Every winery has a personality. Even large wineries managed or owned by some corporation can create and market their unique qualities and differentiators. But the wineries that make a huge impact let the winemaker’s personality shine through, making the wine a beautiful reflection of that brilliant character.
A trip to Pisoni Vineyard will wow you. The wow factor here is not only its multi layered and complex wines, which truly express their region’s potential. But the adventurous spirit of Pisoni’s namesake, winemaker, owner, and renaissance man, Gary Pisoni just might change your way of thinking about wine. Pisoni’s unconventional ideas are part of his success. Some are highly confidential yet so entertaining that even he can’t keep them secret. Vineyard practices like picking the leaves off the morning sun side is just the beginning. His theory: all the work you do loves you back when you drink the wine.
Pisoni wines are equally entertaining. The luli Pinot Noir has that unmistakable ripe raspberry and bright cherry that Pinot Noirs love to show off but layers of a eucalyptus log roaring on the fire and toasting nutmeg or chestnuts in the background give this wine complexity. If this sounds romantic, that’s probably because it is; this wine has all the textures you need for a lux meal when you’ve got love on the menu. Maybe luli means “love in a bottle” or “loves you back.”
Any road trip between Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Bay Area deserves a wine break. One of the most picturesque stopping points about half way through your journey is Paraiso Vineyards just north of King City and Paso Robles. Upon stopping, the first thing you notice is a lovely cork tree growing right outside their tasting room.
But what takes your breath away is the view of its hillside and sprawling valley while sipping sumptuous wines. Their Chardonnay has a lively blend of red apple, citrus, and pineapple flavors from partial time in French oak and stainless steel. It’s thickness and hint of banana must be what the French contributes. It would be a lovely pairing for rich salads or saucy lean meats.
Their flight of several Pinot Noirs showcases the versatility of this region. The first Pinot starts with tart currants and raspberry but the second Pinot has more richness with flavors of cherry and berry with a dark musty earthiness and a bit of spice. The third Pinot has more firm rich blueberry and dark black cherry with a balanced and complex body. This is the meaty one who can stand up to a steak or barbecue dinner. Their Zinfandel might surprise you not because of its lively berry profile but because of its subtle earth and spices of clove and sage. It must be its proximity to the coast that ensures the fruit is not overripe and its body has a velvet texture.
Finish the tasting with a dessert wine you certainly won’t see very often. It is a port varietal called Souzao aged into a port styled dessert wine with lots of plum, vanilla, and caramel flavors. An afterglow of cocoa rounds out the berry and plum but what lingers is the smokey vanilla and caramel. This one really rounds out your meal or dessert.
The Boekenoogen name might sound foreign because of its Dutch heritage. But the Boekenoogen family came to California on covered wagons in search of gold during the gold rush in the mid 1800s. They made their living for many years as cattle ranchers until they saw the great potential for growing grape vines in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Now, they are one of the few wineries that produces wines on the same property where they grow their grapes. A wine’s geographical origin as printed on the bottle does not have to represent where the grapes were grown or even where the wine was made; it simply means that’s where the wine was bottled. So, this gives new meaning to the term “Estate Wines” and Boekenoogen wines are grown, made, and bottled on their property.
Their Viognier has nice crisp acidity with the token floral fragrance and tropical banana thickness. But a hint of smoke rounds out this wine with more layers than most whites. A Chardonnay has bright balanced acidity and fruit flavors of melon and banana with stone fruit. Compare this with another Chardonnay and you’ll see how its creamy texture mellows out the fruit’s acidity and balances it.
Their Pinot Noir starts out juicy with lots of eucalyptus and earth. The bigger darker fruit emerges like blackberry and Bing cherry which appears to mellow out the earthiness. Their Zinfandel has plenty of that berry flavor without overwhelming jammy body found in some zins from the valley. Nice crisp acidity and a bit of earth balance it out for the trifecta of flavors and slight pepper on the long finish make it delightful for heavy or rich foods. This is a great place to see what everyone means when they talk about a “cool climate Syrah” because you can taste both of theirs side by side and feel how the first one’s tart cranberry acidity balanced by berry smoke and earth compares with one that has more plum and berry with mellow acidity and more cocoa and smokey layers.
Everyone knows the long road trip between LA and San Francisco’s Bay Area would be much easier with wine. This may be new to some but smack dab in the middle of that roadee is Soledad, a lonely place only known for its prison, inmate loved ones and families, and crops. Well, now, grapes are growing as part of those crops.
Just west of the 101 and parallel to it is a strip called River Road that runs all the way from Greenfield to Gonzales through Soledad. This strip of wineries and tasting rooms represents wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands, known for its sandy soil and coastal influence. Check on hours of operation before stopping in at one because they are a so far off the beaten path and undiscovered at the time of this writing that most are only open during weekends. But this region has the soil and climate destined for great potential so keep an eye on it.