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Wine world loses another good one

23 comments

 

It was in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua that I learned, from a winemaker, that Steve Pessagno has just died.

Ed and I had just been talking about him at the hotel bar  two nights earlier, in the most favorable way. Steve was the owner/winemaker of Pessagno Vineyard, a Monterey-based winery, where he made some fine wines. I’d known Steve since his days at the old Jekel Vineyards, where he used to be winemaker. I remember him hosting me at Jekel’s little facility, right off the 101 Freeway in the heart of the Salinas Valley. It was Steve who told me about the infamous winds that sweep down the valley. Some years later, after he’d finally been able to start his own winery (which made him so happy) I visited him at his tasting room, on River Road. Steve had a bad back, but he was a big, strong guy and refused to let it interfere with his work.

Steve, to me, was the quintessential winemaker. Nobody handed him anything on a silver platter. He wasn’t born to wealth. After working as an engineer, he decided he wanted to be a winemaker, and he came up the hard, old fashioned way. He never achieved great fame or wealth, but he crafted well-made wines of terroir, at affordable prices, and he put his heart and soul into his work. He also was a true pioneer of premium wines in Monterey.

Steve was the kind of guy who makes the world of wine go around. I doubt that he would have been comfortable in the spotlight, if things had gone differently and the media had discovered and promoted him. I can’t say I knew him well, but I knew him enough to understand his essential humility. He desired to be successful enough to support himself and his family and avoid debt, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out there and shmooze and entertain an audience at a fancy wine and food event. He was what winemakers have always been: an upright, honest guy, friendly and industrious.

Steve was only 55 years old, way too young. I’m sending my condolences to the family, and I hope Steve’s son, Anthony, will keep the winery charging ahead.

Even if you didn’t know Steve, please give him a moment of respectful silence. He was one of the good ones.

 

  1. I just met Steve a few weeks ago while in the Monterey area for the WineMaker Magazine Conference. Of the winemakers I met on that trip he was the most down to earth, friendly and vital. This really makes me sad because I had hoped to cross paths with him again some day. My heart goes out to his family, we also met a son, who I am sure are broken now and will need love and support to deal with the loss.

    Jason

  2. Thank you for your kind words about this wonderful man. Steve was as genuine as they get. Talented, honest, hard working and determined, a steadfast friend and loving father. He was gift to this world during his short time with us. My heart and prayers are with those he loved so much. He will be missed.

    Linda

  3. Steve-
    I never met Mr. Pessagno, but thankfully through your writing I was provided a brief glimpse into a great life. Difficult to lose such a great person and I hope his legacy for being an “…upright, honest guy, friendly and industrious” lives on.

    Thanks for the piece.

    Regards,
    Martin

  4. Steve Passagno worked tirelessly to promote the often overlooked wines from our Central Coast appellations. His wines were beautiful and generous, a reflection of his own character. He was a true pioneer and above all, a truly humble gentleman. He will be greatly missed.

  5. Art Nathan says:

    I knew Steve clear back in his Jekel days as well. He had a few pratfalls along the way (what winemaker hasn’t) but always made very solid wines. He was a great spokesman for Monterey Co. in the 90′s when we both were in Monterey. I left the area before he opened his place and while I popped in a couple of times, I never could seem to catch him. He will be missed…RIP

  6. Rick Jones says:

    Sad News. I first met Steve in 1985 when he was working for Kirigin Cellars on Hecker Pass in Gilroy. One of the nicest and friendliest guys you’d ever want to meet. we worked together on a couple of projects when he was at Lockwood but hadn’t seen much of him recently. And real wine guy, through and through, which is the highest compliment I can give anybody.

  7. Tim Patterson says:

    So sorry to hear this, I met Steve when he was at Lockwood, and I will never forget sitting in on a blending session, with a very loud Van Halen CD as the soundtrack. He was a frequent source of interesting, out-of-the-box ideas for me as a writer about technical winemaking geekery. And he made a ton of good wine, one bottle of which I will open tonight to toast him.

  8. Gary Eberle says:

    Met Steve thru Bill Jekel. Great winemaker working under new and strange conditions(wind and cold of Salinas valley) and he made some spectacular wines. Sorry to see him pass. He was a good guy.

  9. Thanks for the piece Steve. Passagno was a great person & winemaker. I was in a meeting with his sister Elaine when she received the call.
    So sad…

  10. Steve was not only a fabulous winemaker and a wonderful gentleman, he was also a good friend. Steve was always there to lend assistance or to talk to. He was down to earth and hard working. The entire Monterey County wine community has lost a great person who will surely be missed. Our condolences go out to his family and co-workers. Thanks also to Steve Heimoff for his acknowledgment.

  11. I am sad to hear if Steve’s passing. I first met him when he started making wines for Jekel. He was an enthusiastic and passionate man who has been taken too early. My condolences to his family and friends.
    Michael Verlander

  12. Dan Lee says:

    Steve H, thanks for the tribute to Steve Pessagno. And the nice comments from your readers. Besides all that has been said, most recently he has been contributing toward public policy in the county, trying to make it easier for winery construction. He was a foodie, with pop restaurant meals and a 4.5 foot diameter Paella pan always ready to go. Steve and his son, Anthony, were the driving force behind the River Road Wine Trail, a collection of tasting rooms along River Road that borders the Santa Lucia Highlands and beyond. And he was a founding board member of the Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Yes, as Dean mentioned, he was tireless. And he will be sorely missed. Rest in Peace my friend.

