December 12, 2013 by Christina Hamlett
“It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking,” says a Latin proverb. “The arrival of a friend, one’s present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.” To this list one could easily add joyous holiday celebrations, family get-togethers and toasting the anticipation of a new year. If giving, receiving and quaffing fine wines is a favorite tradition that you and yours enthusiastically embrace, the following introduction by winemaker Jeff Pisoni to Pisoni & Lucia Vineyards of California’s Salinas Valley will provide no shortage of excuses to be merry this season.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: When, how and where did the legacy of the Pisoni vineyards begin?
A: Pisoni Vineyards began with an ambitious idea of my father, Gary Pisoni. He was a wine lover and collector who started making his own wine, and later planted grapes. He grew up in a farming community where our family had been growing vegetables. Farming was already intuitive for him, and winemaking was his dream. Dad has now turned much of the day-to-day operations over to my brother, Mark, and myself. Mark oversees all vineyard management and I oversee winemaking.
Q: Many people have a romanticized view of the wine business that has been encouraged by movies like “Sideways” and “Bottle Shock”. Give us an insider’s perspective on what it’s really like to grow, harvest, bottle and market your product.
A: While it isn’t always as glamorous as it is often portrayed, the simple fact that we love what we do so much still makes it romantic—even (or especially!) for us. We see and think the beauty is in the details. So even if we are digging soil pits to look at vine-root penetration into rock, or cleaning barrels and floors after a day of harvest, it’s still beautiful to us. The fact that so much effort goes into the small, often unnoticed events is what makes our wines special. These small things add up to be a great bottle of wine.
Q: What prompted the decision to create a rosé?
A: We wanted a fresh, early-release wine to drink at the vineyard on warm days. We didn’t even sell it for the first two years of production. Then people started asking if they could buy it and we decided to put a label on it.
Q: Rosés come in many colors. Besides the difference in grapes, what else might color tell an average consumer when looking for a rosé?
A: For rosé, color is an important indicator of style. One will see the colors range, with the light side being a very faint salmon/copper color, then they increase in color to a pink, and the darkest can be quite deep in color, almost like a red wine. The color tells a lot about how it is made (and how much skin-contact time it got, which creates the color), but most importantly for consumers, it tells how the texture and aromatics will be. Generally, the lighter rosé’s are more fresh, vibrant and delicate. The darker rosés are richer and fuller bodied.
Q: My husband and I first discovered your “Lucy” label a few months ago while shopping at our neighborhood Bristol Farms. What attracted us, of course, was that we had never encountered a wine before that bore the same name as our dog. While we’d obviously be flattered if our beloved pet was the inspiration for your rosé, we’re pretty sure there’s a different story behind your choice. What is it? Was/is Lucy a real person (or, for that matter, another dog)?
A: I’m sure your Lucy deserves to have a wine named after her! The idea for us was inspired by another wine we make: Lucia. Lucia mostly represents our vineyard-designated wines from our vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The rosé was going to be the “little sister” to this label, so we thought Lucy would be fitting.
Q: How is Lucy made and with what type of grapes?
A: Lucy is 100% Pinot Noir sourced from our family’s hand farmed vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Pinot Noir is a very difficult and expensive grape to farm and produce; therefore, most producers choose not to produce a rosé which is 100% Pinot Noir.
Q: How does Lucy compare and contrast with Spanish and French rosés?
A: While both Spanish and French rosés can vary in terms of style, many of the famous ones are noted for being quite light in style, representing the lighter side of the spectrum I mention above. One well known rosé region I am a big fan of is Provence. One of my favorite French rosés is called Triennes (produced by the Dujac and de Villaine families). It is very fresh and crisp, light in color. Lucy shares the vibrancy, but has a little more texture and fruit, showing its Californian roots.
Q: What kind of food should Lucy be paired with?
A: Many, actually. Rosé is incredibly diverse. My personal favorite pairing for rosé is pizza (it is great with tomato sauce and the various toppings). It is also a good match for often difficult-to-pair items such as certain salads and asparagus, and the sometimes-spicy cuisine like Thai and Vietnamese. My father abhors snobbery in wine and wants people to enjoy wine in whatever setting they are most comfortable. He has a saying for Pinot Noir (which would also apply here) that he thinks one can pair it with “Meat, fish or in the bath tub!”
Q: Does Lucy need to be aged in order to be best enjoyed?
A: No aging necessary. A beautiful part of rosé is that it is best when consumed on the earlier side. Within one year of release is usually ideal. Lucy will age if stored well in the cellar, but one gets the most vibrancy when consumed early.
Q: Tell us about some of the other wines that you produce.
