Carl Kanowsky | Mark Pisoni is carrying on a pinot tradition

Carl Kanowsky

Yes, it’s been a while. This whole pandemic has significantly impacted wine tourism while having minimal effect on the wine industry otherwise. This column is about the last interview I had at a wine event almost a year ago. Hopefully, with things improving, we’ll get back to more wine events and tastings. Meanwhile, here’s a reflection on what things looked like a year ago. 

I was in Santa Barbara for one of the finest pinot events on the West Coast, the World of Pinot Noir. I have written about meeting up with James Hall of Patz and Hall and Don Schroeder of Sea Smoke. After those two luminaries, I then had the distinct pleasure of meeting with a member of the first families of California pinot noir, Mark Pisoni. 

Mark Pisoni is vineyard manager for Pisoni Estate and son of estate founder Gary Pisoni. Courtesy photo

Mark is the vineyard manager for Pisoni Estate and the son of Gary Pisoni, the founder of Pisoni Estate and one of the original creators of acclaimed pinot noir in the New World. (It is rumored that Gary got the vines for his first plantings from a surreptitious borrowing of cuttings from a famous Burgundy vineyard.) 

As Mark likes to tell it, he was raised on the family farm, thus being free labor for his dad. After graduating from UC Davis and obtaining a graduate degree from Cornell, Mark return to the Salinas Valley to work the farm/vineyard. The Pisoni family began as vegetable farmers, and Mark remains just as fascinated with lettuce as he does with grapes. 

Mark, in comparison with his dad, Gary (aka, “The Wild Man”), is laid back and serene.  

Pisoni endures as a family venture. His brother, Jeff, is the winemaker. His wife does the accounting. His grandmother when we talked in early 2020 still helped with the finances. And Gary continues as one of the ambassadors for the brand. 

Focus on sustainability  

Mark wants to make sure the farm and the vineyard are planted and maintained with a focus for generational use. For instance, he’s brought in material to attract native, beneficial bugs to go after the bad bugs. Also, he’s planted to create an agricultural diversity — with things like broccoli, apricots, grapes and honeybees. The bees are actually one of Mark’s passions. 

In the Santa Lucia Highlands, the soil is decomposed granite/quartz and receives about a dozen inches of rain a year, so dry-farming is not an option. But not too much water. Mark says Gary’s philosophy is, “I want to make the grapes scream, then give them a drop of water.”  

Rather than being distracted by trends in viticulture (unless those are warranted), the Pisonis have a tradition (along with Mark’s extensive education and training) in how they maintain their crops. They study what others are doing about trellising, training, leaf pulling and the like, and utilize the good stuff. With Mark’s leaf management, the grapes get a sun tan but not a sunburn.  

When you buy a Pisoni bottle now, you are experiencing 20 years of Mark and Jeff working together to fashion their unique take on pinot. And much like Thomas Jefferson, who kept meticulous notes on his crops at Monticello, Mark and Jeff will run experiments on treating some vines one way and other vines another way. The two styles are then harvested and fermented and aged to see if and how crop management impacted the result. And one thing Mark has found: Pinot really reacts to the environment and its treatment. 

Pisoni Estate has two labels — 600 cases of Pisoni (grapes only from the Pisoni vineyard) and Lucia is about 3,000 cases (fruit from Gary’s and Sobranes vineyards). Clearly Pisoni casts a much larger shadow in the wine world than its size might indicate.  

If Mark has any say, Pisoni will live for future generations (his two kids work in the fields now), carrying on what his dad, Gary, started 40 years ago — with Mark’s influence.  

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker. 

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