Pisoni Barrel Tasting

Barrel tasting ignites a specific strain of anticipation. In barrel, wine is still evolving, so you never know what you’re going to get. Tannins are polymerizing, wood components are integrating, and chemical compounds are seducing, oxidizing, and reducing their neighbors. After all, if the wine were finished, it would be in a bottle. And so it was with exuberant and intoxicating joy that Brian and I were privy to a barrel tasting session with Jeff Pisoni, winemaker for his famous namesake wines and arguably more famous namesake vineyards. Jeff derives from a three-generations-long pedigree of California farmers, from grandparents who turned their first real profit from a bumper crop of celery. Jeff and his older brother Mark now run the enology and viticulture sides of the family business (respectively), buoyed by the effusive magnetism of their wine-celeb dad, Gary Pisoni. Perhaps you remember him from my photo-op? Anyway, Brian and I had been graciously invited to barrel taste through their different pinot noir vineyards, scattered across the Santa Lucia Highlands. Yes, I know. Life is unfair. I hoped the contents of each wooden cask would express the unique microclimate that coaxed the fruit from bud to barrel. In fact, I was particularly ebullient this time, since Jeff planned to guide me through each barrel as identified by its particular rootstock strain. Something about the technical nerdiness of rootstock and clonal selections enlivens the mad scientist roosting in my heart. “This block is Pisoni clone on 3309,” began the ever affable Jeff, detailing the exact pedigree of each vineyard cluster. Using a glass thief, he siphoned our aliquot directly from barrel to glass, so we could compare same vineyard, same clone, but different rootstocks side-by-side. This was in contrast to Pisoni clone on 5C rootstock. Then we sampled more of the Pisoni/5C combination with minute permutations, individual barrels representing different expressions of the vineyard space- for example hillside versus valley floor. Never before had I been gifted such an intimate education in taste testing vineyard and rootstock selections side by side. And it’s not pretentious, charlatan, bull-sh#@, either!! Comparative, thoughtful tasting revealed both subtle and big differences. The Pisoni on 3309 tended to be bolder, more tannic, darker and brawnier while the 5C grapes yielded more perfumed, aromatic wines with bright acid structure. Never for a second should you believe that farmers select rootstocks for their flavor profiles. Instead rootstocks are selected for soil composition, water availability, pest resistance, and vigor. Some rootstock selections forage deep in the soil, drilling past pebbles and rocks, pillaging for minerals and water. Others seem to skim the topsoil and shallow loam. But it makes perfect sense that grapes of the same clone planted to a rootstock with shallow roots taste different than the same grapes grown on deep, scavenging roots. In the end, the grapes reflect the panoply of sun and shade, leafy vigor, rainfall, location, soil composition, limestone, soil-bred pests, temperature, sea breezes, climate, clone, and yes, rootstock. Isn’t this what frogs call “terroir,” you ponder? Yes it is, but only French people can claim it.

Grapevines have 2 components - the stuff you see and the stuff you don’t. The above ground part is called the scion. It determines the grape type, like cabernet versus chardonnay. Below ground are, of course, the roots, aptly named the rootstock. Rootstock breeding reflects the evolution of phylloxera resistance, dating back to France’s tragic, 19th century phylloxera epidemic. In the 1860’s, these savage soil critters were inadvertently introduced into French vineyards from American plant cuttings and quickly demolished the French crop. Scientific trial and error soon demonstrated that affixing American phylloxera resistant roots to fancy French grapes up top yielded a pretty good crop. Then, like all things in life, it grew more complicated.

Pinot noir aficionados are familiar with the unrelenting, numerical assaults of the Clone Wars. Pinot clones roughly fall into three categories: (1) California heritage clones, (2) UC Davis propagated, virus-free with a Stamp-of-Approval clones, and (3) French government sanctioned, legitimate Burgundy imports. This has not stopped enterprising viticulturists from illegally hoisting French cuttings to transplant into vineyards back home. These so-called “suitcase clones” are conveyed cloak-and-dagger style, incomparably sexier than the UC Davis number system. Basically the UC Davis clones are identified through digit-letter combinations, like 2A, while the legit French plants sport a 3 digit sequence like 777 or 115. This number clone is then grafted to a rootstock, identified by its own numerical or number+letter designation, like 5C or 1103P or 101-14. There is no obvious pattern. The “P” is for “Paulsen,” the guy who bred it. Maybe 1103 is his ATM PIN? The grafting process is provided by a certified nursery in advance of planting. That way a farmer can exactly match her grape choices to the soil they’ve got- whether it’s loose and sandy or rocky with compacted clay. I’m relaying the specifics just in case someday you too find yourself ensnared in numerical shorthand bearing no resemblance to high school algebra. Was that the 777 on 140R or the 115 on 420A we just tasted?

Speaking broadly, both Pisoni rootstock selections (5C and 3309) are suited to shallower soils. One choice (the 3309, V. riparia x V. rupestris) was initially bred to flourish despite constant rainfall. Both rootstocks are phylloxera resistant with one choice conferring better nematode resistance than the other. One loves limestone; the other doesn’t. One propagates easily; the other does not. And so it goes. In the end, I was able to tie the theoretical knowledge I garnered in my UC Davis viticulture class to something tangible, something I could drink and describe. Plus what better way to spend a Saturday morning, especially one en route to the Santa Rosa Costco to buy bulk toilet paper? On my next Costco run, I’ve got to swing back by Jeff’s place to drop off some cupcakes.