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 wines. It is the first time they have ever been seen on these shores, just in time for their stunning 2012 vintage.
The Sonoma Coast appellation is the largest licensed American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the United States covering more than 200,000 hectares of land. In other words, it is enormous. To give you an idea of how enormous, Rioja has just over 60,000 hectares under vine. Naturally this makes drawing generalised conclusions about site specificity for the region pretty much impossible.
As a result, smaller unofficial designations are starting to gain traction – describing regions that have some contiguous factors and, leaving winemaking styles to one side, are likely to imbue the final wines with a recognisable sense of place. One such, is the “True Sonoma Coast”, used to describe the vineyards that “actually lie along the coast of Sonoma County!” As Andy Peay goes on, “This means that the afternoon breeze that comes in every day around noon cools vineyards unobstructed by higher western coastal ridges keeping top temperatures out of the 90s and, for those in the cool inversion layer below 1,000 feet, out of the 80s. The breezes and cool weather also often inhibit fruit set and a consequence of farming on the coast is that the yields are about half of what you can get inland.
This “true” Sonoma Coast can be further divided into three regions: the northern region around the town of Annapolis off Sea Ranch; the central region with the oldest vineyards on the coast now referred to by some as Fort Ross/Seaview Road; and the southern region near the town of Occidental. Peay Vineyards was a pioneer in the far northern section. We are discovering, however, that a critical factor for both vineyards in the northern and for those in the southern Sonoma Coast, is our elevation.
Our vineyard lies at 650-825 feet in elevation. Normally, temperatures fall by 1°F for every 400 foot gain in elevation. Along the Pacific Coast, this phenomenon is inverted as a layer of cold air ‹the inversion layer‹ is produced by a warm, less dense air mass moving towards the coast over the cooler, denser air caused by oceanic upwelling along the coast. This layer is maintained throughout the day and the breezes off the coast act as a fan blowing cold air along unobstructed land laying from sea level to 1,000 feet in elevation. Above this height, as in the central Sonoma Coast, and further inland, the normal relationship between temperature and elevation apply and it is hotter. Vineyards in this inversion layer are much cooler and as a result we achieve the Holy Grail in terms of high quality grape growing: cool sunlight.”