A: We are a very vineyard-focused winery. We farm three vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands: Pisoni, Garys’ and Soberanes Vineyards (the last two are farmed in conjunction with the Franscioni Family). We make limited amounts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from each of these and they are released under our Pisoni and Lucia labels.
Q: What types of shifts have you seen lately in consumer wine-buying habits?
A: People seem to be shifting to lesser-known wines. Consumers are studying more than ever to learn about the unique aspects of regions, vineyards, individual sections of vineyards. As lifelong farmers we love seeing get so connected to their food. America is gaining such awareness for the provenance of their food and wines. It is really great to see.
Q: Pisoni Vineyards is no stranger to charitable causes. How did it happen to get involved with making donations to breast cancer research?
A: We know a number of people whose life has unfortunately been affected by breast cancer and we thought our Lucy rosé would be a good fit. We have donated one dollar of every bottle (and often more) to this cause. In 2013 alone it was $15,000.
Q: Share with us your “Tale of Two Lucys.”
A: We serendipitously met a very special friend name Lucy Millman, who came across our Lucy rosé while shopping for pink wines in Chicago— specifically for a breast cancer research fundraiser. After contacting us to inquire about the wine, a great friendship began. Lucy is a breast-cancer survivor who tirelessly contributes to various charity organizations. We work together on a number of events, now. For the full story, check out our website: LucyWines.com
Q: Any future plans for this label?
A: To keep making great wine and raising awareness. We now partner with a number of different charities all across the United States in their fundraising campaigns. We have met many amazingly strong women over the years and we look forward doing our small part to help.
Q: In recent years, a popular controversy has emerged over the use of synthetic corks and screw-tops versus traditional corks. What’s your take on the issue?
A: We are still committed to natural cork, which works great for us. Ensuring a high-quality supply of corks, though, is a lot of work. One has to have a high level of quality control in place and work closely with your supplier.
Q: So what should wine connoisseurs have in their cellars to open three years from now?
A: A bottle of our Lucia ‘Soberanes Vineyard’ Chardonnay. It’s a beautiful and floral wine, but what I like most about is that is shows the potential to age. In three years it may still be young, but it will be in a great spot for tasting.
Q: Pisoni was recently included in Wine & Spirits’ prestigious list of the world’s “10 Great Vineyards.” You’ve also been singled out as one of “America’s Grand Crus” by Wine Enthusiast as well as named one of the top California vineyards by Drinks Magazine. Congratulations! What vintage did you open to celebrate these stellar achievements?
A: When we see these awards, we are all very grateful. It’s really special to see our combined work get such recognition. Specific wines? We all have diverse cellars so there is always a wide variety of wines open (whether there is anything to celebrate or not!).
Q: Vineyards – like any other business – have been impacted by a downward spiraling economy. On top of that, however, you’re also at the ongoing mercy of mercurial weather, droughts and insects. What has been your secret to not only staying afloat but prospering as well?
A: We think and plan long term. Our family has been farming here for several generations, so one of our utmost goals is to continue what we have. We act responsibly for both our farm and our business. This is in part why we farm sustainably. This is what we love.
Q: Do you offer tours and wine tastings?
A: Unfortunately we do not offer tours or tastings. We are a small winery and don’t have the personnel (or enough wine!) to do this.
Q: What is something about wineries that most people don’t know?
A: Winemaking is not a formula. It is a combination of art, science and intuition. A winemaker and vineyard manager team need to know the science and chemistry that goes into winemaking. And they also need to be creative and willing to trust their instincts and palate to create exciting, compelling wines.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: The lengths I go for making pizza! My wife and I built our own wood-fired pizza oven, brick by brick. I started and maintain my own native yeast sourdough culture for the dough. For toppings— tomatoes that my brother farms, venison sausage that my grandmother makes— it is quite an effort, but like wine, the small details can turn a seemingly simple recipe into something amazing. And yes, it pairs great with Lucy rosé!
Q: For you personally, what’s the most challenging thing about being a winemaker?
A: The most challenging thing about being a winemaker is balancing all the unknowns and new events that come up each year, like the weather.
Q: And the most gratifying?
A: It’s really nice to know that our wines take part in many special evenings or dinners for our consumers. It’s like we are often with them in spirit— a special connection with our customers.
Q: If you could choose any person from history with whom to share a bottle of your best wine, who would it be, why and what would you talk about?
A: Thomas Jefferson: farmer and a wine lover. I would first ask him how those bottles of 1787 Chateau d’Yquem were tasting!
Q: Where can Pisoni and Lucia wines be purchased?
A: Quantities are limited and often sell out fast upon release. They are available through select retail shops and restaurants, but it’s best to call the winery and we can keep you abreast of future releases.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Remember: you can drink wine with meat, fish or in the bathtub! As our father implies—love wine, but love life, too.