Sacred Stones in California’s Cienega Valley

BevX on the Road in California

Having been in the drinks business for 20 plus years I guess that you could say that I have developed a keen skeptic’s posture that at times drifts toward the cynical. My bovine excrement meter is fully engaged at all times and that’s a good thing, keeping me from being buried alive in the stuff at times. When a winery or distillery is delivering their “message” my mind tracks swiftly to dissecting mode, separating truth from fiction and reality from spin. However, in the deep protected recesses lie a romantic and an optimist that yearns for each new place and new encounter to spark my passion and fully remind me of why I do what I do. Fortunately, I have just experienced a venture and now find myself freshly bathed in the waters of fidelity. Don’t be mistaken, the cynic’s voice is still alive and kicking but for the time being it he has been moved to the back seat being kept quiet with a steady stare.

In early June I received and reviewed a selection of wines from a California winery named Pietra Santa. The name, Pietra Santa, translates to scared stone. It was given by former owner Joseph Gimelli to honor his Italian heritage while aptly describing the mineral and limestone soils created by millenniums of churning rock by the San Andreas fault that lies below. While tasting the wines it was clear that they all exuded quality as well as a distinct personality. Individual wines are capable of expressing personality but I am always more interested in finding a common thread in varying and unique wines from a single winery. This, to me, conveys a certain honesty, course, and a confidence in winemaking that is the hallmark of reliability. In rare cases you can sense that the winemaker is trying to tell you something through his wines much like a painter gives reverence to his subject while his voice is nearly audible. The wines from Pietra Santa spoke to me. When a portfolio of wines, from the thousands tasted each year, distinguishes itself in this way I am compelled to give them a visit.

Pietra Santa is not a place that you find accidentally, or perhaps, this is the only way that you will find it. It’s nestled in the heart of the Cienega Valley in southern San Benito County, near the Monterey County border. As the crow flies, it’s just about 25 miles east of the Monterey Bay that greatly influences the climate of this valley. But unless you strap yourself to a crow you’ll have to drive and that requires navigating a maze of winding and often narrow rural roads; a far cry from Napa’s “strip.”

I arrived on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon. In less than a minute of standing on the property it wasn’t hard to see what has attracted winemakers and dreamers to this spot for more than 150 years. (The property had originally been planted to vines by a Frenchman named Vache in 1850.) A subtle and elegant Mission style winery, a striking guesthouse, and vineyards perfectly aligning the valley and then creeping up the surrounding hills all conspire to create an idyllic setting. At this moment I knew that it wouldn’t be necessary to ask the Blackburn family, present owners of Pietra Santa, why successful almond farmers would join the sometimes rough and tumble world of wine producers. (But later I would anyway…) I was warmly greeted by Jayme Nuun, John Blackburn, and winemaker Alessio Carli. Seconds later I had a cool glass of Pinot Grigio in my hand, and a plate of prosciutto laid in front of me. At that moment my mind flipped from asking how I had gotten here to questions of how were they going to get me to leave. Note to self; Google squatter’s rights…

Alessio was busy building a fire in the hardwood grill. Tomatoes and artichokes were on a nearby table and plates were stacked as well. I had a feeling that it was going to be a good night. We were going to enjoy a real home-cooked meal rather than the obligatory trip to a swanky local restaurant and an evening of polite, but scripted conversation. My feeling was spot on. Alessio prepared a simple, but delicious meal consisting of caprese salad, penne with a fresh made arrabbiata style sauce that accentuated the ripe tomatoes and offered a judicious compliment of fiery chili and earthy garlic, fire roasted artichokes and thick cut steaks that would leave Fred Flintstone envious. Just as the wines all speak a common language, Alessio’s dinner was a textbook match to his wines: Rosato (a rose of Sangiovese), Dolcetto, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel made from a block of the oldest vines on the estate. Both food and wine demonstrated what could be done with great raw materials when treated simply, with care and an inherent understanding of their true nature and unique flavors. The meal was capped with a simple desert of mixed fruits with the special addition of a tasty homemade spirit that is simply one of the best grappas that I have ever tasted. After a few more grappas and a modest raiding of the guesthouse’s wine cellar I turned in with a vineyard and winery tour scheduled for the morning.

Alessio Carli is a native of Siena, Italy in the heart of Tuscany; prime Chianti territory. His fist exposure to wine came early as his father made wine at home, which was nearly surrounded in vineyards on the nearby hills. Alessio studied at the Instituto Agrario in Siena earning first a degree in agronomy and then enology in 1987. While in studies he interned at a local cooperative and then spent two years as the winemaker for Fattoria Il Castagno managing both winemaking and olive oil production.

