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Reconnecting with Two California Wine Quality Exemplars
By Rich Cook
May 24, 2023
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After a couple of years of what have come to be known as “zoom tasting” thanks to the pandemic, it certainly feels good to get out and experience wine on a more intimate level.  The more wine I taste, the more it becomes obvious to me that the fullest appreciation of fine wine arises from the foundation of a backstory that includes the people, places, and times from which the wine originated.  Knowledge of those backstory elements plays a critical role in the appreciation of wine, both in general and in the enjoyment of a specific wine.  Recent encounters with Pisoni Family Vineyards and Chimney Rock Winery served to continue to drive these points home.

Pisoni Family Vineyards:

In a year with historic rainfall in parts of California, visiting the Pisoni estate in the southern reaches of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA revealed lush, neon green rolling hills looking east to Highway 101 in central Monterey County’s Salinas Valley – often referred to as the nation’s salad bowl.  Brothers Jeff and Mark Pisoni are the current stewards of the land, with Mark handling farming duties and Jeff dealing with the winemaking, continuing a family legacy started by their grandparents Eddie and Jane and father Gary.

Having farmed in Salinas Valley since the early 1950s, Jane and Eddie purchased what is now Pisoni Vineyards in 1979.  The property spans an elevation band between 900 and 1350 feet.  Gary started planting the estate in 1982, thinking that Talbott had some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay planted in the hills west of Gonzales, and Smith & Hook had some Cabernet Sauvignon west of Soledad, so he figured, “Why not grapes?” though his father thought he was crazy.

Gary notes that his partnership with his father was sort of a one-way street, with his dad dictating how things would go, but he chose to flip the script with his sons, allowing them the freedom to experiment and bring new ideas to the table.  He couldn’t be more pleased with the results.  Mark’s approach to the land is all about sustainability, and he exudes true humility when it comes to realizing what the land has to offer.  He started an insectary, aimed at propagating beneficial insects that take care of others that are detrimental to the farm, and he utilizes pheromone tags that disrupt the mating behaviors of specific pests in the vineyard rows to control without pesticide use.  Mark also keeps beehives on property – delicious honey being a side benefit.  35 of the 280 acres are planted to vine, with most of the remaining acreage left natural.  There are wild boar on the property, and they cull about 15 of them per year to make Copa from Jane’s secret recipe.

Jeff’s efforts on the winemaking side of the business include minimal intervention techniques like native yeast fermentations and minimal sulfur use in a way that showcases the land and the vintage.  Here are some quick takes on what he’s up to under both the Lucia (which includes fruit from the other estate sites Soberanes and Garys’ vineyards) and Pisoni labels:

Lucia, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Chardonnay “Estate Cuvée” 2021 ($50):  A blend of 60% Pisoni Vineyard and 40% Soberanes Vineyard fruit, this is nicely tuned. It’s viscous without being heavy, delivering dry style and a zesty finish with a long retro-nasal impression of the fruit and gentle oak spice.  92

Lucia, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Chardonnay Soberanes Vineyard 2021 ($65):  This bottling is all about freshness and flowers, with minimal stirring and a small percentage of the wine seeing oak.  It’s dry, crisp and bright with a lemon oil focus.  My style!  Note:  A taste of the 2012 vintage revealed a wine that’s still singing with acidity but has gained richness of texture with time, which bodes well for the 2021.  93

Pisoni, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Chardonnay “Estate” 2021 ($95):  There’s real depth here, with a touch more oak influence than the Lucia bottlings. Tropical notes join the lemon, and they travel together well through a long, mineral-driven finish.  94

Lucia, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Pinot Noir “Estate Cuvée” 2021 ($55):  A blend of the three sites, it draws floral and mineral character from Soberanes, deep fruit and power from Garys’ and vibrant structure from Pisoni.  It’s a great example of the energy that the 2021 central coast wines are showing.  93

Lucia, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Pinot Noir Soberanes Vineyard 2021 ($70):  There’s a ton of complexity here, with 40% whole cluster fermentation adding spice and savory elements.  Black cherry, rhubarb and brown spice linger long in a wine that promises a long life ahead.  94

Lucia, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard 2021 ($80):  Yes, the Garys’ with the apostrophe at the end is correct, as it gathers original partners Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni.  Known for its powerful fruit, this Garys’ delivers on expectations with accents of sage and fall spice.  The plus here is the racy acidity that carries it all – it’s my favorite expression of the site to date.  94

Pisoni, Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County, California) Pinot Noir “Estate” 2021 ($110):  Selected mainly from the highest elevation blocks, this combines fruit richness and acidic structure in a wine with complex aromatics and layered flavors.  Intriguing tension and a very long finish are already present in a wine that will certainly go long.  95

High praise? You bet, but a tasting of select older vintages gives me confidence in such accolades.  2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015 are all still showing beautifully, with a common thread throughout – the 2008 is a particular standout.  There’s a fascinating, dynamic energy between the brothers that is paralleled by the wines, and its clearly fed by their father’s joy in them and in the land.  If I were you, I wouldn’t wait too long to stock up on the 2021 releases.

