As a wine reviewer who gets paid next to nothing for his work, I have the luxury of only reviewing wines that I think are worth writing about. I’ve got no deadlines, no quotas to fill, and no obligation to anyone. All of which means that it’s always a great pleasure to say nice things about a wine or wines that I enjoy.
But this is perhaps the most pleasurable kind of review I write. The review of a winery whose wines I can safely say are all spectacularly good — so good that I will simply buy any wine they make, no questions asked. I’m on very few winery mailing lists, but this is one of them.
In many ways Peay Vineyards represents the quintessential family-run, boutique California winery. Run by brothers Nick and Andy Peay and their winemaker Vanessa Wong (who happens to be Nick’s wife) they perfectly embody the care, attention to detail, and vision that marks all the best small wineries in the world.
Coming upon the 100-year-old house perched high on a ridge above Sea Ranch in the far north of Sonoma County, with its vines cascading down the hillside towards the ocean four miles away, you might imagine that the two thirty-somethings sitting on the porch were the latest in a long line of farmers who had worked this land. But before Nick and Andy bought the 80-acre property in 1996, it merely bore the faint traces of a few fruit trees and sheep that once roamed its chilly pastures.
Nick Peay got the wine and food bug early, and after college he headed straight into a career in the wine industry, working first for Schramsberg and then La Jota, before heading for U.C. Davis where he got a degree in Enology and Viticulture. After graduating he moved on to work for Newton and Storrs, and began plotting to convince his brother Andy to help him start a winery one day.
Apparently all it took was a really nice bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a rack of lamb at the right moment, just as Andy Peay was rethinking his likely future as a Wall Street analyst. After taking a year off to travel Andy dove into the wine and hospitality world, working a Crush at Cain Vineyards and Winery, spending some time working at the Jug Shop in San Francisco, and all the while getting his MBA from Berkeley.
On the weekends, the brothers would hop into a truck and cruise the back roads of California wine regions looking for the perfect piece of land. Their criteria: an extreme, cool-climate vineyard site where they could push the limits of winegrowing and winemaking, utilizing Nick’s knowledge of viticulture, and his wife Vanessa’s skill at making wines from cool climate fruit.
Vanessa Wong is also U.C. Davis trained and before joining her husband for the first harvest in 2001 she spent several years working as a winemaker around the world for labels that include Château Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, Domaine Jean Gros Burgundy, and Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma.
The family planted 48 acres of vines on their property in 1998: 35 acres of Pinot Noir, 8 acres of Syrah, 6 acres of Chardonnay, 1.8 acres of Viognier, and two little postage stamp size plots of Roussanne and Marsanne. The vineyards are managed directly by Nick and a full-time crew of 8 vineyard workers, and are farmed organically (though they are not certified). Because of the remoteness of the vineyard, the winery was built in Cloverdale, about an hour away.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Peay Vineyards for me has always been how they seem to have gotten everything right. I’m sure there were missteps along the way, but the fact that they were able to strike out into the middle of nowhere, into a climate that many thought unfit to grow wine grapes, and not only manage to make wine, but to make wine of such distinct character and quality is a testament to the talents of everyone involved. It’s not an accident that theirs is the coldest Syrah vineyard in the United States.
Vanessa crafts their wines with a delicate touch. The wines are almost always fermented with native yeasts and are carefully managed through the winemaking process according to the needs of each varietal. The oak program involves a minimum of new wood (their Chardonnay gets the most at 45% new) allowing the fruit to shine, and the wines are almost always bottled unfined and unfiltered.
The Peays sell grapes to only two other wineries, Williams Selyem and Failla, both of whom make single vineyard designates from the fruit. The rest goes to the production of the two Syrahs, three Pinots, Chardonnay, Viognier, and the Rousanne/Marsanne blend that are released under the Peay Vineyards label. The winery also has a second label, Cep Vineyards, which is merely the barrels that don’t make the cut into the estate blends.
2007 Peay Vineyards Vognier, Sonoma Coast
Pale yellow in the glass, this wine has a stunning nose of mineral, peach, and lemon curd aromas. In the mouth it is equally arresting, with flavors of lemon curd, jackfruit that are electric in their zingy crispness. This is Viognier done right, without the oily heavy quality that mars so many interpretations of the grape in California. Perfect acidity, amazing balance, and a fantastic finish make you want to drink this all day long. Score: around 9.5 . Cost: $36. Sold only to the mailing list.
2007 Peay Vineyards Roussanne Marsanne Blend, Sonoma Coast
Pale green gold in color, this wine has an exotic, ethereal nose of honeysuckle, paraffin, and saffron aromas. On the tongue it is a remarkable combination of neon citrus — lemon and tangerine mostly — with amazing ginger and nutty qualities that surface in a very long finish. Perfect acidity adds a mineral quality to the wine that is quite fetching. Quite possibly the best Roussanne/Marsanne blend made in California, I only wish they made about 10 times as much of this as they do. It’s quite hard to get ahold of. Made in entirely neutral barrels. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40. Sold only to the mailing list.
2007 Peay Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Palest gold in color with a hint of cloudiness, this wine smells like crushed stones and crushed nuts with hints of citrus zest that waft in at the last moment. In the mouth it is jaw-droppingly mineral in quality, more so than any California Chardonnay has any right to be (but to which most should aspire). Flavors of lemon zest, pine sap, and crushed stones slide silkily across the palate poised on the rails of perfect acidity. Aromas of hazelnut skin emerge on the incredibly long finish. Truly a masterpiece and definitely one of the best Chardonnays made in California. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $50. Where to buy?
2007 Cep Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Pale ruby in color this wine smells of cranberry, cherry, and redcurrants. In the mouth it is bright with red raspberry and cranberry fruit that leans towards the spicy side of things. Rich and soft on the palate with good acid balance the wine finishes with far more beauty than one would expect for the price, as crass as that sounds. The quality of the wine that went into the 2007 was unusually high. Hint. Hint. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $26. Where to buy?
2007 Peay Vineyards “The Estate” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass this wine has a gorgeous aromas of cranberry, wet earth and violets. In the mouth it is above all, juicy, with incredibly lush, soft textures that envelop cherry, plummy flavors that deepen and resonate the longer the wine stays on the palate. Great acidity and poise last through an incredibly long finish. A bit less structured than the single vineyard Pinot Noirs, this third addition to the Pinot lineup is bound to find lots of fans. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $42. Where to buy?
2006 Peay Vineyards “La Bruma” Syrah, Sonoma Coast
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an arresting nose of white pepper, cassis, and violets. In the mouth it first manifests as well-structured: tight, lean and muscled with flavors of cassis, white pepper, leather, and deeper, darker peaty qualities that give it a great deal of soul. The wine has great length through the finish with beautiful blueberry notes emerging after a minute or so. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45. Where to buy?
2006 Peay Vineyards “Les Titans” Syrah, Sonoma Coast
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a deep nose of cassis combined with meaty blackberry aromas. In the mouth it offers a unique combination of umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) and what I can only describe as a handful of hand picked blackberries — a mix of ripe and slightly unripe blackberries. This fruit is underwritten by a granitic quality that marries to tartness that lingers in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Where to buy?
The estate also produces two single vineyard Pinot Noirs known as Pomarium and Scallop Shelf, both of which are exceptional, but were unavailable to me when I made these notes. I regularly score them in the 9 to 9.5 range.