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 variety. The oak program involves a minimum of new wood allowing the fruit to shine, and the wines are almost always bottled unfined and unfiltered.
I’ve been following the Peay wines closely for more than 10 years — which is to say, I’ve tasted pretty much every wine they make, each year for the past 9 or 10 vintages, and so I’m quite confident in saying that the wines are better than they’ve ever been. This is not to say they’ve made big changes. Much to the contrary, the wines have followed a very smooth trajectory that represents adherence to a clear vision for how to express their unique site. Rather, lots of little details have been adjusted over time, even as the vines themselves have matured. I find the wines, though always fresh and bright, to have just a little more snap to them, an even more finely honed edge of acidity, and an increasingly sumptuous texture that distinguishes some of the finest Pinot Noirs.
The 2013 and 2014 vintages of these wines, in particular, have been fantastic, as the notes below demonstrate. It is also worth noting that the prices of these wines have stayed remarkably low compared to some of their brethren in the industry. Pinot Noirs of this quality are being sold by other brands for $75 to $90 per bottle. If these wines are your style, I can’t recommend them highly enough. And if we’re talking about value, the winery’s second label, Cep Vineyards, wins a lot of awards in that department. Made from both estate and purchased fruit, these are some of the highest quality wines under $30 in California.
2014 Peay Vineyards Viognier, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white peaches and lemon curd. In the mouth gorgeous white peach and lemon curd flavors have an explosive acidity and brightness. Lovely salinity and length with wisps of white flowers on the finish. If there is a better rendition of this grape variety in California, I don’t know of it. Fantastic. 13.4% alcohol. 190 cases. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45 click to buy.
2014 Cep Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon oil with a hint of melted butter. In the mouth, silky bright lemon curd and wet stones have an excellent juicy snap to them, with a hint of richness. 13.8% alcohol. 500 cases produced. Is this the best $25 Chardonnay in California? Quite likely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.
2014 Peay Vineyards Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish cloudy gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon curd with a hint of piney sappiness that makes the mouth water. In the mouth, lemon curd, asian pear, white flowers, and pink grapefruit flavors have a zingy snap thanks to excellent acidity. Gorgeous silky texture and great length. Killer stuff. 13% alcohol. 550 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $52 click to buy.
2014 Cep Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, juicy cranberry and raspberry fruit has a wonderfully sweet pastille quality, and gorgeously bright acidity with the faintest of tannins. This is without a doubt the best $25 Pinot Noir in California. 13.5% alcohol. 800 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.
2014 Peay Vineyards “Scallop Shelf” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry, redcurrant, dried flowers and tomato leaf. In the mouth stunning raspberry and crystalline wet stone flavors have incredible depth and penetration with faint tannins and gorgeous length. Pure, vibrating forest berry electricity in the glass. Killer. 13.6% alcohol. 650 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $58 click to buy.
2014 Peay Vineyards “Ama” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously bright raspberry and cherry fruit has an incredible elegance and purity, as if it has been filtered through quartz. Gorgeous floral overtones and faint herbal notes along with light tannic grip in the finish. Stunning. 13.5% alcohol. 550 cases. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56 click to buy.
2013 Peay Vineyards “Les Titans” Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, incense, cedar and a hint of white pepper. In the mouth, cassis and black cherry fruit mix with white pepper and herbs with a gorgeous stony underbelly touched by a hint of smoke. 13.2% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.
2014 Peay Vineyards “La Bruma” Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of lavender and dried flowers floating over cassis. In the mouth gorgeously bright and juicy floral and cassis flavors have a wonderful stony base to them with a long herbal and floral finish that sails on for a long time. Fantastic. 13% alcohol. 300 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.