Reviving a Historic Estate Winery in San Benito

Eden Rift is the latest name of California winery estate first planted in 1849

by Laura Ness
The Eden Rift Vineyards estate has a long history in California winemaking stretching back to 1849.

Hollister, Calif.—When you begin with a property that has had vines planted on it since the Gold Rush as well as a large winery and acres of estate vines, you have the makings of something special.

So thought Christian Pillsbury, a former sales executive with Coravin, when he stumbled upon Eden Rift Vineyards winery in San Benito County in 2016.

“It was serendipity,” said Pillsbury, a San Francisco native with more than 15 years of global wine sales experience that includes being head of the luxury wine and spirits business DFS Group’s international operations. “I had heard of Cienega Valley, but I wasn’t even sure where it was, exactly. I certainly didn’t know anything about this particular property.”

Pillsbury said he had been looking around Napa and Sonoma counties with an eye to purchase a piece of California history. Several properties caught his attention, but then, a friend told him about the 230-acre estate in the shadow of the Gavilan Mountain Range, 20 miles from the Pacific, and south of Hollister by 10 miles. The vineyard and winery estate had gone through many iterations over the years but was most recently known as Pietra Santa Winery. Its nearest winery neighbors are De Rose Winery and Calera Wine Co.

“When I drove up the driveway and saw the property for the first time, I was blown away,” Pillsbury said. “I just had to have it. It just felt right. I’d been doing the math on some other sites, trying to convince myself they could work. But this was just the right fit.”

The name, Eden Rift, partly refers to the San Andreas Fault, which runs along Cienega Road through San Benito County.

Digging into the history of the property, Pillsbury found that for years this estate was one of the most respected vineyards and brands in California. First planted in 1849, it became the first vineyard planting in Cienega Valley. It was planted first to Mission grapes, then to cuttings of Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Trousseau Gris imported from France.

A long history of vineyards and winemaking
By 1880, it was producing 15,000 gallons of wine per year. In 1883, William Palmtag, then mayor of Hollister and owner of the local bank, planted more vines and expanded the winery, winning many accolades and medals at competitions in the United States and Europe.

In 1906, the property went to John Dickinson, a grain broker from New York, who expanded the estate to 1,000 acres, planted an additional 100 acres of vineyards, enlarged the winery and built the main house. It was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright. By 1916, Dickenson was producing 100,000 gallons of wine a year. When Prohibition hit in 1920, Dickenson traded the property for a hotel in San Francisco.

The vineyard made sacramental wine until the end of Prohibition, when Edwin Valliant and his son Edwin Valliant Jr., purchased the site, renaming it Valliant & Son.

In 1943, the Valliant family sold the property to W.A. Taylor, a subsidiary of Hiram Walker & Sons, who upgraded the winery and replanted much of the vineyard. Wines continued to be produced under the brand name Valliant Vineyards, for which a series of fetching magazine ads were created, copies of which can be seen today in the Dickinson House. 

In the 1950s, Almaden Vineyards purchased the property, filing a successful petition to establish the Cienega Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1982. When Heublein subsequently acquired the property in 1986 as part of the major purchase of Almaden Vineyards, the company shut down the winery, operating only the vineyard.

In 1989, Joseph Gimelli purchased the 455 acres surrounding the Dickenson house and renamed the property “Pietra Santa,” Italian for “sacred stone.” Gimelli planted nearly 100 acres to Merlot, Sangiovese and Dolcetto, preserving a 1-acre block of Zinfandel and 25 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Blackburn family purchased Pietra Santa Winery in 2005 and later sold it to Pillsbury in 2017. “This is not the right property for everyone,” Pillsbury said. “You really can’t grow anything here but Pinot and Chardonnay. I have great respect for the former owners, but I was determined to put this place on a secure trajectory for the future.”

A new focus on Pinot and Chardonnay
He and his team, which includes Mike Kohne as director of marketing and Cory Waller as winemaker, who was formerly the assistant winemaker at Calera and before that Etude Wines in Napa Valley, began by making a list of all the things that needed doing, from replanting and re-trellising vineyards for better fruit set to grafting over 41 acres from underperforming varieties to Pinot and Chardonnay.

“We even had to wrap all the irrigation heads with chicken wire to keep the coyotes from stealing the water,” Pillsbury said.

The estate now includes 90 acres of Pinot Noir, 22 acres of Chardonnay 3.3 acres of Pinot Gris, 1.1 acres of Grenache and less than an acre of old-vine, head-trained Zinfandel. Most of the estate’s harvest is sold to other wineries and the estate winery is also being used for custom crush.

Estate winemaking is now done with a small lot, hands-on approach with most fermentations occurring in half-ton bins or open-top tanks that are receive manual punch downs.

The small block of Zinfandel is called the Dickinson Block, planted in 1906 by Dickinson, the New York grain broker who greatly expanded the historic estate. The vineyard has been registered with the Historic Vineyard Society, and the grapes are used for a Dickinson Block varietal bottling.

And that hotel property in San Francisco that Dickinson traded the estate for at the onset of Prohibition?

Pillsbury did some digging and found out it was the Hotel Triton. Perhaps ironically and certainly serendipitously, it was the Café de la Presse — at that very hotel — where Pillsbury met with the banker to put together the package to purchase this piece of Eden.

Somehow, Dickinson just never let it go.

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