Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery: Home to Italian Varieties in the Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA

Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery is tucked away in the Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA on Paso’s westside. The 16-acre property is home to an interesting collection of Italian grape varieties covering a hillside above Las Tablas Willow Creek Road. In a sub-AVA that is better known for Rhône-style wines, proprietor Janis Pelletiere Denner’s Italian heritage has inspired her to head in a different direction.

We were invited to visit Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery earlier this month. We spent two days as Janis’s guests, which included a stay in a farmhouse on the property, a walking tour of the vineyard and tasting of the current-release wines with Janis and winemaker, Amy Butler. The property and the Pelletiere wines are an artful reflection of this picturesque AVA defined by rolling hills, calcareous soils and oak trees.

A Walk in the Vineyard

Janis purchased the vineyard that would become Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery just before harvest 2014. She and Amy had to hit the ground running. No problem – the two have known each other for years and have an easy rapport. Amy is an experienced winemaker who has been making wine in Paso for years and she helped Janis evaluate the vineyard before the purchase. 

The vineyard was originally planted to a collection of Italian varieties between 1993 and 1995. Varieties include Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Aglianico and Lagrein along with Viognier and Syrah. 

There are also two rows of Muscat Canelli bringing the total number of varieties to nine according to Amy. “Eight.” Janis corrected, “I don’t count the Muscat.” Amy just chuckled. 

The process of improvement in the vineyard has been continuous since the purchase. Janis has replanted the Montepulciano because it was infected with viruses. Amy observed that the old vines made a pale wine, but now an inky, dark wine is the result with the new planting.

The first vintage of Aglianico (2018) is in barrel and in June or July Grenache will be planted. Amy explained the Grenache is a clone of Cannonau, as the variety is know in Sardinia, but it cannot be called Cannonau in the US.

In early May the vineyard growth was lush. Generous rainfall over the winter has resulted in vigorous growth and shoot-thinning and sucker removal have begun in the vineyard. It was interesting to walk through a vineyard planted to so many varieties as opposed to a monoculture. The difference in vine growth, cluster morphology and trellising was easy to appreciate.

Also easy to appreciate was the rocky nature of the soil. Willow Creek District AVA is known not only for its rolling hills, but for its calcareous soils that include fractured shale. The pH level of the soil here is very high, a very desirable quality resulting in grapes that maintain great acidity when ripe. Amy noted that it is never necessary to acidify the wines at Pelletiere. Instead, her challenge is to wait for the acidity in the ripe grapes to drop to the desired level before harvest. 

Drip irrigation has been replaced and must be constantly monitored. The high mineral content of the water clogs emitters rapidly. And pruning methods and canopy management are constantly being evaluated and modified.

Farming is low-intervention with an eye toward sustainability. Solar panels that will provide all of the winery’s electrical needs were being installed during our visit.

Janis and Amy walk the vineyard every Monday. Amy observed, “The thing a vineyard likes most is the sound of its owner’s footsteps. That’s why Janis is so involved.” Many Mondays they are joined by vineyard manager Caitlyn Pierini. If you’re getting the idea that this is an operation run by women you’d be right.

Janis is involved in every decision that is made in her vineyard and winery. On the other hand, Janis is quick to admit she and Amy, “have very different skill sets. And mine isn’t winemaking.” She has the wisdom to recognize and trust Amy’s judgement. 

Janis does have a clear vision for Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery and her skill set obviously includes a keen business sense, effective management, an eye for art and a definite sense of style. She has transformed the winery into an efficient work space with a tasting room best described as country-chic. And I haven’t even gotten to the farmhouse that feels like a reflection of her style.

Pelletiere Estate Wines

We sat down at a long table in the tasting room with Janis and Amy to taste wine. The tasting room is part of the working winery. Barrels behind the tasting table are filled with wine.  Janis observed that when she purchased the winery it seemed large enough. “But it really is small,” she noted. 

Small as it is, it works perfectly. Janis’s vision has always been to be a boutique producer of estate-grown, single-variety wines. And, anyway, Amy is a skilled forklift-driver. When the table needs to be moved, to allow access to the wine barrels for bottling, they know exactly how to get it done without crashing into the chandeliers. They even manage to fill, move and empty the two amphorae without incident. A formidable team, I’d say.

Similarly, the patio doubles as the crush pad during harvest, but this time of year provides plenty of space to sit and take in the view with a glass of wine. There is also a picnic table that is the perfect place for lunch.

The 2017 Viognier is a co-ferment of Viognier and Muscat Canelli.  The Viognier on the property tends more toward the citrusy flavors of tangerine, according to Amy, than white flowers, so she thought the Muscat Canelli would add an interesting floral component. Fermentation and aging is in stainless steel. This is a delicately floral wine with hints of honeysuckle, citrus rind, minerality and a bit of roundness that works perfectly. $32

2017 Tievoli is the only other blended wine in the Pelletiere portfolio. It is intended to be an everyday drinking wine that is accessible now. It is a blend of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Zinfandel. The Sangiovese lends structure and the Zinfandel comes with a delicious peppery component. $38

The name comes from Janis’s family history. Years ago her grandmother had a Chicago-area restaurant that served a pizza called Tievoli, which is I love it spelled backwards.

