Eat Drink Savor

Eat, Drink, Savor: The classic pinot noirs and chardonnays of Eden Rift

Christian Pillsbury continues the legacy of Cienega Valley winemaking.
Eden Rift owner Christian Pillsbury and Cory Waller. Photo by Robert Eliason
Eden Rift owner Christian Pillsbury and Cory Waller. Photo by Robert Eliason
Eden Rift Winery. Photo by Robert Eliason
Eden Rift Winery. Photo by Robert Eliason
Christian Pillsbury at the winery. Photo by Robert Eliason
Christian Pillsbury at the winery. Photo by Robert Eliason
The Vineyard. Photo by Robert Eliason
The Vineyard. Photo by Robert Eliason

It’s easy to see the pride Christian Pillsbury takes in the history and tradition of his Eden Rift vineyard—he has a photo on his cellphone of an 1879 land survey that measures his valley in archaic units of chains and degrees. Called “Vaché Land” in the survey report, after the original owner, pioneer winemaker Théophile Vaché, Pillsbury owns part of the oldest continuously producing vineyard in California. 

“I am the seventh owner, and mine is the fifth brand,” Pillsbury said. “It is a series of interesting stories, and every owner has left a mark here.”

Pillsbury dates the vineyard to 1849, based on the claim made by a previous winery, Valliant and Son Vineyards, that the land had been “Under vine since 1849.” In 1986, the last owner of the entire vineyard, Heublein, Inc., split it into two parcels which became the DeRose and Pietra Santa wineries. Pillsbury bought Pietra Santa in 2016.

“When we took over, we wanted to take it back to the early intent of this property,” Pillsbury said. “That’s pinot noir and chardonnay. It has been pinot noir since 1860, some of the earliest plantings of that varietal in California. 

Previous owners took out most of the historic vines, but nearly an acre of highly valued pre-1906 zinfandel is still growing on the property. It is called the Dickinson Block, after the third owner of the vineyard, John Dickinson.

“It is still in production and is well regarded,” he said. “We have come to love it. Zinfandel was not originally part of my project for this site, but I’m not going to be the guy who rips out vines that have been growing that long.”

Eden Rift sits in a perfect spot for growing grapes. Sitting atop the San Andreas Fault, the rift cuts through to the limestone that winemakers cherish. The unique climate and geology of the Cienega Valley seem almost designed for the wines Pillsbury wants to craft.

“We have 120 acres of vineyards in this valley with a large elevation gain,” Pillsbury said. “Between the winery and the top of our tallest vineyards is 400 feet. We have a lot of terraces and a lot of different sun orientations. We get the wind coming in from Monterey Bay, so no matter how warm it gets, at night, the temperature slams right down again. Our average temperature over the year, if you integrate 365 days and 24 hours a day, is only 56 degrees—so if we wanted to grow cabernet or merlot, we couldn’t. It is just too cold. But it is perfect for pinot and chardonnay—sort of acidic-driven, bright, fresh, and food-friendly.”

Pillsbury’s philosophy in producing wines is to limit what they do with the grapes after picking. For the chardonnays, for example, the process is fast. The grapes are picked at night, brought in cold, pressed first thing in the morning, put in barrels, stored for 11 months, then blended and bottled. 

“We don’t really mess around with it,” he said. “Our goal here is to let the vineyard speak very clearly. Everything we do here is in service to the estate’s voice and tells the story about a specific place on Earth. The idea here is not to have the winemaker’s hand be the point and our winemaker, Cory Waller, has the confidence to do very little to these grapes.”

Waller grew up in Hollister with his brother Mike, who is the winemaker for Calera Wine Company. Cory has been with Eden Rift since its start in 2016. 

“My first wines were an Estate Pinot and an Estate Chardonnay,” Waller said, “I did good enough to keep the job, obviously. It was easy to make those wines, but the challenge was that there was no baseline to compare them to since the wines the previous owners had made were not stylistically anything near what I was going for with my wines.”

The process Pillsbury outlined sounds simple, but of course, it isn’t. Besides environmental considerations for growing, such as rainfall, temperature and soil composition, there are complications in tending to the vines themselves.

“We bring a lot of science to work both in the vineyard and the winery,” Pillsbury said. “One of my professors once said that there are 20,000 points of decision between the field and the bottle. It is less about making choices and more about intention and philosophy. When do you prune? How do you prune? Cane prune, spur prune. Do you till?  Do you not till? We will be using sheep this year on one of the slopes to reduce tractor pressure. That is a big decision, but it is something nobody will taste in the finished product. But down the line, it will make a difference.”

