martini, Pommard and Calera. For Chardonnay, he settled on the Wente and Calera clones. Matching clones to various blocks and after plenty of grafting different varieties to existing rootstocks, he eventually ended up with a dozen Pinot Noir sites, 3 distinct blocks of Chardonnay, and 3 acres of Pinot Gris as well as 2 acres of the head pruned Zinfandel.
One block of Chardonnay, the source for the 2018 Terraces bottling captures what’s going on. Extending over 1.6 acres, it begins at 100 feet and continues on up to 1,550. Because it is “terraced latitudinally,” it is difficult to work and to harvest. It all fits into Pillsbury approach for the direction of Eden Rift: “Don't listen to the market or focus groups, the only thing you really can do is be true to the site, to what it is telling you it wants to produce.”
So it follows that winemaking is about as non-interventionist as it can get.
That Terraces Chardonnay was hand harvested, whole cluster pressed, and barrel fermented using native yeasts, and never racked. The Pinots are hand harvested, often at night, and fermented with indigenous yeasts.
One word that Pillsbury uses frequently caught my attention: “authentic.” Once I went through the wines on my own, it was clear the Chardonnays are neither oak-driven nor buttery. The Pinots are not massive fruit bombs. My notes kept coming back to bright, lively, and vibrant.
In addition to the Estate wines represented below, Eden Rift offers wines from non-estate sources under the name of Valliant, another owner. In addition to a beautiful Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir that’s sold out, the following wines are worthy of your attention:
Eden Rift Vineyards (Cienega Valley, San Benito County, California) Estate Chardonnay 2018 ($42): Eden Rift Vineyards, Estate Chardonnay Cienega Valley 2018 ($42): From grapes harvested during the first week of October, this wine is lively from start to finish. Highlighting citrus and orange peel aromatics, it offers nuanced flavors of pear, lemon zest, light oak, and pleasing leesy, mineral notes. There’s a smooth texture to the mid-palate giving way to a long, brisk finish. It was barrel fermented and lees stirred but never racked. 92 Points
Eden Rift Vineyards (Cienega Valley, San Benito County, California) Chardonnay “Terraces” 2018 ($54): This is sourced from a 1.6-acre block planted by a massale selection of clones with the lower block ripening 3 weeks before vines at the highest elevation. Somewhat closed when first poured, it opens and reveals a peach, citrus blossom and stone fruit personality. Citrus and lychee flavors are presented in a creamy, smooth, mineral profile with definite chalky, leesy secondary flavors. The finish brings it all back in a long, crisp, tantalizing way. Neither over-ripe nor oaky, it is firm and lively and should evolve with 4-5 years of cellaring. 139 cases made. 93
Eden Rift Vineyards (Cienega Valley, San Benito County, California) Estate Pinot Noir 2018 ($48): From 3 clones grown on 3 blocks, fermented by native yeasts with 33% whole clusters, this Pinot features cranberry and cherry fruit notes with hints of earthy, spiced tea and light oak accents. It evolves and changes over time, but displays the classic sensation of fanning out on the palate along with great structure and balance. Smooth with some tannin, this should peak in 3-5 years. 2,510 cases made. 91
Eden Rift Vineyards (Cienega Valley, San Benito County, California) Pinot Noir “Eden-A-Vent” 2019 ($36): This is modeled after Cru Beaujolais but in terms of complexity and finesse, surpasses the model. With lovely, lively black cherry and spicy notes, it cruises over the palate and makes you start thinking of all kinds of food to enjoy with it. More layered than a bistro wine, but this still has remarkable versatility. Using Pinot rather than Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, the winemaker avoids the simple, one dimensional candied fruit of lesser renditions of Gamay, and ends up highlighting spiced cherry and earthy notes. 250 cases. 90
Eden Rift Vineyards (Cienega Valley, San Benito County, California) Dickerson Block Zinfandel 2018 ($45): From head-trained, own-rooted vines planted in 1906, this is not standard old vine Zin. It starts out with concentrated plum, boysenberry ripeness with a hint of black pepper, and is ripe but not over-ripe. On the palate it offers plum and licorice flavors that linger impressively. Mouth-filling and with an amazing bright, lively finish for such a heavy dude. And not a hint of a raisin. Likely a field blend with a few Alicante Bouchet and Carignane vines here and there. 156 cases. 93
Eden Rift Vineyards (Cienega Valley, San Benito County, California) Q Block Pinot Noir “Lansdale” 2018 ($78): From the high elevation, south facing Q Block planted to the Calera clone, this is about as dark and deep as Pinot can get. The deep color suggests the berries were tiny when harvested. On the palate, this is concentrated and ripe, with spiced plum and blackberry fruit and earthy, floral-violet, toasty oak notes. Deep yet layered, with smooth, silky, velvety tannins that lead to a long, heavenly finish. Dark, ripe yet silky and smooth...it recalls the classic simile of an iron first in a velvet glove. 96