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Pietra Santa Winery

Monterey AVA

Italian Artisans Working Magic at Pietra Santa Winery

The incredibly modern Pietra Santa Winery is something of an anomaly as California wineries go. While its facilities are remarkably state of the art, Pietra Santa’s broad range of wines are purposely steeped in the time honored traditions of wine-growing Europe and, in particular, those of Italy and France.

Pietra Santa Winery came into existence over fifteen years ago, when its founder Joseph Gimelli discovered a marvelous 455-acre parcel of land neatly tucked away in a picturesque little valley known as the Cienega Valley. The area is more accurately referred to as the North Central Coast Region and has recently become California’s primary growth area for winery development for the past decade.

While the area might be relatively new to wine enthusiasts, it has been in use for over 150 years as a prime supplier of high quality vinifera grapes for a number of sources. In recent years, industry giants such as W. A.Taylor, Almaden and Heublein produced grapes on this property for a variety of their national brands with great success from Gimelli’s newly acquired vines in the Cienega Valley

Joseph Gimelli’s dream parcel was anything but prime vineyard land when he first set eyes upon it back in 1989. While the property included a substantial amount of planted vineyards, the vines had been untended for many years and were completely overgrown.To make matters worse, the area was overrun with wild boars that complicated matters to no end.

Gimelli salvaged what he could (including a beautiful one acre Zinfandel vineyard that dated back to 1906) and set about to replant the remainder of the property. His intention was to start his own winery and, in 1991, fate intervened on the side of Joseph Gimelli.

A fortuitous telephone conversation with Sonoma winemaker Alessio Carli resulted in Carli’s visit to see the new plantings. A native Italian, Carli was struck by the property’s 25-mile proximity to Monterey Bay and its cool ocean breezes, along with its substantial limestone and granite soil composition that reminded him of many areas within both Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

The two struck an immediate friendship and Carli became the fledgling winery’s first and only winemaker.

Reaching back into his cherished Italian heritage, Gimelli named the new project Pietra Santa, or Sacred Rock.Three years later, in 1994, Pietra Santa was able to release its first 500 cases of its estate grown wines.

"My winemaking goal for Pietra Santa is simple," remarked Alessio Carli, "I always intend to bring out the best in the grapes. I always keep each vineyard lot separate, age the young wines in specific seasoned
barrels that limit the oak character and I create my final blends just prior to bottling. By respecting the complexity of the fruit and not burying it under too much technique, I enable the wines to showcase our unique winery character."

The ensuing decade has been good for Pietra Santa Winery, in terms of growth, acceptance and most importantly, in accolades from the industry’s often stingy wine press.This year Pietra Santa will produce almost 60,000 cases of its main brands, including over 28,000 of Pietra Santa itself.

By 1998, ground was broken on Pietra Santa’s new state-of-the-art production facility that ranks evenly with any winery complex built in California in the last twenty years. The 12,000 square foot structure carries out a mission theme that involves early Italian and Spanish Mission architecture that also includes a pair of striking bell towers.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.

Pietra Santa is also home to one of California’s finest estate olive oil producers. It has been ranked by at least one publication as California’s top olive oil producer. In all, some 5,000 olive trees are planted on the Pietra Santa property that represents a throwback to earlier times in California agricultural development when grapes and olives were often seen side by side.

Pietra Santa Winery is truly one of the real "happening" places along the Central Coast and no visit to the San Benito Valley, or more specifically, the Cienega Valley or surrounding areas would be complete without a stop here.

We are lucky enough to feature this incredible winery in our wine of the month club. Cheers!

Map of the area

Italian born winemaker Alessio Carli

Picture of 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.

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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.