Learning from Eddie Pisoni

Dec 30, 2008

Posted by Adam Lee

A friend of mine, Eddie Pisoni, passed away last week. And while it is sad for me and for the many others that knew Eddie, it really wasn’t tragic. Eddie was 90 years old and had health problems for quite a few years. In spite of these, he continued to live a full life. In fact, the day before he died, Eddie went out and had ice cream with Jane, his wife of 63 years.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Eddie Pisoni was the person who, in 1979, purchased the land that is now arguably the most famous Pinot Noir vineyard in California, the Pisoni Vineyard. If it wasn’t for Eddie there wouldn’t have been a Pisoni Vineyard, and the path of many wineries and the entire Santa Lucia Highlands appellation would have been very different.

Eddie didn’t plan on planting grapes on the property. He actually purchased the land with cattle in mind. It was, in fact, his son Gary who truly had the vision to plant grapes on the land. I’ve heard the story so many times about Gary digging well after well looking for the water necessary to grow grapes at the rather arid Pisoni Vineyard. If you ever asked Eddie what he thought as his son was digging one dry hole after another, he would tell you, “I thought: Gary, stop digging all those damn wells. You’re wasting all our money!”

Quite frankly, I’m not certain that the whole wine thing ever truly made sense to Eddie. For much of his life, Eddie farmed lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and other vegetables, sometimes making good money and other seasons losing money. The idea of growing grapes that were made into wine that sold for $50 and up was always a bit foreign to someone who was at heart a farmer.

Eddie’s grandson Mark now farms the vegetables and manages the Pisoni Vineyard. He spent every day riding around with his grandfather and learning about the trade. Mark has a master’s degree in agricultural science from Cornell, but I bet he’d tell you that 90 percent of what he knows about farming he learned from his grandfather.

When Eddie died, Mark sent me an incredibly nice email. He wrote this to me:

He (Eddie) always used you as a reference point- "What did Adam think of the grapes?", "Is Adam happy?", "How are Adam's sales?", "How is Adam's wine?", "When is Adam going to come down?"

And that is when I realized just one of the things that was truly extraordinary about Eddie. He knew more about land and about farming than I will ever know. He had a real feeling for a piece of dirt. Even though he didn’t envision vines on the Pisoni Vineyard, he knew the land was special. And yet, despite his great knowledge, he never stopped asking questions. He was always willing to appear as if he didn’t know something, in hopes of learning something new. And then, instead of sitting around and spouting off what he knew, he went out and actually did things. He lived life rather than talking about living life.

I’ve only met one other person like that in the wine business. Some years ago, I was invited to a wine luncheon at Robert Mondavi Winery. I figured there would be 100 or so folks there and I wouldn’t even be noticed. It turned out that there were only a dozen of us in attendance, and I was seated between Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever. I was scared to death. And yet sometime during the lunch, the topic turned to selling wine on the Internet, and I managed to utter a few moderately coherent sentences. Little did I realize that this would lead to at least 20 minutes of questions from Mr. Mondavi. “How do you do this?” “What do you think is the future of that?” It was both intimidating and exhilarating at the same time. Here was a man who knew more about selling wine than I will ever know, and yet he was asking me questions about selling wine!

In this age of instant and perhaps excessive communication, we all too often seem to love the sound of our own voice. I may be more guilty of this than others. If you’ve ever been to one of my winemaker dinners, you know I love to talk! Thus it is even more startling for me to meet someone who stops talking, asks questions and listens to others. Maybe it is a generational thing, this level of humility and intelligence that allows you to question before talking. After all, both Eddie and Mr. Mondavi were about the same age.

But I hope that isn’t the case. I hope it is something that can be learned. Because it would do me good to be a little bit more like my friend Eddie.

United States California Red Wines Pinot Noir

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