Legacy and Tradition in Paso Robles

A few sips of Pierini Family wine and a visit with winemaker Jan Pierini shows how embracing family legacy and a minimalist approach makes her one of the best in Paso Robles.

Jan Pierini’s eyes sparkled to life as she walked down a well-manicured corridor of vines, talking to them in a soft, motherly tone. “This is my life and these are my kids,” she said, delicately handling a small cluster of magnificent purplish-blue grapes. “I touch everything from vine to table.”

I first met Pierini four months earlier at a softball tournament in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’d been photographing a few of the games and in between innings, I was talking with another photographer about my love of wine when she overheard us. She was quick to invite me to California to see her vineyard in Paso Robles. Knowing that I’d be in the area sometime in September, I agreed.

Paso Robles is a charming town with world-class wines centrally located between San Francisco and Los Angeles along California’s Central Coast. Getting there was quite a spectacular ordeal. After leaving San Francisco, I’d made my way to Santa Cruz via Highway 1 cruising through Monterey and past the cottage-lined streets of Carmel before embarking on a 75-mile majestic journey from Big Sur to my inland turnoff near Cambria. The warm offshore breezes, forest aromas and craggy coastal drop-offs made the slow, often construction-tangled drive worth it.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked, looking out over her 16-acre Pierini Family Winery. The late afternoon sun was casting a tranquil orange glow over a rolling, postcard-worthy parcel of land 15 minutes from town.

“I can see why you call this place home,” I replied, taking a another sip of wine that we’d brought along for the tour.

“You can’t make good wine with bad grapes.”

Jan Pierini grew up in a culturally-rich family environment steeped in winemaking tradition thanks to her grandparents who emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. Growing up, wine wasn’t considered a drink, it was just part of the family meal.

“As a kid, I remember sitting around the kitchen table with fresh bread, a little Pecorino Romano cheese and my grandfather’s homemade jug wine in front of me. He enjoyed telling me stories of the old country and I loved to listen to his broken English with the occasional Italian thrown in there.”

Over the years, Pierini grew from simple wine consumer to true enthusiast, developing an appreciation for the experience and production process, ultimately leading to her studying varietals, vintages, styles of producers and different regions.

At one point, Pierini talked with an uncle about pursuing her grandfather’s equipment and finally making wine herself. But as it happens from time to time, the idea was pushed aside because of other obligations. It wasn’t until 1999, as a new gag-gifted wine kit she’d received from two friends sat in front of her, did the conversation come full circle and her passion was reignited. Before long, Pierini owned all of her grandfather’s equipment and made the move to purchase barrels, stainless steel tanks and various lab essentials.

“I dug underneath my house in Southern California just to have a place to put everything. Some of my neighbors probably thought I was making more than just wine in the garage.”

“How did those first batches come out?” I asked.

“Oh, man!” Pierini said, laughing. “I made a lot of bad hooch in the beginning. That first stuff was so bad my friends used to run away from me when I asked them to try it. But it all really came down to the grapes. You can’t make good wine with bad grapes.”

The sun now hugged the rolling hills off in the distance as we rumbled our way toward the southeastern tip of the property in the winery’s temperamental, two-person UTV. In October 2003, Pierini bought this land unseen, knowing the area and demographics were complementary to both her style and personality. From there, she took classes in Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis to further her understanding of the more technical aspects of winemaking. She became both a farmer and winemaker, and hasn’t looked back since.

“My wine is more raw and traditional in style. I believe in minimal intervention. It allows the vintage to really evolve into its own masterpiece, something special. Traveling from vine to bottle is a journey and it yields integrity. I’m really passionate about that and believe it comes through in the end when people taste my wine.”

Although it took time, that wine became more palatable and would be rewarded by dual awards at the 2004 Orange County Fair. The 2003 Paso Robles Sirah won a double gold medal and became one of 14 crowned wines in the 604 wine event. Her 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon won silver.

Today, Pierini remains a small, entrepreneurial winemaker producing only Cabernet, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. Even as she gains popularity, she told me that she’ll likely keep it that way, too. “I really want to keep my focus on what we do best.”

That mindset continues to pay off. Right before my visit, her 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon won two silver medals. “It was entered at both the Orange County and Mid-State Fairs. It’s very young so I was pretty stoked.”

With the remaining daylight fading quickly, we pour the remnants of a 2018 ‘Love Potion’ Petite Sirah into our glasses and take one last look around.

I raise my glass. “To making a living by doing what we love!”

“As my grandfather used to say, “Centanni”…100 years of good health!”

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