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The Wine Column

Pietra Santa Winery

By Stett Holbrook

  PIETRA SANTA WINERY may be the best local winery you've never heard of. Or at least that was the case for me. Located outside of Hollister in the Cienega Valley appellation, the family-owned winery makes a wide range of wines, many of them excellent value. Last month, the winery took home eight medals from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, including "best of class" for its 2005 Sangiovese and gold medals for its 2007 Gewürztraminer and 2006 Zinfandel.

The San Andreas Fault runs right through the Cienega Valley, and the winery's vineyards are characterized by stingy limestone, granite, quartz, and sand soils that produce low grape yields but concentrated flavors. Pietra Santa means "sacred stone" in Italian. The vineyards also benefit from a cooling breeze from the ocean 25 miles away, making them considerably cooler than nearby Gilroy.

The 450-acre estate was first planted with grapes in the 1850s by Frenchman Theophile Vache. The Blackburn family, which has a background in farming in Central California, bought the estate and winery 3 1/2 years ago.

The estate bottled 2005 Sangiovese is a stunner and, at $18, a real value. The wine has a velvety, plush mouthfeel framed by bright flavors of cherry and a lively acidity that make this a great food wine. Winemaker Alessio Carli knows a thing or two about this Italian varietal. Originally from Italy, he grew up in Tuscany and began his winemaking career there. "We do sangiovese with a California accent and flavor," he says.

The 2006 Zinfandel is a big, luscious wine full of classic California zin flavors of ripe blackberries, plum, vanilla and a touch of earthy spice. The grapes come from 50-year-old vines and a block of gnarly old vines that date back to 1905. At 15.5 percent alcohol, it's a bit boozy but surprisingly well balanced and not the heavy-handed fruit bomb you'd expect from a wine with such a high alcohol level. It sells for $20.

I also really liked the 2004 Dolcetto, a red wine varietal from northern Italy. It's a delicious, supple wine with full ripe flavors of plum and a bit of spice and fennel balanced with soft tannins and a long, lovely finish. It sells for $18.

Originally planted as something of a lark, the gewürztraminer is another winner. The 2007 Gewürz is a small production wine (just 645 cases) made from fruit from the winery's nearby Dunne Ranch vineyard.  It has a refreshing crispness and acidity and floral, perfumed flavors of honeysuckle and lychee. This would be a great wine with Indian or Thai food. It sells for $15.

In an indication of the Cienega Valley's suitability to a wide range of grapes, the winery has high hopes for the roughly 40 acres of pinot noir it has planted.  This is definitely a winery to watch.

Stett Holbrook ([email protected])

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