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Pietra Santa Winery - Cienega Valley - Monterey

Italian heritage and traditional style in their classic wines.

The Cienega Valley’s well-established and well-revered Pietra Santa Winery has some new owners, and, as could be expected, a few changes. But, Pietra Santa continues to be one of the dependable wineries in the area that is correctly defined as the North Central Coast Region.

Pietra Santa, translated from Italian as “Sacred Stone,” was once part of a large tract of land in Hollister that had been left unattended for a number of years. In 1989, Joseph Gimelli bought a 455-acre parcel that was located in the small and picturesque Cienega Valley, an area that is literally bisected by the historic San Andreas Fault. Gimelli attacked the herculean task of restoring the property and adding some of his favorite native Italian varietals in order to make world-class wines with his grapes.

In 1991, Gimelli contacted native Italian (from Sienna) winemaker Alessio Carli to help him design and establish Pietra Santa. Carli was immediately impressed with the property’s near (25 mile) proximity to Monterey Bay and felt that its cool ocean breezes would beneficially affect the grapes and provide an ideal growing environment for the vines. In fact, some of the vines (Zinfandel) dated back to 1906, and still produced viable fruit. The fact that the area was also inhabited by wild boars was a nuisance but was eventually dealt with by Gimelli.

In 1998, the pair chose a combination of Italian and Spanish Mission architecture for Pietra Santa that included a striking set of bell towers that rise above the magnificent vineyards and winery facility. The bells are rung four times daily at 8, 12, 6 and 12 and were made by England’s Chapel Bell Company, the same company that produced America’s legendary Liberty Bell several centuries earlier.

Once Pietra Santa was finished, the remarkable grounds ranked with any to be found throughout California. Meantime, the wines of Pietra Santa became recognized as among the finest produced in the entire area, winning numerous awards and honors. The company’s first release of about five hundred estate grown cases came in 1994. With almost immediate acceptance, the winery grew to over 60,000 cases by the end of the 20th Century.

Meanwhile, the Blackburn Family had been farming a 500-acre parcel of nearby land for a number of years, and selling the fruit to a number of high quality wineries. “My family has been farming in California for many generations” offered Jayme Nunn, daughter of Pietra Santa’s present owners John and Phyllis Blackburn, and marketing director for the winery. “Being familiar with this area and its potential, we were looking for additional land in the area and Pietra Santa came up for sale. I think the original owners put a lot into the project and simply ran out of gas. The place is so incredibly beautiful that we didn’t hesitate a moment.”

The Blackburns replanted about forty acres with their preferred varietal, Pinot Noir, to give better balance to the vineyard-varietal ratio. They also added an extensive picnic area for visitors to enjoy while at the winery. “Other than that, we really didn’t change much else,” added Nunn. “You know the old saying, “if it isn’t broken, leave it alone. It was really true in the case of Pietra Santa.”

Today’s annual production sits around the 30,000 case mark, but will swell next year when the much anticipated Pinot Noir becomes usable. “Our plan is to raise our production to around 50,000 cases and then level it off,” stated Nunn. “With our olive oil production, that makes for a really nice mix.”

Oh yes, Pietra Santa also makes a marvelous olive oil, considered by many as among the finest in California. There are around 5,000 olive trees on the property, a throwback to earlier times in California agricultural development when grape vines and olive trees were often planted side by side by early Italian settlers and growers.

Most of the credit for the olive oil’s success must be given to Alessio Carli who serves in a dual capacity as winemaker and olive oil producer, a rarity among winemakers. He takes great pride in his wine and olive oil production and has won numerous awards for both endeavors.

For the past decade, Pietra Santa has been a must see destination for anyone venturing through the San Benito Valley. The smallish Cienega Valley is certainly a gem of the entire area and Pietra Santa Winery is certainly the most precious stone in the collection.

Italian born winemaker Alessio Carli

Alessio Carli who serves in a dual capacity as winemaker and olive oil producer, a rarity among winemakers. He takes great pride in his wine and olive oil production and has won numerous awards for both endeavors.

After listening to Cort Blackburn’s take on the wine business in general, he seems a good deal wiser than his thirty-seven years. The youngish president/general manager of Pietra Santa Winery has a full range of specific ideas about his chosen profession.

‘First and foremost,” he began, ‘I think it is almost impossible for anyone entering the wine business to begin to realize just how challenging and difficult it is to promote your business. You can have a great winemaker, a wonderful site with admirable vines and a perfect mix of varietals and it still doesn’t mean you will be successful.”

Blackburn was handed the reins of Pietra Santa when his family purchased the winery a little more than two and a half years ago. He had graduated from Fresno State with a BS in Crop Science and had taken to managing the family’s existing almond and grape growing business. ‘I am basically a grower,” Blackburn admitted, ‘I enjoy doing things that keep me outdoors. I think the idea of watching things grow and prosper appeals more to me than other aspects of the wine and olive oil business.”

What does it take to be successful as a grower’ ‘I guess it comes down to a person being willing to give a little more than 100% to what he does. He must be a sort of perfectionist that focuses completely on what he is growing, be it grapes, olives or almonds. In the latter two, there is more emphasis on quantity since we are paid by the pound. With grapes, it’s quality that really counts so the way you view your vines’ production is entirely different.” Blackburn also admits to being a wine and spirits drinker and even enjoys, ‘a beer or two.” He delegates most of the winemaking and marketing decisions to winemaker Alessio Carli and his marketing staff.