  13. Bryan Vais says:

    Sorry to hear this Steve. Over the weekend I just read his article in the latest issue of Wines & Vines titled “Lessons Learned the Hard Way”. His self-effacing sense of humor rings out.

  14. Still in shock. Got the news today and can’t believe it still. I’ve known Steve for about 15 years and as Mr. Heimoff said, Steve was one of the good ones. He was the epitome of a hand shake guy, if he told you something would be done, it got done just as he said. I just got off the phone with Anthony and the family is, as you can imagine, reeling over this. He is hopeful that the partners will carry on and Anthony hopes to step into some very big shoes. Anthony will do a great job as he had a great father, mentor and winemaker to learn from. God bless you Steve!

  15. Having grown up with the Pessagno boys, most specifically Anthony, I’ve spent a lot of time at Steve’s home over the years…every day after school in my childhood, during countless family dinners and events and graduation parties, and of course at many of his roasted pig BBQs (which are the stuff of legend). He raised 4 incredible boys and I am fortunate that to this day, Anthony is one of my best friends.

    Having grown up around the wine industry, thanks to my father, the Pessagnos, and others, I unexpectedly also pursued a career in this wonderful industry. Quite poignantly one of the last times I saw Steve was during a visit to Pessagno Vineyard, whilst sharing a glass of Four Boys Pinot with Anthony, overlooking the Salinas Valley, and laughing at our good fortune to have figured out at such a young age to work in the most amazing industry we could imagine. In large part influenced by to our upbringing and families.

    I spoke with Anthony on the day his father died, even though I now live halfway around the world from him, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. He is okay, but there’s a long road ahead. While this is an incredibly difficult time for him and his brothers, I have no doubt to the strength of Anthony’s abilities to take over the reins at the winery. In fact, he’s been groomed for this not only over the past few years, but over his lifetime. He’ll make Steve proud.

  16. Phil T. says:

    I worked for Lockwood, in sales, when Steve was the Lockwood winemaker. I was devastated yesterday, when I heard this news. He was a real gentleman. It was fun going through the facility with him, as he drew samples from barrels & tanks, for us to taste. He and I rode together on a couple of occasions, when he visited my region, and we spent a lot of time behind the windshield, talking and getting to know each other. I learned that he was a man of honor, compassion, integrity and had a burning passion about this wine industry.

    Once at the Lockwood winery, the day before the sales team arrived for meetings, he had shot and killed a wild pig that was roaming the vineyard. We arrived to a pig on a BBQ spit, slow roasting over hot coals. He was painting it, with a mop brush, slathered in his homemade BBQ sauce. We had a feast!

    I am proud to have visited his own Pessagno winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and I have some nice memories of that visit.

    Last night at dinner, my wife and I toasted his life, his legacy and his family, with a bottle of his prized, Four Boys Pinot Noir. His son, Anthony is a great guy, full of talent and pride. He has big shoes to fill, but Anthony can, and will make his Dad proud.

  17. Hugh Reimers says:

    Steve was a fantasic ambassador for Monterey County and the California Wine Industry..

    His energy, dedication and pioneering sprirt will be missed…. RIP…

    Hugh Reimers – Jackson Family Wines

  18. Michael Thomas says:

    Well stated, Steve. Always happy that we had Steve Pessagno as our neighbor down River Road, and he will be truly missed . Monterey has lost one of its great ones.

  19. Alexandra Morales says:

    Does anyone know of any funeral services for Steve? My father, Joseph Morales, worked alongside Steve for many years. I had the honor of meeting him and actually spending many days at the winery. Two actually. My father started to work with Steve when the winery was out by King City then my dad followed out over by Gonzales. My dad and I both want to attended any services that are being held for Steve.. Please post about it if anyone knows. Thank you

  20. Dear Alexandra, I’m sorry I don’t know of any services.

  21. Elaine Offenbach says:

    Thank you all for your wonderful notes, comments and outpouring of love and support for our family. Steve Pessagno was my brother, my best friend and as all of you know, the father of my four amazing nephews. We are all very grateful for you condolences. As you can imagine, loosing any member of your family, especially someone who is so young and vibrant really hurts hard. We ARE a strong family, gifted with love from within and from outside.

    There will be no formal services for Steve. He will be buried next to my Dad in our family plot in Jackson, California. However, there will be a celebration (and it will be a celebration!) of Steve’s life at his winery, on July 31st. If that date should change, I’ll re post an update.

    Again, thank you all for you notes….every one of them speaks volumes. My brother loved life and lived his life doing what he had dreamed of…being a father, a wine maker and a man of much passion and conviction.

    Elaine Pessagno Offenbach

  22. Dear Elaine, thank you. The pain of losing Steve has to be balanced to some degree by the outpouring of love from so many of his friends.

  23. Elaine Offenbach says:

    Dear Steve and friend of my brother….

    I’m honored to share with you that one of my brother’s most prestigious organizations he belonged to has created a memorial scholarship in his name. If you would like to make a donation, I know my brother’s legacy will live on through it.

    Steve Pessagno Memorial Scholarship Fund
    Knights of the Vine
    410 Branner Avenue
    Monterey, CA 93940

    Thank you all for your continued support of our family.

    Elaine Pessagno Offenbach

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