Dueling pinot lovers: Winemakers Mark Vlossak and Gary Pisoni

These past two weeks delivered two pinot noir producers. Sure, they make other wine but their heart belongs to the most finicky grape on the planet – pinot noir. And they’re really good at it. But the two individuals couldn’t be more different… confirming the fact that pinot brings people together.

Mark VlossakMark Vlossak, owner/winemaker/powerhouse behind St. Innocent Winery in Oregon, could possibly be called “buttoned up” but it’s hard to describe anyone in the stereotypically chill wine biz that way. He’s a former pediatrician — that, oddly enough, first went to school for theater design — and had been a food and wine junkie for many years (he grew up around the juice — his Dad was a wine importer), but it wasn’t until he read an article in Bon Appetit Magazine about sparkling wine production in Oregon that he caught wine-making fever. Five years later, after studying the craft, he released his first pinot noir and chardonnay. That was in 1988.

Now he farms the vineyards sustainably, organically and biodynamically (he works with growers plus bought into a vineyard in 2006) and produces pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir. The whites are good, but his pinot shines like a new corkscrew. Retailing for between $32 and $48, they’re worth shelling out the bucks. My favorites of the tasting:

St. Innocent 2008 Pinot Gris Vitae Springs: Steely, lemon-line with crisp acidity and a long, minerally, peach-infused finish.

St. Innocent 2007 Pinot Noir Temperence Hill: Dripping with red raspberry and bright red cherries, soft acidity and femininity.

St. Innocent 2007 Pinot Noir Momtazi: The pinot for cabernet lovers. Gutsy and spicy with dark fruits like blackberry and blueberry. Full-bodied and decidedly un-pinot-like.

Taylor with Wild Man Gary PisoniContrast the conservatism of Vlossak with the “dude” exuberance of Gary Pisoni, whose family has owned over 1,000 acres of land in California’s Monterey County for three generations. But Jane and Eddie Pisoni didn’t grow wine grapes until their wine-passionate son Gary got a wild hair (matching the curly mop on his head now) in 1982. His first five acres of of pinot noir were so well-received that he planted 40 more the following year. And so it began.

But Pisoni’s story differs from Vlossak’s in that for 16 years, the family sold all their fruit to other wineries, mostly those who bottled it as a single-vineyard. The grapes are that good. It wasn’t until 1998 that Gary established their own brand of Pisoni Estate. He brought his sons, Jeff and Mark into the operations as winemaker and vineyard manager, respectively, and the family-made wines pretty much sell themselves.

Gary declares pinot noir “the holy grail of wine.” But he makes a pretty stellar chardonnay too. All are priced in the $40- $50 range. My favorites of the tasting:

Pisoni 2008 Lucia Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands: Creamy peach, orange marmalade and pineapple with a crisp, citrus finish. Lovely.

Pisoni 2007 Lucia Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands: Concentrated, muscular black fruit, smoky and slightly earthy.

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