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Pietra Santa

Tuscany inspires a winery near Monterey

Tim Fish
Posted: June 24, 2003

Joseph and Deanna Gimelli's estate-grown olive oil, Olivita, is among the top winery-produced oils.
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A rock 'n' roll winemaker harvests olives from 100-year-old trees
A desire for diversity

Joseph and Deanna Gimelli don't do things on a small scale. They like wine, so they bought 455 acres near Monterey and built Pietra Santa winery. They like Italian wine, so they planted nearly 100 acres of Sangiovese and Dolcetto. They like olive oil, so they planted some olive trees -- 5,000 to be exact -- and imported a Pieralisi press with a 7-ton granite mill from Italy.

Pietra Santa is a rarity in California; it's one of only two wineries that has its own olive press. "I just did what I love," says Joseph Gimelli, 44, who was in the waste management business before he bought the ranch just outside Hollister in 1989 and set out to build an estate to honor his Italian heritage.

While Pietra Santa produces 48,000 cases of wine a year and is still building a market (the wines have received very good ratings from Wine Spectator at best), the first release of its estate-grown oil, Olivita, is a standout. Complex, intensely aromatic and flavorful, it finished at the top in our tasting of winery-produced olive oils.

The olive trees scattered around the ranch look tiny compared with the 100-year-old Mission trees that many California oil producers use. "They're growing them [the size of] bushes in Italy now. It saves on labor," Gimelli says as he steers his SUV up a steep hillside.

Grapes were first planted in the region -- known as the Cienega Valley American Viticultural Area -- in the mid-1800s. Once part of Almaden Vineyard in the winery's heyday of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the property was largely abandoned by the late 1980s. The ranch also includes a house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which is now restored and home to the Gimelli family.

Overseeing Pietra Santa's oil program is Alessio Carli, who is also the winemaker. The Siena, Italy, native came to the United States in 1990 and worked at Viansa and other wineries before helping establish The Olive Press in Sonoma County. He consulted for Pietra Santa before joining them full-time in 1998.

That same year, Gimelli planted five classic Italian olive varieties -- Leccino, Coratina, Frantoio, Itrana and Pendolino -- in hopes of replicating a hearty Tuscan oil.

"We like to pick some olives early and some later in the season," Gimelli says. "We get a lot of the nice pepper if we pick early and some of that lovely butter if we pick late. We like our oil to have both."

Pietra Santa produced only 900 700ml bottles of Olivita in 2002. It retails for $50 and is sold only through the winery. Production will expand as the trees mature. The winery also makes two other oils from olives harvested in Oroville, near Sacramento; they sell for $14 and $24.

Gimelli's next project is to produce a first-rate yet inexpensive olive oil that consumers can use for everyday cooking purposes. While it won't be produced from the trees around the property, it's just one more way that Gimelli is trying to live his dream of an Italian estate in the hills east of Monterey.

Pietra Santa
10034 Cienega Road, Hollister, CA 95023
Telephone (831) 636-1991
Fax (831) 636-1929
Web site www.pietrasantawinery.com

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