From grandfather to grandson, Piedra Creek Winery represents one of the smallest bonded wineries in the Edna Valley. Today, the winery is known primarily for producing Lagrein, a red grape variety from the Alto Adige region of Italy. The production might be small, but the wines are mighty in their own right.
Founder Romeo Zuech, also known as Meo to friends and family, was born in Brez, Italy, a town in the Alto Adige region. In 1950 he came to the United States, where he worked as a metallurgist for Rocketdyne International. As an aerospace engineer, he was very involved with the Apollo projects and the landing of the first man on the moon.
After 30 years, in 1983, he retired to San Luis Obispo, where Meo and his wife Margaret conceived the winery atop a knoll in the MacGregor Vineyard. In 1984 Piedra Creek Winery became the smallest bonded winery in the Edna Valley. They began by producing Chardonnay. It started as a passion retirement project and became a full-time business.
In 1999 Meo planted the San Floriano vineyard, signifying that the winery moved to its current location in the Edna Valley portion of San Luis Obispo. The 2.5-acre estate is planted with three clones of Pinot Noir, two clones of Chardonnay, and two clones of Lagrein. They produce 500 cases of wine per year. The only grape they source is Zinfandel.
T.J. de Jony
As a child, T.J. helped his grandfather grow grapes at their property in Westlake. He was in diapers assisting and talking to the grapes. He graduated from Cal Poly and learned more about wine by driving for Chris Ottman and taking people on tours.
His connection to his grandfather instilled his passion for winemaking. While his day job is in technology in Northern California, He comes down to San Luis Obispo as often as possible to continue the legacy his grandfather started. He now carries that love of the terroir, Lagrein grape, and winemaking with his grandmother, and you sense it immediately when you meet T.J. and Margaret.
Both T.J. and Meo shared the philosophy that their first duty as winemakers is to make red wine and 90% of their wine is made in the field where you can fine-tune the grapes. You cannot make good wine without first growing the grapes.
One can see the spirit and strength behind Margaret. Visiting the winery, she put on a homemade spread that made you feel right at home. If you have a chance, you must try her brownies. They are no ordinary brownie, the secret is a bit of Lagrein, and Manta cherries added. They are yummy.
Lagrein comes from the Dolimite area of northeastern Italy, in both the Trentino and Alto Adige Regions. It grows in alpine vineyards and is considered an ancient grape and one of the oldest in the region. Testing revealed that the Teroldego might be one of the grapes used to produce Lagrein. The grape represents one of the only significant red varieties grown in these two regions predominantly known for white wines and grapes.
The wine is full-bodied with intense plum and cherry flavors, dense color, and acidic structure.
Meo was instrumental in bringing Lagrein to California. In the 1960s, Meo arranged to take a UC Davis Viticulturalist to his village, and they brought clippings back to the United States. Meo kept some of the clippings and planted them at his Woodland Hills home. They moved with Meo to Canoga Park, Westlake, and finally arrived at their home now in San Luis Obispo.
It took some time to ripen the Lagrein grape in San Luis Obispo. Achieving the suitable sugar, PH, and acidity can be a feat since the Alps terroir is California’s antitheses. Moe and T. J. used Lagrein as a blending grape before 2014. Today Piedra Creek uses the Lagrein in a Pet Nat, Rosé, and still red wine.
Back to Lagrein Roots
This year T.J. got a chance to return to Alto Adige to the area where Piedra Creeks Lagrein originated. That winery, Muri-Grie in Bolzano, represents the largest and oldest seven generations producing Lagrein. He met with Christian Werth – Enologist,
Nadia Dossi – Marketing and Katherina Frasnelli – Independent Grape Producer and Muri-Gries Sales / Tasting Room Manager. Their Lagrein comes from multiple small hectare vineyards in the township of Bolzano
T.J. says, “One of the greatest oenological takeaways I had from the meeting was that we both agreed that the challenge making a great Lagrein is acid mitigation. While we in California can keep fruit hanging out there longer to get the acid down, the vines in Alto Adige are not afforded that luxury. So, Christian and the team have found some very innovative ways of doing this via winemaking technique instead of adding additives.”
The thrill was being amongst the greatest producer of Lagrein on the planet. As T.J. says, “Grandpa would’ve been proud.”
Piedra Creek Lagrein Pét-nat: This Pét-nat represents my favorite expressions of this wine. I found the wine refreshing with a wonderful backbone of sweetness, yet the flavors of Raspberry and strawberry burst forth in delight and a perfect wine for a summer day.
Piedra Creek Lagrein Rosé: This Rosé is a delightful rendition showcasing the Lagrein grape. The grapes are whole-cluster pressed and produced in a traditional blanc du noir method. The red grapes are pressed, and the juice ferments after separation from the skins, resulting in white wine, referred to as “blanc de noirs,” meaning a white wine from dark grapes. Although produced like white wine, the color, an elegant coral, draws one in to taste the wine. I found flavors of watermelon and strawberries.
Pinot Noir Blanc: Pinot Noir Blanc is a newer addition to Piedra Creek’s portfolio. The Pinot Noir grapes see whole cluster pressing and then produced in a traditional blanc du noir. I found flavors of apple.
Pinot Noir 2017: The wine consists of a field of grapes, which ages nine months in 25% new French oak.
The 2013 Lagrein combined 75% Lagrein and 25% Syrah.
2017 Estate Lagrein: This wine won Best in Show at the 2020 Central Coast Wine Competition.
2016 Estate Lagrein: I found the wine fruit-forward, created in an old-world style, and very drinkable.
Both the 2016 and the 2017 showcased the plum and cherry flavors that characterize Lagrein
2016 Zinfandel: The fruit is sourced from the Benito Dusi in Paso under a grandfathered agreement.
Piedra Creek plans to plant some new varietals, Syrah, to bring back the San Floriano blend of Lagrein and Syrah. T.J. also plans on planting some Grenache.
Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer received a hosted wine tasting. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.