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 harvest 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 one of the coolest Syrah vineyards 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 allowing the fruit to shine, and the wines are almost always bottled unfined and unfiltered.
This particular wine comes from those minuscule .6 acres of Roussanne and Marsanne that Nick describes as the “most trying vines we farm.” Finicky, temperamental, and susceptible to the vagaries of weather much more so than other grapes (this wine won’t be made in 2011, thanks to the rains), these vines yield tiny amounts of extraordinary fruit. The production hovers somewhere between three and six barrels each year (roughly 85-100 cases), and tends to be snapped up by the winery’s mailing list customers (the only way I manage to get ahold of it).
Fermented in old oak barrels with indigenous yeasts, this wine ages in neutral oak on its lees (bits of the skins and yeast left over after fermentation) for 11 months before bottling. In 2006, the wine was 65% Roussanne and 35% Marsanne, and only 85 cases were made.
I tend to like what happens to Roussanne and Marsanne as they age, so I’ve been hanging on to this bottle for some time, and decided to pop it open with dinner this week, and was very happy to have done so. It’s a beautiful wine that is both delicious when it is first released, but will reward anyone with the patience to leave it on the shelf for a few years.
This wine has mellowed to a deep medium-gold in the glass, and smells of honey roasted nuts, jasmine flowers, and old parchment. In the mouth it has a wonderful weight on the tongue, with a mix of mineral and herbal flavors like chamomile, while roasted apple, butterscotch, and honey also play across the palate. The finish has a nutty quality, and lingers for some time. Despite having a little weight, the wine’s acidity ensures that it is lively and gulpable. Excellent. 14.1% alcohol.
This was surprisingly a very good match with a bunch of salumi and mostardas that were on the table while we opened this bottle.
Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5
How Much?: $44
Unfortunately this wine is not available for purchase on the Internet, and this vintage has probably long since disappeared from most people’s shelves and cellars. Current vintages are available to mailing list customers only.