When we accepted Nick Peay’s offer of a vineyard tour, we had no idea just how remote the property was. From the edge of the Sonoma Valley near Lake Sonoma (about 120km north of San Francisco), the 50km drive through the heavily wooded hills takes a good 90 minutes. Peering over the edge of the ravines that the road snakes through, we were dodging deer and squirrels as they darted across the narrow road. Up and down we drove, through ravines and along cliff edges and deep into the woods, until we came across the letterbox with the red stripe. From here we drove another 4km into the heavily wooded property before emerging in a hilltop clearing with breathtaking views of the Sonoma coast. We missed the small oak shack the first time and continued down the ever rougher road wondering how the car would get back up the hill. Fortunately, at this point, Nick chased us down on a quad bike and guided us back to the shack, made in 1906 from timber logged right there in the clearing.
Brothers Nick and Andy Peay planted their 51-acre vineyard in 1996. It sits like an island above the wooded hills which stretch as far as the eye can see. These hills were logged before roads made transporting timber possible, and felled oaks were rolled down the hill to a river and taken by boat out to the Pacific and south to San Francisco. When road transport improved, it became more economical to log closer to Sonoma Valley, so this hilltop clearing was left vacant for years before eventually being used as an apple orchard. In the late 90s it was put on the market and touted as having “vineyard potential”, right when the price of vineyard land was taking off. The brothers were searching for vineyard land on the coastal frontier when they stumbled upon the magnificent location
The Peay Chardonnay couldn’t be more different from the big Chardonnays of the late 90s which gave the variety a bad name.
They took soil samples and poured over daily temperature records kept by an old local over the previous 15 years. They had found their perfect site and their adventure was underway.
Thanks to the very cool climate (the Pacific is just 6km west) yields are half to a quarter of vineyards back in the Sonoma Valley. Grapes take six to eight weeks longer to ripen, but you’ll never find overripe flavours coming from Peay’s vineyards. The brothers don’t try to emulate Burgundy, but the likeness is undeniable.
Vanessa Wong is the winemaker, and Nick manages the vineyard while Andy sells the wine and runs the business. Vanessa spent time at Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, as well as a stint in Burgundy, before returning home to San Francisco and making Chardonnay for Peter Michael Winery. While scoping out the Sonoma Coast for another winery, she visited the site and fell in love with it. She became the winemaker and, later, married Nick.
Peay produces about 7,000 cases a year, primarily of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Viognier.
We stand in the shack’s kitchen with Nick, tasting his wines and talking about the land. Nick shows us soil and terrain maps as we chat about their organic farming approach, the problems with the certification process and our shared skepticism of some of the more whimsical aspects of the biodynamic movement. As we walk out to the rustic wooden porch overlooking the vineyard, Nick points out all the vineyard work he’s still got to do. Nick lives on the property and is in the vineyard dawn to dusk tending to his crop. He’s a great host and this was a phenomenal visit. Both their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were contenders for the California pack, but we could only choose one.