A Tasting with Andy Peay of Peay Vineyards
Julian Campbell - 06 July 2018

We’ve been championing the wines from the ultra-remote Peay vineyard for a few years now. Planted in 1998, the vineyard turns 20 this year and quality levels have never been higher. 

The lion’s share of production goes to Pinot Noir, followed by Chardonnay and Syrah (alongside minute quantities of other varieties that don’t make it across the pond). The vineyard is nestled amongst huge redwoods, 600 feet above sea level, four miles from the coast and within the inversion layer. Effectively within the fog line, this a truly cool Californian vineyard whose year round temperatures are moderated in a meaningful way by the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. Contrary to being further in-land, out on the coast the higher you get the warmer it becomes. At 600 feet you hit something of a sweet spot, cool enough to moderate ripening but not so affected by fog as to be constantly battling mildew.  Being 600 feet lower than the lowest vineyards in the nearby Fort Ross and Seaview AVA, (home to the likes of Hirsch, Flowers and Martinelli) means that average yearly temperatures are 12-13 degrees lower at the Peay’s vineyard. That’s a meaningful drop. It is hardly surprising they were repeatedly told that ripening grapes would be a struggle out here and indeed today their tiny yields are testament to this perilous spot. Truly, this is winemaking on the edge.

The beauty for the drinker is that their wines betray this struggle and proudly wear their site on their sleeve – these are not jammy, candied Californian show offs,  but cool complex delicacies which taste as if they come from a remote forested ridge close to the sea. Fruit is layered and detailed, and as we witnessed, blows off to reveal wonderfully complex base notes with time in bottle. The tendency to drink Pinot and Chardonnay like this young is understandable, after all they are often delicious and approachable from the get go – but for those with just a little patience, real complexity and secondary nuance can be achieved in less time than is often the case in Burgundy.

Raised from an early age on just such European wines, the Peay Brothers specifically did not want big ripe fruit profiles in their wines. They wanted the backbones of acidity and structure to provide a framework for nuanced complex flavours to expand into.  Initially starting with carefully selected clonal program of just Pinot noir and Chardonnay the range now includes an excellent estate Pinot Noir,  three fascinating ‘Cru’ Pinot Noirs , each a stylistic blend built around different clones and blocks from their home vineyard, two Chardonnays, a brace of Syrah and one or two other varietal side projects.  All fruit is their own and worked on by their team of 8 full time workers, a seldom found level of care for both people and grapes.  Winemaking is carried out by Vanessa Wong, a woman with a prodigious CV after stints with Lafite, Jean Gros, Hirsch and latterly Peter Michael, whose wines these Peay bottlings could not reassemble less.  As Andy remarks, she would have been too expensive to hire, so it was fortuitous that she and Nick hit it off so well. They were married in 2001.

The entire Peay approach centres on transmitting the qualities of their extraordinary vineyard. As such, Vanessa’s winemaking is restrained, invisible even, employing minimal new oak usage and only occasional use of whole bunch fermentation. The largest percentage we’ve seen is 8% in Pommarium, never undertaken dogmatically only when it will serve to make a better wine. Chardonnays are picked with good acidity, full malo is carried out and again new oak is used judiciously. Battonage is done sparingly if they feel it will improve the wine's mouthfeel.

We spent two days with Andy Peay in London two weeks ago and it confirmed the fact that this is one of the most exciting current Californian projects going.  Andy explained in detail that the coolness of the site was exactly what they were looking for back in 1996, “places that grew moss and ferns seemed like good indicators of water and cool weather….it seemed like madness at first, and those first few years living out there were kind of crazy”. They dreamt of making elegant, balanced, site driven wines but they soon found out that meant a struggle to ripeness and ensuing tiny yields. It soon became clear this was the price to pay to make the wines they’d want to drink.  When they found the site in 1996 it was literally off the winemaking map, the most northern and most remote site in all of Sonoma.

