Meet Chris Pisani, the on-fire, articulate and personable winemaker for historic ZD Wines. A chemistry major transplanted from upstate New York, he and his wife took a leap of faith in the early 90s and moved to Sacramento. His father-in-law had introduced him to the magical world of winemaking, which stoked a passionate fire that he knew he had to address.
The gods of fortune smiled on Chris. He got a job at UC Davis and was able to take wine and viticulture classes as a non-matriculated graduate student.
Then, in 1996, he met Robert deLeuze, who with his dad, Norman, and brother, Brett, were running things at the family-owned winery, ZD. (By the way, the winery’s name reflects the background of the two founders, Norman and his friend, Gino Zepponi, two engineers at Aerojet. At the time, Aerojet’s mantra was “Zero Defects.” Thus, ZD wines, both for the mantra and for the founders’ last names.) This meeting changed the course of Chris’ wine journey.
Chris, who started as an assistant winemaker to Robert, was promoted to Winemaker in 2001 and has guided the winemaking path of ZD since then.
ZD, one of the pioneers in Napa (they started operations in 1969!), now owns about seven acres along the Silverado Trail and 34 acres in Carneros. They also buy grapes from trusted growers in other regions including Sonoma and Monterey counties. The deLeuzes are proud that since 1999, ZD’s Rutherford and Carneros Estates have been certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). It’s a lean, mean operating machine at ZD, which has only four staff to work the vines and make the wines. ZD bottles its own wines with in-house bottling equipment. And, Chris and his bosses have decided to tackle the tainted cork problem head-on. Each individual cork will be analyzed by ZD’s cork vendor, who guarantees no TCA infestation.
So, great background but how are the wines?
Terry and I agreed, ZD’s strength is in its Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignon. We started with the 2017 Chardonnay (poured for us by the delightful Drew in the tasting room), which we both rated 92-93, enjoying the subtle fruit flavors presented in a well-rounded white. Fairly priced at $42/bottle.
Next was the 2016 Reserve Chardonnay. In California, the term “reserve” has no legal meaning but can sometimes be an indication of elevated quality, such as with this wine. A delightful nose of pineapple, the Reserve features tropical overtones in a pleasant but not overwhelming fashion. There is no malolactic fermentation, thus avoiding any annoying buttery notes. The fruit comes entirely from ZD’s Carneros vineyard, but they have chosen against going with vineyard designated labels. At $77/bottle, it’s more expensive but worth it.
The 2016 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir was a delight, with wonderful aromas (Terry detected strawberry) and a deep, red color with great legs. The Pinot spends longer in the barrel (15 months) than many others. This means slightly stronger tannins now but structure to allow for great aging.
We then finished with two excellent Cabernets.
The 2015 Cab is a relative bargain at $75. The fruit is also Napa Valley and produces a wine that’s dark and well-balanced, smells of tobacco and blackberry which carry through to the taste. To Chris’ credit, the tannins are more nuanced so that they do not overpower the taster the way many new Cabs tend to do.
And then we hit the high note, with the 2014 Cabernet Reserve. This spends three years in barrel and one year in bottle before it is released. A limited production of 500-600 cases. Tobacco, leather, and smoke on the palate in an intense yet intriguing manner. A long-lasting finish with highlights of cherry and blackberry, this is an amazing wine. At $210, it’s not for the faint of heart but is a worthwhile investment for great future enjoyment. As Terry said, “Wow!”
Chris, along with Norman’s grandson, Brandon (the Associate Winemaker), Robert deLeuze (CEO), and President Brett deLeuze, create wine worthy of the Napa designation, home to some of the world’s finest wines.
© Carl Kanowsky
June 5, 2018