Pillsbury’s dedication carries down to the ties that hold his vines to the trellis—he has started replacing the old ties with more ecologically sound ones. Again, it won’t make a difference to the taste, but he feels it’s part of the right way of growing the grapes.

Eden Rift accounts for only five years of this vineyard’s 170-year history, but with their beautiful chardonnays and stellar pinot noirs, Pillsbury and Waller have proven worthy of its great tradition and are looking to expand on the legacy.

“We have talked about growing chenin blanc and aglianico out here,” Waller said. “I am very much looking forward to doing Rhone varietals out here. There are 500 acres out here, and the question becomes, ‘How brave are you?’”

 

The wines 

I had two opportunities to taste different selections of wines at Eden Rift, once with Pillsbury and once with both Pillsbury and winemaker Cory Waller. For the sake of simplicity, the wines I tried are on one list. 

2017 Estate Chardonnay ($42) A blend of four different blocks of different chardonnay grapes, Pillsbury says he is looking for an “acid-driven mineral firmness and structure, making an age-worthy and serious wine.” Only 20% new oak is used, holding back the dominance of that note. The wine has a brilliant depth and texture from start to finish, with hints of sweet orange and pear and an acidity that tapers off smoothly. I would serve this with baked cod or salmon and a simple side dish of risotto or just on its own with a creamy cheese like Camembert.

2019 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($25) “A lot of wineries treat rosé as a byproduct, but we don’t do that,” Pillsbury said. “For us, it is a noble wine on its own.”  Rosés, to me, are often one-dimensional throwaway wines. This rosé is more crafted and vibrant, a great summer drink. “Too many rosés are flabby or prematurely oxidizing,” Waller said. “But I really like the ripping acidity of this wine and the way it accentuates the floral aromatics.” I would happily serve this with fish tacos for lunch, cheese and crackers at brunch, or appetizers before dinner—perhaps cheese and crackers at bruschetta.

2019 Pinot Gris ($32) “Pinot Gris always has a salty briny character to me,” Waller said. “There is always a little tannin or bitterness, but I don’t want to exaggerate it. To me, this is a great oyster wine.” It is a perfect sipping wine with a distinct sour citrus-grape flavor that smooths out at the end. I am not big on oysters, but I would happily serve this with a Caesar salad and grilled chicken.

2018 Terrace Chardonnay ($54) “This wine is more of the naked truth of the vintages,” Waller said. “It is a little easier for me because I am only dealing with a single vineyard block—90% of the work is just being there and watching it.” I really like chardonnays. I have gone through phases where I drink chardonnays almost exclusively. This one hits every note that I love about chardonnays. It starts with a buttery flavor that moves to rich citrus, then to a hint of oak, and ends with a crisp finish. It’s perfectly balanced, so no single flavor overwhelms another. This might be the finest chardonnay I have ever had. 

2017 Estate Pinot Noir 2017 ($48) “We are not chasing color and power,” Pillsbury said. “We are chasing texture and length.” This medium-bodied wine opens with solid fruit aromas and a flavor of blackberry, dried rose, and black tea. It’s an entirely delightful wine that would be perfect to have with friends at a picnic with cold sandwiches. But it’s a dinner wine to serve with duck or lighter grilled foods like skirt steak or chicken.

2018 Palmtag Pinot Noir ($78) Named after the second owner of the vineyard, these vines were grafted onto Merlot rootstock. “I think this is one of our more versatile wines,” Waller said. “It is kind of like an older child who has nothing to prove.” It does not show off its brawniness, but the intense, bold flavors could easily stand up to heavier or spicy foods, like pasta with red sauces or Mexican food. 

2019 Dickinson Zinfandel ($45) This wine is created from the last remaining old vines on the property, dating to around 1906. “Do I wish I had more old vines to play with? Yes!” Waller said. ”It would have been nice to have more of the old vines, but they are long gone.” This vine knows how to produce grapes, and belying the age of the vines, this is a young and vibrant wine with solid acidity and layers of flavor. A standout wine, Waller describes it as silky and sexy. It’s hard to think of any food this wine would not fully complement, though I would prefer to drink it on its own to get the full unadulterated flavor.

2018 Landsdale Pinot Noir ($78) This is a single-vineyard, single-clone wine grown on a very high terrace at the back of the vineyard. It’s left on the stem when being fermented, giving it more body and texture. It’s brooding and deep, a gorgeous wine with hints of plum and boysenberry. Pillsbury counts this as the best wine he has produced so far, and of all the reds I tried, this one was the standout. With a perfectly balanced complexity that melts in your mouth as you drink it, this would be good with classic dishes like Beef Wellington or Beef Bourguignon.

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.