THE GOCHISO GOURMET: The legend of Pisoni

Gary Pisoni and the Gochiso Gourmet raise their glasses at a wine tasting in Honolulu. photo courtesy of Ryan Tatsumoto

Like any rough-cut diamond, this legend is multifaceted. On the one hand there’s the legend of the man himself, Gary Pisoni. On the other hand there’s the legend of the product he produces, namely Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir grapes. Then there’s the Pisoni family label of wines including Pisoni Estate and Lucia. Well, since Pinot Noir grapes aren’t indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley appellation and someone had to plant them there, I’ll start with the man himself.

Gary Pisoni

The tale actually starts a generation earlier with Jane and Eddie Pisoni, who first started farming vegetables in Northern California’s Salinas Valley in the mid 1940s. Fast forward to the early 1980s when son Gary decides that instead of simply collecting great Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region in France, he’ll take the leap to produce his own Pinot Noir. It initially started with just five acres of land. And this was land at 1,300-foot elevation with no real water source, so Gary had to truck water from the Salinas Valley floor just to keep these vines alive. And the story of these initial vines is a whole legend unto itself.

It may be just a myth, but supposedly young Gary smuggled vine clippings from the famed vineyards of La Tache in Burgundy, France (bottles of La Tache routinely sell for $300 plus) back to the States in his underwear. Whether or not these vine clippings were provided via Hanes or Jockey, he eventually expanded another 40 acres to the present 45 acres of Pisoni Vineyard-designated Pinot Noir. And he also did eventually find a natural water well on the property to eliminate trucking the water in on a regular basis.

Of course Gary Pisoni the man is just as intriguing! With a wild frock of hair, an omnipresent mischievous grin and a character larger than both, the man himself may actually be larger than the legend. Imagine an amalgam of “Doc” Brown from “Back to the Future,” Leo Getz from “Lethal Weapon” and Professor Irwin Corey all rolled into one!

A crate of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir. photo courtesy of Ryan Tatsumoto

Because the vineyards are situated more than 1,000 feet above the Salinas Valley floor and the cool Pacific fog rolls in from Monterey Bay on a daily basis, the grapes are allowed a longer hang time to physiologically ripen as opposed to simply sugar ripening. This allows crucial acids to form and phenolic flavor compounds to develop, which ultimately leads to a more complex finished wine. And though the initial vines may have started out as La Tache clippings, they have taken a life of their own. It’s known that Pinot Noir is genetically unstable and after seven years or so will mutate based on the surrounding environmental conditions — soil hydration, sunlight exposure, temperature, soil nutrients and the like. Therefore what Gary grows is uniquely his own. You can find Pinot Noir 115, 667, 777, Dijon or Pommard clones in most of the major labels, but the Pisoni clone of Pinot Noir is the only Pinot Noir clone that’s marketed with a single person’s name attached to it.

Because the Pisoni Vineyards are limited to the initial 45 acres planted back in the 1980s and because Gary has roughly 17 annual contracts to provide Pinot Noir grapes to other wineries, the Pisoni Vineyard designation on the label does come with its fair share of cost and scarcity. If you run a simple Web search, you’ll find that Pisoni Vineyard designated Pinot Noir is usually one of that specific winery’s more expensive bottles. From Patz & Hall to Roar to Siduri to Ojai to Testarossa, the Pisoni Vineyard bottle is either the most or the second most expensive. Why? Great grapes tend to make great wines! What they all have in common (other than a high price point) is ripe red fruit sometimes almost bordering on black fruit with loads of spices — Asian spice like star anise and five spice, as well as cinnamon and clove — with very good concentration on the palate and a long finish. Like blending finesse and muscle into one wine. Like Catherine Deneuve with muscles.

A close up of the Lucia Chardonnay 2009. photo courtesy of Ryan Tatsumoto

Since 1998, the Pisoni family has been making their own label of wines: Pisoni Estate and its sister label Lucia. They also bottle a Rose under the Lucy label and donate $1 for every bottle sold to breast cancer research. I was fortunate to attend a simple wine dinner hosted by the HASR Wine Co. in Honolulu featuring the wines of the Pisoni family.

Lucy Rose 2009

With a nose of strawberry, red fruit and a touch of candied orange peel, this summertime sipper had enough Pinot character to even stand up to roasted poultry or pork, but with nice acidity to cleanse the palate.

Lucia Chardonnay 2009

Stone fruit, citrus and slight minerality on the nose with a full body and a nice balance of vanilla, fruit and acid on the palate. For medium to heavier seafood and roasted white meats.

Lucia Pinot Noir 2009

The nose was still a little closed but it offered dark black fruit and concentration beyond what’s normally found in Pinot. Almost Syrah-like on first impression with a concentrated palate and very long finish. Would probably let it settle for several years before uncorking… unless you’re having barbecue.

Lucia Syrah, Gary’s Vineyard 2008 (95 points)

With classic black and dark red fruit on the nose with hints of grilled meat, stone and vanilla. Surprisingly not really heavy on the palate with a nice balance of fruit and tannin and a very long finish.

Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir 2008 (98 points)

Also a bit closed right now but with loads of Asian spice and dark red fruit. Concentrated on the palate but not heavy with a very long finish. Would also let settle for a couple of years before uncorking… that is if you can find a bottle, since Robert Parker gave this wine 98 points!

After finally meeting the man, the legend, the myth himself, I can say that he is all of the above. Throughout dinner he would stand and call everyone’s attention to tell another story about the wine, the vineyard, his wife, etcetera, every 20 minutes or so. And while recounting these stories, his arms and hands would be wildly flailing in the air to emphasize each point. It is evident that he has a passion for grape growing and wine making. Hopefully we all find that same passion within ourselves in whatever we do.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Ryan just keeps getting better and better with his stories
    writing about his experiences. Makes one want to rush
    out and buy a bottle of Pisoni wine until you look
    inside your wallet.

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