Thirteen years ago, Nick and Andy Peay set out to make wine from their own grapes, grown on their own land. They had no established family estate, no angel investors. What they had was time to hunt along the California coast for the perfect site: a cold, marginal spot that would force grapes into an excruciatingly slow growing season.
They discovered a parcel on the remote Sonoma coast just as that slice of the state was transforming from post-timber backwater to ground zero for Pinot Noir. It could be had for something shy of $4,000 per acre, less than one-tenth what similar land now costs. For the brothers, there was no question they had to own the land; Nick cared too much about the particulars — endless combinations of clones and rootstocks applied to the soils — to leave that responsibility to anyone else.
“You really want to be able to control the quality of the grapes,” he says, “and the best way to do that is to grow them yourself.”
In an era when acreage is dear and most new winemakers huddle in a warehouse, Peay is that rare exception. The family’s timeless wines come from its own vineyard, planted, grown and picked just as they want it. It is the very model of the modern wine estate. And that’s why Peay is The Chronicle’s Winery of the Year.
Great winemaking is often a lonely endeavor. But the Peay brothers; Vanessa Wong, Nick’s wife and the winemaker; Andy’s wife, Ami, who helps sell the wines, prove the opposite. Their complex Pinot Noir and Syrah have rapidly become benchmarks, to say nothing of their Chardonnay and Rhone-style whites. After just over a decade, the Peay vineyard outside Annapolis has emerged as one of California’s most extraordinary sites.
Late to ripen
Even by Sonoma Coast standards, Peay occupies a chilly slice of the world. While vineyards just to the south like Hirsch (where Wong worked) or Flowers (where Nick worked) may sit closer to the coast, they’re above the inversion layer. The site in Annapolis is lower, between 600 and 800 feet, with colder temperatures.
The 53 acres of vines are slow to ripen and yield miniscule amounts of fruit. The one-fifth of an acre of Marsanne isn’t picked until the edge of November. Chardonnay, planted lower, close to the Wheatfield fork of the Gualala River, isn’t much earlier.
“The first time I tasted this on the vine, I said, ‘Why are you selling this? This is the best fruit I’ve ever tasted,’ ” Wong recalls.
At least soils are relatively uniform: an uplifted former seabed, with sandstone, silt and fractured quartz. But the vineyard yields a wide range of expressions. So rather than bottle their Syrahs and Pinots block by block, they crafted distinct styles of wine to represent the site’s different aspects.
The La Bruma Syrah is all about high tones: flowers and white pepper and bright fruit. Its companion Les Titans (named for two imposing redwoods) is a brooding counterpoint: chewy, dark, tannic. The Pomarium Pinot Noir (a tribute to the site’s former life as an apple orchard) is savory and robust, while the Scallop Shelf is about brighter fruit, refined texture and tangy accents. Across them all, the Peay style is nuanced, intellectual, meant for food. They talk more about scents than fruit: tea, perfume, earth.
What doesn’t make the cut goes into a second label, Cep, which is an outstanding value at around $25 per bottle. And in an era when wineries want their wine drunk yesterday, the Peays demand patience. Of the 2006 Scallop Shelf, a recent winery newsletter chastised, “If you must drink one now, decant for 45 minutes and cellar the remainder for at least 3-5 years.”
Different role for each
Each member of the team fulfills a crucial role. Scruffy and charismatic, Andy, 40, is the sharp business mind, though his job selling the wines doesn’t keep him from sharing often edgy views on topics like greenwashing.
Wong, 40, is the quiet mastermind, often the last to answer a question but always puzzling through a thousand details. She keeps meticulous logs – ripeness levels, sugars and so on – for reference on every batch of wine. Each day during harvest, she is out tasting fruit, making last-second picking decisions. How lucky the vineyard has its own full-time crew of eight people.
Nick, 43, is the nutty professor of the bunch, often pointed in his assertions (biodynamics is “intellectually fraudulent”) but always bolstering his case with a tidal wave of facts and data that mesh viticulture, chemistry, meteorology and philosophy.
Nick and Andy grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where their father, a cookware executive and head of the Cleveland Opera, shared Italian wines and Bordeaux with his sons through their high school years. Their mother, a master cook, helped develop the local farmers’ market.
“We ate really well and we didn’t even know it,” Andy says. “Nick would eat paté sandwiches on his way to school.”
Nick landed at Bowdoin College, where classmate Hugh Davies of Schramsberg introduced Nick to his family’s wines.
“That’s where the light went off,” Nick says.
Nick went West and found a gig at La Jota Vineyards before diving into a UC Davis master’s program. Stints followed at Schramsberg and Newton. Yet with just one signature missing from his thesis, he quit school to become the assistant winemaker at Storrs in Santa Cruz.