We tasted a number of older bottles during the course of Andy’s visit that proved what an astute decision it was to plant this land two decades ago. Of particular note were an ’04 Estate Chardonnay, an ’02 Pinot Noir and an ’05 La Bruma Syrah. Each and every one was on song. The ’02 Pinot was both the most mature but also perhaps the most surprising of the lot. A wonderful perfume of fallen beech leaves, cep mushroom and sweet briary berries spoke of old world complexity and only got better with air in the glass. On the palate this could easily have been austere and tired yet it showed an internal sweetness that allayed any fears of drying out, finishing on sous bois notes and forest fruit. This very first bottling, kindly sent over from their miniscule library stocks, was originally sold only to family and friends. It was holding up incredibly well. The ’04 Chardonnay was a wonderful bottle of wine in anyone’s book. A resplendently mature nose conjured aromas of fine old white burgundy in pre-premox days, nutty, lightly honeyed, salty smoky flavours underpinned by a spine of fine acidity and tension. It was so articulate, and as a 14 year old wine from the vines that were just 5 years old it was absurdly good. Again, it held up brilliantly in the glass and was still going strong the next day – clearly no flash in the pan.  Finally, La Bruma 2005 provided proof that through careful vineyard management and the nerve to hold back from picking until November, even ripe Syrah was possible out there, with all of the aromatic diversity and cool spiced fragrance of a northern Rhone.  At 13 years old this was sophisticated and assured. The 2009 was similarly impressive, though clearly from a warmer year and likely to benefit from a few more years in bottle. A final 2011 Chardonnay was starting to show what happens to these wines with just a few years in bottle – ripe, broadening flavours blooming above, with the grip and steering of fabulous acidity below.

There’s so much to get excited with these Peay bottles. As they start to get opened more regularly with proper bottle age, we foresee their status rising exponentially. Sadly the quantities that make it over here of all of these wines, but in particular the Pinot Cuvees, Estate Chardonnay and La Bruma Syrah, are tiny. For now most are available but it may not stay like that for long…

New Producer: Napa Knockout - Massimo di Costanzo
Julian Campbell - 01 September 2016

Massimo di Costanzo is the up-and-coming talent from Napa Valley, whose wines have really impressed. Making wine in tiny quantities, the adage good things come in small packages, or in this case parcels, has never be so astute. The 2013 vintage is one Napa knockout you will not want to miss out on...

We asked Massimo a few questions to give us a real insight into the innermost workings of this exquisite winery and just why, for Massimo, the simplicity of wine and the culture of wine is as much a necessity as it is a way of life. Read on to find out more...

Justerinis: We’re all very excited about seeing your wines over here in the UK. Can you tell us a little bit about how the project came about? There must have been challenges in building a brand from scratch? 

Massimo: The first day I enrolled in enology courses at UC Davis as an undergraduate, I felt the desire to start my own project.  As I entered the industry and began to apprentice, that desire grew. From graduation day, to the day I purchased my first Cabernet grapes, was a long five years of working and learning. I declassified 2008 and 2009 before working with the Farella Vineyard in 2010, the first year of Di Costanzo.  That year, I made four barrels of wine. The biggest challenge for me was finding the right fruit and vineyard to work with. I wanted to make a single vineyard wine and not all vineyards are worthy of that designation. What drew me to the Farella Vineyard were the volcanic soils (gravelly loam on top of ash deposits), its history of age worthiness, and its more moderate climate in the southern end of Napa Valley. The Farella Vineyard and its particular microclimate helps the grapes achieve physical ripeness at a lower sugar level and with higher natural acidity than other parts of the Napa Valley. This factor allows me to be more “hands off” when the grapes reach the cellar, i.e., use less manipulation to achieve the style I seek.  

Justerinis: How did your interest in wine begin? Were there any particular light-bulb bottles or wine moments that you can remember?

Massimo: My interest in wine began with my early interest in food. I grew up in a very southern Italian home in Berkeley, California and good food was a way of life.  I enjoyed procuring quality ingredients, preparing the meal, and seeing the pleasure that it brought to all. Wine was a natural extension of this and I soon became interested in the wonder that is wine. Berkeley has a great wine culture and the important wine importer, Kermit Lynch, was just down the road.

