As one climbs out of the southern end of the Alexander Valley from Healdsburg, California, up the Dry Creek Valley, at the head of which is Lake Sonoma, and then west to Annapolis, the road twists and turns through towering old-growth redwood forests, with elevation gains of 2,000-plus feet from the valley floor. The temperature drops. Once one gets to the ridgeline in Annapolis, under the right conditions, the scent of the Pacific Ocean fills the air. In the mid-1990s, this is where Nick and Andy Peay set out to find the land for their vineyard. Eventually, they settled on a property in California’s West Sonoma Coast – which in May 2022 became the newest official American wine appellation – that sits on the San Andreas fault, with the Pacific Ocean just 4 miles away. Here, the brothers, along with winemaker Vanessa Wong, have built Peay Vineyards, 53 acres of vines with six different grapes, where they make elegant, refined wines that are an expression of the land on which they are grown. We recently sat down with Nick, the winegrower, Andy, who runs the business, and Vanessa at their vineyard. During our conversation, we discussed what drove their interest in wine, how they approach winegrowing and winemaking, and how they differentiate themselves in a competitive industry.
Tell us about the beginning – how did you make the decision to start your own vineyard?
Nick Peay: Our parents loved wine. It was on the dinner table every night, so we were exposed to it early on. When I graduated college, I knew what I didn’t want to do, but not what I wanted to do. I was enjoying a glass of wine with a friend who grew up in Napa Valley, and a lightbulb went off: Someone is making this; what is that job like? I asked my friend how I could figure out if this was what I wanted to do, and he told me the vineyards needed help every harvest. I got a great job at La Jota in Napa Valley, and my boss really got the passion and joy of winemaking across to me. I enjoyed working with my hands outside and the creative outlet. And of course, it was wine, which is so compelling and complex. I decided I was going to pursue this as a career and enrolled to study in the graduate enology program at U.C. Davis.
The most important lesson I learned at La Jota was that it is important to control the quality of the grapes, and the best way to do that is to grow them yourself. I knew that I would need to eventually own a piece of land because I wanted to make my own wine.
Andy Peay: Nick mentioned the influence of our parents. Our mom was a good cook, so the culture of our house included eating well, eating food from all over the world, and having wine on the table. That is an important part of our palates and shaped how we view food and wine – the time put into it and the flavor that develops. That affects the type of wine we make. In the wine business, you often hear people talk about terroir. Everybody thinks of physical things like location and weather when they think of terroir, but it’s also the people behind the wine. Who are they? Where did they grow up? What did they eat? What are they trying to do?
Like Nick, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career once I graduated college. I worked in finance for two years, and then I decided to backpack through Asia. Of course, my mom convinced me to fly home for Christmas, and once I was home, she had me! I pursued a few different possible career opportunities, but nothing felt like the right fit.
Nick had already graduated from U.C. Davis and was working at a little winery. We lived close to each other, so we would brew beer, I would cook for us, and we’d drink wine and talk about what we were going to do with our lives. Eventually, Nick convinced me to check out wine as a way to make a living by working the harvest. I got a job and had an epiphany; I loved using my hands and working in such a beautiful setting at a fast pace.
After that, Nick really started to plant the seed that we should do our own thing. But first, I needed to know more about this world. I went and worked for a retail wine shop, and that’s when I really fell in love with wine. I was getting exposed to so many different types. I loved working with people to figure out what they liked.
I was hooked, and Nick and I officially decided to start our own business. We started traveling around looking for land. This was California in the mid-1990s, and Nick had a theory about the style of wine he wanted to make, which wasn’t being done by anyone else.
NP: I had been given a case of mixed Burgundies from Mom, and I was so inspired by it – no one was doing Pinot Noir like that in California. I wanted to make a more elegant, refined version of Pinot Noir and needed to find the right place for that. We did also look in non-Pinot regions. The most important thing we were looking for was pioneering terroir – something that was going to be new and different.
How did you decide on this piece of land? What makes it so special?
AP: What’s unique about where we are right now is the Pacific Ocean – it is 4 miles away as the crow flies. There’s a river that goes out to the ocean, and that provides wind. The Pacific Ocean up here stays around 52 degrees year-round. That’s unique in the world of grape growing. It’s cold climate, maritime grape growing.
NP: We have our own pattern here. It’s a unique valley that runs east to west. There are mountains all along the coast.
AP: We’re on the San Andreas fault. That activity gave us a lot of marine soils and also created this ridge line. You have to find a break in the ridge line or be on the ridge at a certain level to be affected by the cold air off the ocean. We’d get these geological survey maps and look for breaks, and then Nick and I would try to visit the locations or send letters to see if we could buy the land.