Alessio married an American girl living in Europe and on a 1989 visit to his wife’s hometown of San Francisco, the couple thought it may be interesting to see if Alessio could put his skills to work in California wine country. Several resumes were sent and inquires made but no initial offer was forthcoming. The couple returned to Italy feeling pleased, having given the effort to find an opportunity in California. A few months later while working at Badia a Coltibuono, Alessio received a call from America. It was Sam Sebatiani on the line. Alessio’s resume had bounced around the usual wine circles until landing in Sebastiani’s lap, fortuitously at the time that he was attempting to build a “Cal-Ital” style of winery named Viansa. In April of 1990, Alessio found himself working as a winemaker in California specializing in Sangiovese, the noble grape of his native Tuscany. In the coming years Alessio’s reputation quietly grew. Several wineries had contacted him to offer consulting positions. One of these wineries was Pietra Santa. In the early 90s, he administered the planting of Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Pinot Grigio, as well as Zinfandel, at Pietra Santa. In the same time period a few forward thinking people in the Bay Area began to import olive tress from Tuscany as well as olive mills for the purpose of making high-quality olive oil. A few years later the California Olive Oil Council was born and Alessio was a charter member. He was instrumental in planning and developing the Olive Press in the town of Glen Ellen. The facility custom crushes olives for local farmers. In short order Alessio found himself rooted thousands of miles away from home, in a geographic sense, while neck deep in Sangiovese and Tuscan olives. “California did not seem at all that different from Tuscany,” proclaims Alessio.

Morning rose and fortunately the fresh air and tranquility ensured a good rest and resolution of the generous quantities of wine enjoyed a few short hours ago. It was a typical morning at Pietra Santa with dense morning fogs that traveled up the valley before fully retreating seaward as the noon hour approached. Alessio met us in good spirits and we piled into his truck for an up close look at the vineyards. We passed old Zinfandel and Merlot Vines before traveling near Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese that was beginning to loose its youthful green, developing red and purple hues. They were still rather tart to the taste but sugars and bright fruity notes were already emerging from the immature clusters. We climbed a hill to reach a plateau on the property’s northeastern flank. From here one could easily gain a perspective of the entire estate. Perfectly manicured rows of vines filling a secluded valley. Steeply terraced Pinot Grigio vines could be seen to our right. Our current perspective clearly signaled that these vines must be cared for and harvested by hand. This block’s name “Amore” adorns the Pinot Grigio label, and is certainly appropriate as nothing but love of land and wine could cause one to produce wine from this defiant slope.

Beyond the Pinot Grigio lies a second slope and ridge that is home to Pietra Santa’s 25 acres of olive trees. Five varieties are grown here among the 5,000 trees. Like grapes, olives differ greatly in style and flavor characteristics. Alessio carefully watches the olive trees as he does the vines as he plays the role of olive oil maker as well as winemaker. The olives at Pietra Santa typically come to maturity a few weeks after the grapes are harvested. While most winemakers are flat exhausted after managing the grape harvest and crush, Alessio must summon his energy and direct the olive harvest and the production of oil at the winery’s custom press that he had designed. “In Tuscany where you have vineyards you also plant olive trees. Both are important components to the Mediterranean diet. First comes the grape harvest and right then begins the olive harvest around November,” says Carli. The olive oil from Pietra Santa is tremendous and if Alessio never made one glass of wine, he could be considered an artist for his efforts in beautifully blending the olives and crafting this oil.

We traveled back down the valley to the Mission style winery. The winery was built in 1998 but from a distance, the structure looks as if it were here for a century. It’s a magnificent building complete with a traditional bell tower, and tremendously sized wood doors that are both aesthetic and functional. The winery is equally impressive inside having ample space for visitors including a second story tasting room and gift shop that rivals those on California’s tourist winery trails. The functioning side of the winery gives further insight to Alessio’s mind and thought processes. While the equipment is state of the art, the layout is simplistic and logical, allowing for a methodical working environment. Please pardon the production side of my brain when I point out that it is an incredibly organized winery. Every hose, clamp, gasket, and small tool has a definitive home in Alessio’s winery. A few minutes walking through the winery assures you that every flavor, aroma, and nuance in his wines is there with purpose.

We tasted through the entire Pietra Santa portfolio. The wines were as impressive and hedonistically stimulating as my first encounter. One wine in the Pietra Santa line-up, above all, jumps out at me. The wine is “Sacred Stone”, their bargain priced red-blend. This wine is the sum total of the Pietra Santa experience having an unambiguous expression, a simple honesty and depth of character. Sacred Stone truly demonstrates Alessio’s talent as a winemaker and blender.

Later I sat down with members of the Blackburn family to have a quiet dinner and learn more about their entrance into the world of wine. The family bought Pietra Santa in 2005. The winery had been less than a success in the hands of the previous owners. Sales lagged despite the critical success of the wines. Inventories were out of control and the entire project seemed to lack focus. Despite it’s fiscal and sales troubles Pietra Santa seemingly had everything else: great vineyards, a new and modern winery with old world charm, and a resident winemaker with unquestionable talent and passion. Moreover, the property when taken in with the eyes, and all other God given senses, simply mesmerizes you.

John Blackburn is a man who has enjoyed great success as a farmer and businessman for nearly 50 years. He is also a man who prides himself on “smelling out” good deals and knowing when to walk away from questionable ventures. He recalled his first visit to Pietra Santa, a property discovered by his son Cort. He was immediately cautious as it was clear that his son’s interest in the property had perhaps originated more from the heart than the head. The nature of the deal was such that it had to done quickly. John admitted that his love of the property had caused him to take a leap of faith that he was not accustomed to doing. One thing that he knew for sure was that if he was going to be successful with Pietra Santa, he needed to assure that Alessio Carli stayed. Clearly, the deal was made, Alessio stayed and Pietra Santa now appears to be on the path to success.

The following morning, I packed my bag and we set out for the Bay Area. With the winery in the rear-view I was a bit sad to leave but comforted by the thought of a return visit.

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