Earning Your Stripes: the 2011 Vintage

When Nick and I decided to make estate wines, we agreed that we should only consider the viticultural potential of a site and not the impact the location would have on our personal lives. One site we considered would have had us living in a moldy trailer in horse country (we do not ride). Fortunately, we felt it was not ideal for the style of Pinot noir we wanted to make (the area was too warm. Phew). This focus led two bachelors—brothers to boot—to take up house on a remote hilltop 40 minutes from the nearest grocery store and an hour and a half from the closest “town.” But that remoteness had a silver lining; when I moved to San Francisco to find a job and, hopefully, a partner, Nick was motivated to drive 2 hours east to Napa to find someone to argue with about cur-rent events. That led to his encounter with our eventual winemaker, Vanessa Wong. At the time, Vanessa was the winemaker at Peter Michael and sensibly lived in St. Helena. Nick’s solitude and ardor led him to shrug off a 4 hour commute for a date. He found a lifelong companion and we have an incredibly gifted winemaker. Amen.

The other silver lining to our monomaniacal focus has been our success so far in making the style of wines we hoped to make; they feature balance and elegance while delivering depth and intensity. The 2011s are no exception. There has been one downside, however. Our yields have been very low and highly erratic. We have always believed if we make great wine, the business will follow. And it has until the back to back vintages of 2010 and 2011 when yields dipped below one ton per acre and case production dropped by 50% two years in a row. Farming. Turns out we need a little broader vision to make our dream sustainable and, as a result, have begun to purchase a little fruit from other regions so all of our eggs are not in our one exceptional but fragile basket.

Introducing Peay Vineyards Savoy Pinot noir

We determined if we were going to purchase fruit, we would only work with vineyards where the farming is meticulous and we are able to have input. And, of course, the wines made from the vineyard must fit our ideal style. This search led us to the famed Savoy Vineyard in the Anderson Valley. Savoy had recently been sold to Cliff Lede Winery to supply their Pinot noir brand, Breggo. Of course they maintained their relationships with Littorai and Radio Côteau, wineries who have been making Savoy pinots for years. We have admired those wines and felt our approach to winemaking would allow us to offer a slightly different interpretation of this superior vineyard. Our first vintage is the 2011 Savoy that we are releasing today. It is a beautiful wine, with spice, depth and elegance. I think that is a combination you find in many of our wines. Notes on the wine are inside and I encourage you to try it. We only made 315 cases and have limited distribution mainly to the mailing list.

I would like to circle back to what has been a major recent epiphany. It turns out winemaker Vanessa Wong really is worth all the praise she is given; she is an extremely gifted winemaker. It is easy to take your sister-in-law for granted. But, after the 2011 vintage, I do not any more.

A winemaker earns her stripes during difficult vintages and the 2011 vintage offered plenty of opportunity for winemakers to win (or lose) their stripes. In a difficult year the decision when to pick is not straight-forward. In a vintage like 2011 sugars were so low I cannot even tell you how low. Flavors appeared green until the final moments before picking. And the grapes themselves were in a worrying state of decay due to the continuous rains. It started bleak and only got bleaker. If you have spent time with Vanessa you know she is serious, dedicated, and whip smart. Spend time with her during harvest and you also know she works crazy hours and has guts. Vanessa kept waiting through the rains, waiting for the flavors to come around. She would head out at 5 a.m. every morning to sample fruit. She always does it herself though this year she had some help. She would not tell Nick and me what we are picking the next morning until late in the afternoon. She needed all day to process samples, pour over charts of previous vintage data wallpapering her office walls, and stressing each factor until her gut told her what to do. More than once screams of frustration emanated from her corner office. Those were not Braxton Hicks induced screams (though she was 8 months pregnant.)

But, by god, she made really good wine. I was quite pessimistic all last year until she started to make blends. I do not know exactly which dance or sacrificial rite she performed to make such good wine but here are a few adjustments I noted. She had us make many passes through each row to drop entire clusters that developed rot and throw them over the fence so rot would not spread to remaining clusters. By the time a block was ready to pick, we might pass 3 or 4 vines in a row that did not have any fruit left on the vine. Every day after picking, we sat at the sorting table and sorted at the rate of a ¼ ton per hour. Yes, you read that correctly. That is about a quarter of our already slow rate and means the table basically did not move so we could pick every sub-standard berry off the belt and dispose of it in the heaping trash cans. Thank god there was so little fruit because it took us all day and night and sometimes morning to sort a few tons of fruit. Vanessa changed some of her fermentation techniques if the fruit was in a fragile state. She adjusted her barrel regime to be careful not to overwhelm wines. And then came blending. This is the other area—when to pick being the first—where I think a winemaker displays not simply craftsmanship but artisanship and gift built from experience. Our final blends tasted much better than the individual wines. To achieve this, Vanessa was ruthless in declassifying poor lots. We made very little Estate wine choosing only the very best lots for Ama, Pomarium, Scallop Shelf and Savoy. The barrels that did not make an estate cuvée were assessed for the Sonoma Coast cuvée and blended blind. The remaining barrels were blended and blind tasted for Cep. At each step we selected blends based solely on quality, not knowing the final production amount. A sizable amount of wine we sold as bulk wine to a Central Valley juggernaut. In the end, in 2011 we made 2,700 cases of Peay wine down from 6,500 cases in the 2009 vintage.

There is an adage among Burgundy drinkers; you buy producer first, vintage second. This may sound like bald marketing mumbo jumbo but there is a lot of truth to the statement. In difficult vintages, not only may terroir shine through in a wine (depending on the circumstances, there may be more acid to age and keep wine fresh, less fruit flesh and oak to obscure site, etc.) but, more importantly, dedicated winemakers with high standards and a lifelong commitment to their site will also be merciless in selecting the lots that bear their name. The final wines will be the region’s best of the vintage and true to their style.

The 2011 vintage was not an easy one for us or for anyone in California. I hope we never experience that level of stress again. But, in the end, we made very good wine and have learned important lessons that will help us continue to build on our short history. That is another silver lining I can grasp. Amen.

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