Chimney Rock Winery

Speaking of time and pedigree, Chimney Rock Winery is celebrating its fortieth vintage this year in the Napa Valley’s highly esteemed Stags Leap District along the Silverado Trail.  Founded by Hack and Stella Wilson, the winery is now fully owned by the Terlato family. 119 acres of vineyards are now situated on the property (which once included a golf course), and the wine is currently made by Elizabeth Vianna and her team.  She took over the reins from Doug Fletcher in 2005, and has overseen every vintage since.  I was happy to meet Elizabeth and join in the celebration with a tasting of current offerings and some gems from across the forty years.  My takes on the current offerings:

Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) White Wine “Elevage Blanc” 2020 ($50):  This is a truly unique wine – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris – that satisfies as much for its approachability as it does for its age-worthy structure.  It leans much more Bordelaise in style, with stone fruits and delicate tropical notes carried with weight supple texture.  If you’re in the camp that thinks California Sauvignon Blanc isn’t meant to age, this will change your mind.  92

Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($120):  I’m always amazed at what just a dab of Petit Verdot can do to complete a wine.  Savvy winemakers everywhere look to it to add texture, lengthen finish and buff edges.  Mission accomplished here, and it’s done so without taking anything away from the regional character of the Cabernet.  Rich, expressive and long already, and from a vaunted vintage sure to be popping at the 80th anniversary.  Contains 13% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. 93

Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) Cabernet Sauvignon Tomahawk Vineyard, 2018 ($165):  This is a mix of clones 7 and 169, and it is winemaker Elizabeth Vianna’s favorite of seven different single-vineyard offerings from the vintage.  The site is the furthest to the south on the estate, and its rustic tannins distinguish it from the other plots.  The vintage was a long and even one weather-wise, allowing the site to display its potential for a relatively elegant expression.  Cabernet’s herbal tones are displayed in balance with the fruit, and the finish lingers long. 94

Chimney Rock, Stags Leap District (Napa Valley, California) Red Wine “Elevage” 2019 ($120):  As you might imagine, the intent of a blend is to come up with a complete wine – one that has nuance, structure, texture, and what I call a “thrill factor” – all are achieved here, in a classy expression of Stags Leap District.  The thrill comes from the balance of fruit and herbs, with the layers dancing forward and back repeatedly through the extended finish.  Well done!  Contains 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 18% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc.  94

The real treat and eye opener in this tasting was tasting a selection of past vintages of the Cabernet to give some context to the wines reviewed above.  The 1984 vintage (remember when Napa Valley Cab was regularly listed at 12.5 % alcohol?) still shows present fruit, with lovely bottle aged characteristics of potpourri and faint balsamic notes; the 1985 is showing solid black fruit emphasis and a little remaining grip; the 1992 (the first vintage to carry the then newly minted Stags Leap District AVA – the first to be designated because of its soil type) is still quite firm, showing the power of a classic vintage; the 1998 (a somewhat maligned vintage) is a marker of the time, showing mostly secondary character at this point – soy, balsamic, spice box; 2002 is quite concentrated still, showing nice herb notes and supple texture; 2006 – Elizabeth’s first vintage and one that she said has surprised with age – shows a balance between primary fruit and secondary bottle bouquet; and 2012, which she called a “so sorry about last year” vintage as far as the weather was concerned, is in a great place in its drinking window now, but has plenty to reveal in the years ahead.

In tasting across such a span of time, you really can not only taste the magic that time conjures in fine bottles over time, but also underlying factors such as improvements in science and equipment over time, grower experience in vineyards, slight changes in approach and objectives among vintners, shifting market demand patterns, and more.  Wineries keep meticulous records with an eye toward letting the past inform the future in a way that benefits all of us, and I for one take immense joy in the revelations that can be provided by retrospective tastings.

Now, I realize that not everyone gets the opportunity to do this sort of thing, but if you love wine and love deepening your appreciation of it, I’d encourage you to keep an eye out for similar opportunities.  Wine dinners or tastings offering a “vertical” selection of wines from multiple vintages are not so rare, and as experience shows, most things become easier to find once you learn what you’re looking for — and what can be gained from a successful search.

More wine columns:    Rich Cook
More wine reviews:     Wine Reviews