There were two moments that really solidified wine as a career path.  The first was when I was 19 and lived in Positano, Italy for a month one summer, with my grandparents. Each day I would come back from the beach at 1pm to my grandparents house for lunch.  My grandmother would prepare a 3-4 course meal and it was my job to prepare the wine. I would get two pitchers, one for me and one for my grandfather, fill it with ice and I would peel and slice summer peaches over the ice. I would then go to the demi-john with a tube in hand and siphon out the local red wine. I loved the simplicity of the wine and this culture of wine as necessity and as a way of life. It might not have been what some people consider fine wine, but it was perfection in my mind for that time and place.   

My second memorable wine experience was when I was 21 travelling through France on a wine tour with some of my classmates from University.  We found our way to JL Chave and were able to taste those wines from barrel. I had never experienced aromas and flavors like those coming from the glass. This was art, this was beauty, and this is what I wanted to dedicate my life to.   

Justerinis: You’re originally from Napa, but spent some time working at some pretty illustrious wineries abroad. Did that have a big impact on what you’re making today? 

Massimo: I have been fortunate enough to travel and work in other wine regions of the world. I’ve spent vintages in Italy at Tenute Tignanello, in South Africa at Rustenberg working with Adi Badenhorst, and in Argentina at Clos des los Siete. These travels shaped me in many ways, but more than anything else I learned about myself as a winemaker and as a citizen of the world.

Justerinis: Could you tell us a little about the Farella vineyard, and Combsville in general. Most people over here won’t be too familiar with this part of Napa.

Massimo: Coombsville is Napa Valley's newest AVA (American Viticultural Area), and the petition to create this region was written by Tom Farella himself, with whom I worked for many years. The Farella Vineyard the best example of Coombsville I can think of, boasting volcanic tuff soils, cool nights thanks to the proximity to the San Pablo Bay, and warm days which permit even ripening. It has long been a site for superior Napa Valley wines, growing mainly Chardonnay in decades past, and now enjoying a reputation for fine Cabernet Sauvignon with fresh acidity and age-ability. On a given day in the peak of summertime, it is 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler in Coombsville than it is in Calistoga, just 25 miles north. It’s an ideal place to create wines with balance and polish.

Justerinis: What is your stylistic vision for Di Costanzo Cabernet Sauvignon? How much of that is the vineyard, and how much what you do to the fruit?

Massimo: My stylistic vision is to create a wine that is alive, complex, is representative of the vintage, and that will evolve gracefully over time. These are my goals as a winemaker and the vision I set forth for my wine.  

Justerinis: What are your winemaking practices – and how do you use technology in the winery? What factors are most important to you in deciding when to harvest? And how does this impact the wine in your eyes?

Massimo: I believe technology should be very limited in the cellar when it comes to vin de garde.  I do not believe in filtering red wine, reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, or any other manipulative tools.  These are tools for commercial wine that are supposed to taste the same year in and year out and have no place in the wines that I produce.

Justerinis: Your first vintage was 2010 – how is that looking today? And compared to your more recent vintages?

Massimo: My first vintage, 2010, is one of my favorite wines to date.  It was a wonderfully cool vintage here in Napa Valley and the wine has terrific structure and acidity.  I used 25% new oak, because, honestly, that was all I could personally afford.  The people that were lucky enough to purchase this wine are in for a treat.

Justerinis: Who are your Napa valley winemaking heroes – and whose wines do you most admire and enjoy, stylistically?

Massimo: My Napa Valley winemaking heroes are:  Philip Togni, Christian Mouiex, Ric Forman, Cathy Corison.  They are my heroes because they have stayed true to their style and make wines that I am proud to have and age in my cellar.
Justerinis: Money no object, which wines or producers (from around the world) would you like to drink more of?

Massimo: Back when I worked at Screaming Eagle Winery, our team was fortunate enough to travel to Bordeaux and taste the top crus from the best houses. Vieux Chateau-Certain was a standout then, as today, and I’d welcome that in my cellar. The aforementioned Chave is still a favorite. And here at a local restaurant, PRESS, we are lucky enough to get access to older California bottlings from the 1950s – 1990s that I find continually inspiring. Old Inglenook, Dunn, Ridge and Stony Hill wines keep me very excited.