2016 Nebbiolo Riserva (pre-release) is made using whole cluster fermentation and is foot-stomped by you-know-who. It was aged in oak for 16 months and in bottle for the same. The wine is dark in the glass with dark fruit and earthy aromas and flavors. Tannins are a bit grippy, but well integrated with the flavors. $58

The 2015 Sangiovese Riserva is dark in the glass with concentrated aromas and flavors of primarily red fruit and earth with smooth tannins. This is the first vintage made using the Italian amphorae followed by aging in oak barrels. In Amy’s experience Pelletiere Sangiovese exhibits more fruit flavors and less of an earthy component when made in amphorae. $56

What is a brilliant idea, in terms of winemaking, turns out to be a labor of love physically. Sangiovese goes into the amphorae by the bucket, is shoveled out and then put into barrels. Yikes. 

2016 Syrah is dense ruby in the glass with hints of smoke, plenty of dark fruit flavors and a long finish with flavors and tannins. Aging takes place in 50% new oak.

2016 Lagrein inky dark in the glass with concentrated blackberry and blueberry fruit flavors. Tannins are a bit drying, but well integrated with the flavors. This is a lovely, flavorful wine with a juicy finish. Lagrein (lah-GRINE) is a red grape variety native to Sud Tyrol in northern Italy. $56

Amy remarked that this variety has been easy in the vineyard and in the wine cellar. It thrives in the relatively warm climate and maintains acidity when ripe.

2016 Zinfandel dense ruby in the glass with deep red and blackberry fruit flavors, dusty earth and generous tannins. This is a Zinfandel with character. $42

We tasted the 2017 Montepulciano (pre-release) at dinner the next evening. What a lovely, complex wine with firm, but integrated tannins. It was the perfect pairing for braised lamb shank.

Amy prefers French oak with aged staves and a light toast and uses a combination of new and used oak. Over time Amy has shifted winemaking to include less time in barrel and more time in bottle prior to release. Her goal is always to preserve the fruit flavors the vineyard provides.

The hallmarks of these wines are their concentrated color, generous aromatics and concentrated flavors with a long finish. Amy attributes the long finish to the wine’s acidity which she believes carries the flavors into the finish. And, as Janis puts it,”Our wines don’t have any elbows or knees,” meaning the tannins are present but in balance.

The Farmhouse

We stayed two nights in the farmhouse adjacent to the winery. The farmhouse at Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery was built in the 1890s and when Janis purchased the property she had the farmhouse remodeled. It is tastefully and comfortably appointed and includes wooden flooring throughout. 

The farmhouse at Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery

There are two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. Upstairs is a comfortable bedroom and bath.

The living room and dining room are spacious and comfortably appointed with French doors that open on to the decks. The sofa in the living room is positioned to enjoy the view of the deck and the vineyards beyond.

The country kitchen in fully stocked and includes a stove, coffee maker, microwave and small table.

We grilled salmon one evening and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and coffee in the mornings. We spent significant time enjoying the view from the deck. It is silent here during the night and the birds will serenade you during the day.

Your experience here will be a vineyard experience that is rural, but you are still close to town. It is a quick drive to shop or run into town for a meal. It is also the perfect spot from which to further explore the beautiful Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA.

This is a farmhouse stay, not a bed and breakfast, so you will have the farmhouse to yourself. There is also a cottage on the property that is available for a separate booking. And the gardens are beautiful. See the Pelletiere website for booking details.

One More Thing: Dorothy Jean Chardonnay

Dorothy Jean Chardonnay is a side project for Janis and Amy. “Because we decided we had time for one more thing,” Janis laughed. The name is a combination of their middle names and production is small (150 cases). The project started when Janis admitted her love of oak-aged Chardonnay and Amy responded by confirming a similar preference.

2017 Dorothy Jean Chardonnay

The Chardonnay is sourced from the Sierra Madre Vineyard planted in the late 1970s. This cool-climate site is located in the Santa Maria Valley and has sandy soil and south-facing slopes. Amy noted that every vintage she strives to balance the fruit flavors and oak influence in this wine. It goes through only partial malolactic fermentation. The 2017 Dorothy Jean Chardonnay is a beautifully-balanced Chardonnay with a kiss of oak and plenty of fruit flavor and acidity. $38

There is one more woman involved in this project, Erin Hanson, whose artwork appears on the bottle label. Over the years Janis has become a collector of Erin’s landscape paintings, so it was natural for Janis to approach Erin about using her artwork on the Dorothy Jean wine bottle label. Every vintage a different painting appears on the label.

Dorothy Jean Chardonnay is available for purchase online and you may find it being poured in the Pelletiere tasting room.

You will find Janis pouring her wines in the Pelletiere Estate tasting room most days. Tasting Room hours are 11 am to 5 pm, Thursday through Monday. Tues/Wed by appointment. For more details see the website.

Smile there’s wine ahead

Thanks to Janis for hosting our vineyard experience, wine tasting and farmhouse stay. This was the best possible introduction to your beautiful wines and Paso’s Willow Creek District AVA.

In addition to the wines at Pelletiere Estate, Amy makes wine under her own label, Ranchero Cellars. We had the opportunity to taste her wines while we were at the farmhouse and will share them with you in our next post.


One Comment

  1. Sounds like a great place to visit and wonderful wines. Will keep in mind for our next visit to Paso!