Wine Ink: The search for the perfect California vineyard
September 13, 2017
"Here, let me draw you a map," said Sonoma Coast vintner Nick Peay as we sat on his porch, watching spring fog roll over the vineyards from the Pacific that roils just four rugged miles away on the far side of a coastal ridge.
I had just mentioned that the maps I had for Fort Ross-Seaview AVA did not provide the detail I had hoped for in a region made up of some paved, and some unpaved, roads that were not as well marked as, say, 57th and Sixth. Nick, while anxious to help, was even happier to take pencil in hand and sketch the area of his affection that surrounds his mountain top vineyards. Wine people love maps.
Of all the -ographys and -ologies that make up of the wine world, geography is perhaps the most important. If you believe the adage, I certainly do, that "wine is made in the vineyard," then location, location, location is the critical element for any winemaker. Finding the perfect place where soils, sun, fog and exposure merge to make magic is the Holy Grail.
That's why Nick and his brother, Andy Peay, came to this remote, previously mapless, ridgetop to plant the vines that produce the grapes for the exceptional West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay they make for their eponymous label. Twenty years ago they began their pursuit for a place that would allow them to make wines that speak of their passion and, perhaps more importantly to them, the place they would choose to populate.
"Well, we didn't know what we didn't know," Nick said with a chuckle as he explained how he and his brother came to, what at the time in 1995, was pretty much considered timber and apple country. The pair had been on a quest to find a place to, in Andy's words, "Make wine that engages all of our senses and expresses the characteristics of a piece of land." That sounds like a contradictorily obvious, though elusive goal for a winemaker.
But Andy and Nick were diligent in their pursuit. They spent the summer of '95 driving the West Coast of America searching for just the right site for their dreams of making great wines. This was of course before the days of GPS, Google Maps and the ubiquitous wine region maps that are available today. Then, they fueled their quest on caffeine, and found their way using U.S. Geological maps. Not the easiest things to read.
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They traveled from the Santa Ynez Valley in the south to the farmlands of Eastern Washington looking for a Valhalla that was only moderately defined. They were searching as much on gut feeling as they were on science. They just knew that they would know it when they found it.
One morning, after sleeping on a beach in Humboldt County, north of Sonoma, Andy took to the logging roads of the mountainous coast. Serendipitously, he came across a real estate listing that read simply: "A scenic viewpoint with vineyard potential!" Andy took the trip up the ridge and the rest is history.
Today the brothers, along with Nick's wife Vanessa Wong, who is the winemaker for Peay Vineyards (Nick is listed as "winegrower" and Andy as "sales, marketing and everything else" in the loosely defined flow chart that sees all three involved in all aspects), make some of the most acclaimed wines in a region that is white-hot. Their wines sell out on release, they have been written about by the most influential wine scribes on the planet and they have received numerous "Winery of the Year" honors.
But as we sat on the porch that afternoon, a glass of the Les Titans Syrah in hand "from right over there," Nick gestured, it was clear that in his mind the success of the entire operation hinged on a mapless quest that brought them to this place on Earth. He spoke of the soils, the team of eight that run the organic vineyards throughout the year, the clones they specifically selected for the site, and the slope of the hills that rose and fell just in front of us.
So it was that when Nick began to trace the roads and draw the map to help me find my way he was, in a sense, tracing on the torn piece of paper the road to success of Peay Vineyards. He signed it simply, "There are roads."
There certainly are.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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