Justerinis: What does critical acclaim mean to you?

Massimo: I try not to think about critical acclaim too much, although the small amount that Di Costanzo has received has brought interest to my project and helps me sustain it.  For that I am grateful. It is not easy to stand out in the sea of brands in Napa Valley.  So to be found and pulled out of the proverbial “haystack” is very helpful. You cannot make wine by committee, so I know that I must stay true to my own vision for Di Costanzo, whatever the current trends might be.

Justerinis: What is your definition of a great wine?

Massimo: A great wine should take over all of ones senses and most likely, make you want to shed a tear.

Justerinis: What is the future of Di Costanzo?

Massimo:The future of Di Costanzo is to hopefully make world class wines that stand the test of time and that can stand with the best wines of the world. This year, 2016, I will be bringing a new vineyard online, and the goal is to make that a second Di Costanzo vineyard designate wine.  I’ll have that answer in a couple of years.  This industry is a patient man’s game.

You can find Di Costanzo's spectacular 2013 vintage here.

Introducing Peay Vineyards
Julian Campbell - 09 May 2014

A stunning new UK exclusive from the true Sonoma Coast

It is no mean feat finding Peay. The road you take from Geyserville twists and turns its way across high barren ridges and through densely wooded valleys, traversing a tectonically crumpled stretch of land as you head west, straight towards the Pacific Ocean– it is not a road where you can easily make up lost time, as I found out on my visit there in February 2013.  A mere four miles from the Ocean, surrounded by dense forest, on a slightly undulating ridge, sits the Peay Estate Vineyard; a one hundred year old clearing originally used to grow apples by local loggers. It is a fairly extreme place, right out on the limits, where vineyard pests can include bears.   And it’s home to one of the great Sonoma Coast vineyards.

Back in 1996 Andy and Nick Peay set out on the hunt for a parcel of land on which to grow their own grapes to make their own wine. Their search led them to a little travelled area in the very north of Sonoma that many at the time said was too cool to fully ripen grapes.  Having been raised on great European wines, this was music to their ears; just the sort of place to produce wines of purity, restraint and tension.   Keeping a keen eye out for the presence of moss and ferns, sure fire indicators of the presence of water, and fog, they finally located the 21ha parcel that today is home to their specific clonal selections of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, plus Syrah and a little Marsanne and Rousanne.

Planting took place in 1998, all done by Andy and Nick. The first harvest was made in 2001 (though all of this was sold to the likes of Williams Selyem and Failla). In the intervening years Nick had met and started to date Vanessa Wong a winemaker raised in San Francisco. Vanessa’s CV included stints at with Chateau Lafite, Jean Gros in Burgundy, and more recently at Hirsch in Sonoma, before working as winemaker at Peter Michael. By the time wedding bells rung in 2002 Vanessa was firmly ensconced as winemaker at Peay. 

Vanessa’s philosophy stems entirely from her decision on when to pick the fruit. She is a meticulous collector of data, making notes on everything from bunch formation to cane lengths, bud break and leaf nutrient samples. The aim is simple to give her and Nick the greatest possible picture of what is going on in the vineyard at any given time. Vineyard work is carried out by hand by a small team of 8 full time workers (a rarity and luxury that allows the people working the vines to really know the vines “our workers touch each vine over 13 times per year” they proudly state). Once harvested the grapes are transferred to the Peay’s own purpose built winery 40 miles away in Calistoga. From this point in the winemaking can best be described as gentle. The aim is simply to transmit the particular qualities of their land, through the prism of great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The result is wines of great refinement, nuance and clarity. 

The 20 hectare Peay vineyard itself sits on a ridge in a clearing just four miles from the chilly Pacific Ocean, one ridge removed from the actual coast.  When you’re located so close to an ocean, fog comes to be an unavoidable feature of life.  The Peay vineyard sits just above the inversion layer, and therefore just above the fog line, cooled by ocean breezes yet just out of the dangerous damp of the fog itself.  Whereas further inland the heat from the valley floor radiates warmth more strongly to the lower vineyards, out here on the coast, the cool coastal winds mean that the lower you are, the cooler you are. At Peay they feel their position just on the edge of this cooling fog gives rise to the very idea conditions for producing wines of nerve,  refreshing acidity and purity. Concentration is achieved through careful vineyard management, which in turn is shaped by some very careful clonal selection. The wines are split into two camps, those that come exclusively from the Peay vineyard and those that contain a small percentage of fruit from other sites on the Sonoma Coast. Both are cared for with the same passion and zeal.

