Pietra Santa Winery
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
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.