No one had farmed out here. They said it was too wet, cold, and remote. It was definitely pioneer territory. We chose this land, and it dictates our product; it determines the style and quality level.
Talk about the process of starting and building the business – it seems like it would require some patience! For example, how many years was it before you had a grape harvest you could bottle?
AP: It takes four years from planting to producing fruit you want to make wine from. Then, it is a couple years until you get the wine. We bought the land in 1996, planted in 1998, had our first vintage in 2001, and sold that in 2003.
NP: One of the things that makes that question a little open-ended is that the quality of the fruit improves as the vines get older. It’s complicated when you come into the market with a luxury product if initially it is a simpler version of where you think you’re going to go eventually. You have to convince consumers that first, even though they’ve never heard of your wine, it’s worth what you’re asking for it, and then, once it is getting better, that it’s worth paying a higher price.
Vanessa, tell us about your background. How did end up getting involved?
Vanessa Wong: I worked at a catering job and in a wine and cheese shop when I was younger. I remember very clearly there was a bottle of Glen Ellen Chardonnay from 1983, and I realized, “Wow, it’s not just white wine. It has a name. It has a place.” I started reading more about wine and looking at the maps and regions. I hadn’t tasted wine yet, but I was fascinated about how it paired with food.
When the time came for college, I got into U.C. Davis, but I didn’t know what to study. I looked through the course catalog, and I saw winemaking. The coursework was all the same prerequisites as pre-med. I convinced my parents that if it didn’t work out, I could continue on in science. What I loved about winemaking was that it was not only science, but culture. It had to do with flavor and involved farming. While at Davis, I spent a year abroad in France at the University of Bordeaux studying winemaking. I came back – briefly met Nick – and after I graduated, went back to France for two more vintages, first at Château Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac and then at Domaine Jean Gros in Vosne-Romaneée. That second location was smaller and family-owned, and I realized that was the type of winery I wanted to work at. The wines had more character; they were more expressive of the place, more nuanced, and went well with the foods I liked.
When I came back from France, I worked for a big winery in Napa Valley. You learn a lot working for a big business – what not to do, what to do when there are big mistakes, and how to recover. Then, I had the opportunity to be the head winemaker at Peter Michael Winery. That is where I was working when I met Nick.
In fall 2000, I was visiting Nick, and I had my “a-ha” moment when I tasted a chardonnay grape Peay Vineyards was growing. It was so amazingly different. I knew this was what I wanted to be working with. You feel it – you know this is the thing that is going to make what you dream of a reality.
What does the winemaking practice consist of as you practice it?
VW: In Burgundy, they have these special places called “lieux dits,” which means “the said place.” Those said places are distinct; you can tell by tasting a wine which specific vineyard and land it came from. When I was there, this idea of terroir really became clear – when you’re actually tasting a wine, and it clicks. Every place has a signature mark of terroir. As a winemaker, you don’t want to make a wine that someone can taste and say, “This person made this.” You want someone to taste the wine and say, “This wine comes from this particular place.” That’s important to me and is the driving force of how I make wine. Of course, there’s always Mother Nature who can cause vintages to be different, but you want the expression of the fruit from that site to be apparent every year. It doesn’t have to be cookie cutter. It’s more of a signature. You want the wine to speak to its place of growth.
AP: Vanessa’s ability to have restraint in her winemaking – to not use tools to create flavors – takes a lot of confidence. You have to believe your vineyard has something special to say and have confidence to let things happen. If you are making wine with restraint, it allows the land to show.
The wine industry is very competitive. How did you position yourselves to stand out among competitors?
AP: Our first vintage was in 2001, and we knew it wasn’t going to be our best foot forward. We were able to interest enough high-quality, well-known wineries to buy our fruit and put our name on the label. We were able to borrow some of their brand equity, and it also helped us justify the price of our bottle when we released our own.
Back when we launched, the most popular way to get your name out was ratings and scores from two big reviewers. If they liked your wine, you were set, and demand would come pouring in. Those reviewers had very specific palates, and the wines we were making were not what they liked.
NP: We were not interested in making the big, fruity wines they often liked. We were still inspired by that initial wine from Burgundy.
AP: We decided we needed to put our wine in the hands of those who people listen to: sommeliers. Fine dining sommeliers are the authority on the floor. At the time, there was often no California wine at the Bay Area restaurants, as those big, fruity flavors don’t go well with food. We entered the scene and explained that we were making beautiful, balanced, aromatic wines that went well with food. The sommeliers loved it. They would tell their friends, and they became our force. They wanted a wine of our style that was from California so that when people came to California wine country, they had a California wine on the menu.