We’re delighted to be importing these fascinating, cool climate wines. It is the first time they have ever been seen on these shores, just in time for their stunning 2012 vintage. They are set for release at the end of May 2014, so please do watch this space. In the meantime, you can watch this short video presented by Nick Peay about the vineyard.

Chris Howell from Cain Vineyard: Making wines that matter
Justerini & Brooks - 01 August 2013

A fascinating insight into Chris's philosophy and explains what is so special about Cain Cellars, the wines he makes up on Spring Mountain.

Chris Howell, the talented General Manager and Winemaker of Cain Vineyard in Spring Mountain, shares his views on wine, grape growing, winemaking, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain and more.

What are the most profound changes you have found in the wine trade since you started in the business?

The most obvious and wonderful thing is that more really good wines are now being made in more different places in the world than ever before. Traditional winegrowing regions, such as in France, Italy and Spain, or Argentina and Chile have reduced their production and consumption of common table wine, while at the same time, they have dramatically increased the quantity and quality of their fine wines. Also, newer winegrowing regions, like California, Oregon, Washington, Australia, New Zealand have all made huge progress in fine winegrowing. There has been so much evolution on both sides that the "New World::Old World" distinction no longer applies. Since the 1960's, the number of wines has been growing exponentially, so that today, the sheer numbers available to us can be overwhelming and bewildering. But it has never been a better time to be a wine lover!

What makes a great wine... and what makes a good wine? What is the difference?

A great wine is memorable, it creates a distinct impression, a focal point where the vineyard and the winemaking merge. A good wine is pleasurable.

What traditional elements of wine production are fundamental to you? What elements are not?

There is a French expression that goes something like this: "Wine can be made from grapes, also." For thousands of years, people have been making "wine," wholly, or in part, using substances other than grapes. For sure, the ancient Greeks and Romans did this, and the practice was especially problematic in Europe during the Phylloxera crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. As much as we commonly hear people say that their wine is "grown in the vineyard," it is also true today that many wines, even famous, very expensive wines, are made employing exotic ingredients and technology. People are never content to leave well enough alone.

In wine, "Tradition," is subject to interpretation, so I am careful not wrap ourselves up in a virtuous sounding idea, whose meaning no one knows. I don't believe in any dogmatic set of rules, because there is no magic formula other than, "Keep it simple." We don't deny enology, we just keep it at arm's length. We do use SO2, nutrients, innoculum when necessary, barrels, egg whites and filtration, but nothing is absolute, and in every instance we follow the general principle, "Less is More."

Honest wine, really and truly, is about the grapes and the simple elements of the ancient craft of winemaking. Happily, there is a growing cohort of artisanal winegrowers who tend their vineyards with care, and have enough confidence in the fruit, to be able to work in their cellars with limited, thoughtful intervention. Some of an older generation, now in their 80's, or gone, understood this implicitly, and today their traditions are being revived. I have seen this in the Loire, in Burgundy, the Rhone, the Languedoc, and in California. And, while it may never be mainstream, it seems that this trend is growing all over the world.

Talk about the uniqueness of your land on Spring Mountain.

One look at the place, and the most well-traveled wine lovers will say that they've never seen anything like it. The Cain Vineyard is cradled in a spectacular bowl, all to itself, perched on the crest of Spring Mountain, overlooking the Napa Valley. Steep, terraced vineyards have been sculpted into facets exposed to all points of the compass. It is somewhat cooler here; winds from the Pacific Ocean channel through a gap that, at 1900 feet, is just a couple of hundred feet lower than the prevailing ridgeline of the Mayacamus. Naturally, the hillside soils are thin, and unlike much of Spring Mountain, they are formed entirely on sedimentary, rather than volcanic, bedrock of sandstone and shale. These soils are relatively cold and high in clay, which tends to hold the vines back, resulting in piquant, aromatic grapes. I think that you can taste this in the Cain Five.