‘Why would I want to inject my feelings into the mix when we have someone like Alessio to call on who has great style and a marvelous following’ I make sure the sales and marketing people in our company have their say and that insures that Alessio gets good input as to what the wine consumers are really interested in.”

Blackburn keeps watch on the myriad of competitors Pietra Santa has up north in both Sonoma and Napa Valley, most of whom he feels are better funded than Pietra Santa. ‘It is a huge challenge to match up with North Coast wineries while we are trying to carve out our own niche. Even if you take out the fact that many have deeper pockets than us, we also have to overcome the fact that we are dealing with a lesser known appellation (Cienega Valley) and that’s not all that easy.”

He is also confident that his family has managed to build a flexible management team to meet the countless challenges of the wine and olive oil business. He draws upon his experience with growing almonds and grapes for a number of years as great aids to his ultimate success. ‘I spend a portion of my time (about one-third) on managing the business. That included the larger picture where I must interact with my winemaker and marketing people. The rest of the time I can concentrate on my crops management that is the aspect of the business I really prefer.”

Cort Blackburn has set some realistic goals for himself that also bear repeating. He said that he intends to focus on his career and family (four children) as much as possible. This will enable them to enjoy the outdoors and the fruits of his labor that success is able to offer.

When the Blackburn Family purchased Pietra Santa, a great deal of thought was given toward changing the name, possibly to Blackburn Family Vineyards. After much research, Cort decided that better marketing would help revive a label that already was assured of a sizeable consumer following.
‘After a year and a half we are still reestablishing ourselves,” he finalized. ‘Most people say we have come a long way but the battle continues every day. The wine industry might just be the most competitive business in the entire country.”

Cort Blackburn’s children (aged 9 — 4) are also in his thoughts as possible successors to the Blackburn Family farming tradition. But that’s a long time away, and right now Cort Blackburn is content to see his offspring having fun and just being kids.

Nonna Carli's Gnocchi


Serves Four

1 Pound Russet Potatoes (older and thick skinned
3 to 4 large Egg yolks
1/2 Cup Parmesan, freshly grated
1/4 Teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 Teaspoon Grey Sea Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Black Pepper, freshly ground
1 Cup all-purpose Flour, plus more for dusting board and dough
Kosher Sea Salt
Potato Ricer


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Boil potatoes until cooked, drain water and let sit until cool enough to handle, cut in half, and scoop out the flesh.

Pass the potatoes through a potato ricer. You should have about 2 cups. Make a mound of potatoes and create a well in the middle; add 3 egg yolks, the cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix into the potatoes with hands. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the flour over the potatoes and, using your knuckles, press it into the potatoes. Fold the mass over on itself and press down again. Sprinkle on more flour, little by little, folding and pressing the dough until it just holds together. If the mixture is too dry, add another egg yolk or a little water. To test if the dough is the correct consistency, take a piece and roll it with your hands on a well-floured board into a rope 1/2-inch in diameter. If the dough holds together, it is ready. If not, add more flour, fold and press the dough several more times, until is reaches desired consistency.

Keeping your work surface and the dough lightly floured, cut the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about a ½ -inch in diameter. Cut into ½ inch-long pieces. Lightly flour the gnocchi as you cut them. Form each ½ inch piece into the classic gnocchi shape rolling it along a gnocchi board (or ridged butter paddle, or the tines of a large fork turned upside down). Rest the bottom edge of the gnocchi board on the work surface, and then tilt it at about a 45◦ angle. Take each piece and squish it lightly with your thumb against the board while simultaneously pushing it away from you. It will roll away and around your thumb, taking on a cupped shape — with ridges on the outer curve from the board and a smooth surface on the inner curve where your thumb was. Lay them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or waxed paper, and lightly dust them with flour, while you work on the rest. Once finished, set gnocchi filled cookie sheet in front of a fan on low for ½ hour turning gnocchi after 15 minutes. You can also freeze the gnocchi.

When ready to cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Drop in the gnocchi and cook for about 90 seconds from the time they rise to the surface. Remove the cooked gnocchi with a skimmer, shake off the excess water, and serve with your favorite marinara sauce.

Cort's Crab Cakes with Aioli Sauce


Serves four

1 Pound of Crab, fresh, cleaned and shelled
1 Egg
½ Cup Bread Crumbs
2 Tablespoons Mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
3 Tablespoons Italian Parsley, fresh chopped
1 Teaspoon Lemon juice, fresh squeezed
¼ Cup Corn, trimmed from the cob, fresh, coarsely chopped
½ Teaspoon Tabasco (just enough to enhance the flavors)
2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Aioli Sauce Alessio

4 Egg yokes
6 Cloves of garlic, fresh
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
½ Cup Canola Oil
½ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ Teaspoon Kosher Sea Salt
½ Teaspoon White Pepper
Juice from ½ Lemon


Thoroughly mix all ingredients except the crab. Gently fold in the crab. Form cakes — larger if serving as a main course (4-6), or smaller if serving as an appetizer (8-10). Cook in a large sauté pan until browned and hot all the way through— approximately 10 -12 minutes. Do not over cook. Crab cakes can also be baked at 375 degrees F for 15- 20 minutes. Serve with homemade Aioli Sauce.

Aioli Sauce Alessio

In a blender on slowest speed — blend egg yokes. While slowly blending, add all other ingredients. Blend the two oils into one container with a pour spout — very slowly stream the oil into the blender mixture, occasionally pushing sauce down with a plastic spatula. Use enough oil to reach your desired consistency. The size of the eggs affects how much oil you need - you may not need all of the oil.