Now, outside of Bay Area restaurants, we distribute to the rest of the country through restaurants and directly to consumers.
VW: It comes down to finding the fans who like your style.
AP: You want people to buy your wine because they’ve had it and like it – not because they read one good review. We want to build relationships over the years with our customers. It’s a slower way to build a business, but we have strong customer loyalty.
What are some of the challenges to this industry?
VW: Farming is hard! A lot of people buy grapes, but they aren’t taking the risk on their own. With farming you take all the risks.
NP: If someone is being paid by the ton, the incentive is to grow as many tons as possible per acre, which hurts quality in the end. If they are being paid by the acre, every time they go into the vineyard to do anything, it costs money.
AP: We have high personal quality standards, but it’s also our brand. This was why Nick was insistent that we grow our own grapes and make estate wine. You remove the conflict of having to buy from a vineyard grower who has to make a profit. The vast majority of wine that is made is not estate.
Talk about how you approach hiring workers.
NP: Labor is a huge cost, so one of the choices we made as owners was to also be workers. When we first started, we used a vineyard management company. Once the crew was finally trained, they’d all be gone, and there would be new people to train. We decided that it was important for us to control the labor – just like the grapes. We wanted to have people who learned this land and were invested emotionally in this place. Often, it’s a mutual selection process. The costs are higher, but the relationships are stronger, and we think the end result is better.
Are there weather challenges as well?
AP: Like anything, the sword has two edges. Because it is cool out here, we can make wines that have the structure and profile we want to make. However, because of that cool weather, we’re also dealing with the fog and a lot of moisture.
We get about 40% to 60% of what people get inland as yield from our vines. That’s your revenue cut in half, but expenses are the same. In our case, they’re actually higher because we’re certified organic, and we have all this labor.
Climate change is also clearly here. Things are more extreme and happen a bit longer than they used to. So, a hot one to three days is now 10 days, all because the weather pattern.
VW: Whenever we get to spring, we breathe a sigh of relief!
NP: The same with fire season, which is a new development. We’re lucky that our ridges block a lot of the wind.
Does the family relationship help during times of stress?
AP: I think it helps. When you’re under stress, you can be brutally honest with family members. You may not always appreciate it as the family member on the receiving end, but you know the context and the person.
I will say, in the early years of building the business, before we had figured out roles and boundaries, it was rough. My big brother had more experience and was telling me what to do all the time! After a while, you build trust, and everyone has their domain. Of course, you can overlap a bit and check in with one another, but once all the cogs meshed, there was a turning point. Now, we don’t overcommunicate – we all have our roles, and we trust each other.
What has this land taught you about winemaking over the past 20 years?
VW: You need to learn when the perfect time is to pick each grape.
NP: And that varies with weather! There’s a taste memory – tasting a grape and remembering what the resulting wine tasted like when the last grape tasted like that. That’s learned. You build layers of knowledge.
VW: The biggest thing I’ve learned is patience without panicking and reacting without panic. Don’t have a panicked reaction to the weather, and don’t just pick based on a number. Look at the vines and taste it. It’s also important to see what is happening on the land every day. You have to be here.
AP: That’s important. Nick lives here and is in the vineyard every day. If you’re watching the land every day, you can catch things and make decisions. As organic farmers, we need to do that because if something happens, we can’t just blast chemicals. Dirt on your boots makes a big difference in the quality of wine.
Has the market caught up to your winemaking style?
VW: We don’t follow the fads!
NP: We make changes in response to the grapes, not trends. Our model relies on our small army, so we need to stay focused on what we do best.
AP: The general trend is toward wines that are balanced and elegant. People are looking for more intrigue, and they’re also looking for more connection with products and the people behind them. They are also looking for more experiences, and we have started introducing those, where people come to the vineyard for a visit and a tasting.
Our wines are classic. They are not trendy. When people ask me what’s new, I say nothing – we’re just trying to get better at what we do, which is capture an expression of ourselves and our land in our wines.
Thank you all for this exciting, informative conversation.
The New York Times recently featured Peay Vineyards, observing that “the stylistic pendulum of California winemaking has swung in Peay’s direction” since they pioneered winemaking in the West Sonoma Coast region 25 years ago. For more on the evolution of the West Sonoma Coast, read the article, “On the Sonoma Coast, Fog, Wind and Exceptional Wine.”
Interview conducted by Jen Gilbert and Kaitlin Barbour, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.
Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used as a generic term to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally. This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries. This material is for general information and reference purposes only. This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners. © Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2022. All rights reserved. PB-05812-2022-10-13