After briefly working as a Wall Street banker and traveling through Asia, Andy settled down in Berkeley to study development policy. But soon he was thinking about becoming a chef. Nick tried to shift his brother’s focus a bit – to wine. The two brothers would cook and drink Burgundy and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
They wanted to make wine in a style as restrained as the bottles they drank growing up. That meant a marginal, cold, damp site. They hunted up and down the coast, venturing north to Washington state and as far south as Santa Barbara. Finally in 1996, after camping in Humboldt County, Andy drove to see an old weekend retreat outside Sea Ranch with a weather-beaten 1906 farmhouse on one rise, a stand of evergreens on an opposing knoll, and 280 acres of land.
“There was a breeze blowing when I got out of the truck. That was good. There was moss growing. That was good,” he says.
Andy returned to Berkeley to study business. By summer 1998, the brothers were ready. “The day I graduated,” Andy says, “I came up here, and Nick and I put the vineyard in.”
They planted 30 acres, straight into November. The vines yielded a first crop in 2001, though the Peays sold much of it to a handful of top Sonoma labels. (Williams Selyem still makes a Peay wine, as does Failla.) But they gradually reclaimed grapes, releasing 2002 bottlings of Pinot Noir and Syrah. The fruit was fierce. Even now, the 2002 Syrah still tastes wound up.
Wong raised in S.F.
Wong grew up in San Francisco’s Richmond District with three older sisters. At 14, she was captivated by a bottle of Glen Ellen Chardonnay at a catering job. When one sister went to UC Davis, Wong looked through the course catalog and was enthralled to find wine as an academic pursuit. She approached her parents. “I convinced them that, look, it’s science. I could be a doctor if I wanted to.”
After getting her degree and studying in Bordeaux, Wong worked at a few modest French properties – Bordeaux’s Chateau Lafite Rothschild, followed by Domaine Jean Gros in Burgundy – before returning home and landing at Peter Michael, training ground for some of California’s top winemakers, eventually becoming winemaker. The deft work in Peter Michael’s vineyards reminded her of Burgundy’s attention to detail. “Every plant was like a bonsai tree. That’s how they treated the fruit.”
The brothers, meantime, were hard at work in Annapolis. Nick lived at the vineyard much of the time. For a break from the hilltop solitude, he would drive to Napa Valley. Eventually he encountered Wong, his former Davis classmate.
“He said he started to date me because I was the closest available female, an hour and 15 minutes away,” Wong says. By 2000, she was spending more time up at the Peay site. One night as she wandered out in the dark to turn off a piece of equipment, Nick recalls thinking, “You’re a keeper.” Two years later, she and Nick were married.
With such intense fruit, Wong keeps her winemaking straightforward. Andy defines her style as “methodical.” Their biggest winemaking decision is when to pick.
“The persistence of flavor,” she says, “how long it lasts on my palate, is a good indicator.”
Fruit is trucked to Peay’s meticulously designed winery, some 44 miles away in Cloverdale. White grapes are pressed and put into barrels without settling; they are fermented without added yeast. Reds are sorted by hand, destemmed and cold-soaked for three to six days before fermentation. New wine is fed by gravity into barrels. All along, Wong consults her data binders to hatch a battle plan.
Their own way
A visit to the Annapolis site is like few others. There’s the remote locale, of course, but when you wind up the dirt road to the farmhouse there is typically a staff of one – Nick – on hand. No tasting room, just a weathered dining table and deck chairs, a kitchen that wouldn’t be out of place in the 1930s, and wines from a small cellar under the house. Rather than guided tasting, you’re likely to get a discourse on vine clones until the light starts to fade and a winding trip home lies ahead.
Stewardship is essential to the three, which is why the vineyard is farmed organically, though not certified. The property runs on solar power. In order to weed the sloped, undulating site, Nick often hops on the biodiesel tractor; he won’t let anyone else till for fear of ripping out a vine. Yet they bristle at the prospect of being slathered with green ink.
“It’s more important to live it than say it,” Wong says.
There’s good reason to take care. The oldest vines have just dropped leaves from their 12th year. In 2006, Peay finally topped 3,000 cases – all from their own land. Having found an extraordinary site, they now have to keep unlocking its mysteries.
“We’re only seven vintages into this,” Andy says. “We’re in our early 40s. We’re planning to do this for the next 40 years.”
What they do: Make outstanding estate wines from one of California’s most remote and expressive sites.
Weeknight wine: 2004 Henri Boillot Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chaumées (for crab season)
Quote: “I think sometimes people use winemaking tricks and tools because that’s what they have. But what we have is a vineyard.” -Vanessa Wong
From the notebook: 2007 Peay Scallop Shelf Estate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($52) Edgy scents of mirabelle plum and violets give way to darker mineral notes and a brooding, powerful profile. Give it time to mellow out.