What about your terroir made you decide to make Bordeaux grape blends?

In 1979, the Cains were thinking "Mountain Cabernet." But, as we know, at least in their youth, some mountain Cabernets can be hard as nails. By the end of the 70's and the beginning of the 80's, blends were in the air, particularly those of the Cabernet family. And blending seemed to be a perfect way to temper the tough tannins, so Winemaker Lester Hardy and the Cains decided to create a blend of "all five" of the varieties best known in Bordeaux.

Of course, the Cain Vineyard is not in Bordeaux, and the soils, the exposures, and the climate could not be more different. In fact, the wine tastes like nothing else that I know. The surprising thing is that it works out. The lesson is that the signal of the Cain Vineyard comes through strongly in each of the varieties and all of the many blocks. The blending really works to create a balanced wine, but the originality of the Cain Five lies not in the varietal composition, but in the Cain Vineyard.

What do you do at Cain, that makes you unique?

While the Cain Vineyard is unique, I am reluctant to say that any particular thing we <> at Cain might be unique. However, it may be true that many of the things we do are currently out of the mainstream of Napa Valley winemaking. In our country, I tend to find more common ground with some of the Pinot winemakers. In fact, I don't know a single winemaker working with Cabernet who follows our path, that is, who would make all of the choices we make.

One of the more obvious differences is our choice of ripeness at time of picking -- we tend to pick earlier, sometimes weeks earlier than many wineries have done recently, simply because we want to capture fruit with the energy at its peak, before the aromas and mouth-watering juiciness begin to fade. We don't desire 'unripe' fruit any more that we desire 'overripe' fruit -- rather, we believe in a continuum of ripening and it is up to each winegrower to choose the appropriate moment according to the vineyard, the vintage, and their winemaking values.

Another difference is that we do not seek to maximize extraction. We have found that ripe fruit yields its best in days, not weeks. In both cases, ripeness and extraction, we do not believe that "more is better."

The fact that we ferment with native yeast - those on the grapes and in the cellar - rather than inoculating with exogenous, cultured yeast, is perceived by modern enology to be risky, but obviously native ferments have worked well for thousands of years. We find that the resulting wines are always more subtle, more complex, and ultimately more satisfying.

Our use of barrels is not as a flavoring agent. Many people ask us what kind of barrels we use, but almost nobody asks us how we use them. We employ barrels in our élévage, that is we, 'raise our wines' through the gentle work we do in the cellar to develop them from the raw wines issuing from the fermentation, to the finished wines, ready for the bottle.

One more point is that we are not afraid to explore tertiary fermentations, for example, with Brettanomyces, because we don't believe that wine is only about the fruit. Historically, enology developed to identify and correct "flaws." In the process, much has been lost. Think of other fermented foods, such as cheese, soy sauce, kim chi, or beer, and you never think about just the raw ingredients. Why should wine be different?

All of this adds up to our esthetic values, which are lively, refreshing, balanced and complex wines. They may not create a dramatic first impression, but they create a lasting impression.

Even if this might not be mainstream, I don't feel alone here. There are people the world over who share this approach to winegrowing. They tend not be enologists. People like Henry Jayer, Noel Pinguet, and Pierre Morey, are exceptions.

What other Napa Valley wine producers do you admire?

I admire winegrowers who care as much about the vineyard and grape-growing as they do about their winemaking. I particularly admire those who continue to learn and evolve, but who also have a clear sense of their esthetic values and the commitment to stick with them. In competitive, "blind," tastings, their wines may not stand out, but when you enjoy them at dinner, they'll keep you interested.

Video: Interview with Chris Howell from Cain Cellars
Julian Campbell - 25 March 2011

Chris Howell was in town recently and came to see us in St James’s Street. 

He is one of Napa’s most thoughtful men, producing some of Napa’s most elegant wines, and what he has to say is invariably fascinating.