VANESSA WONG: The call of the wild Sonoma Coast
Vanessa Wong had a problem with her ice cream. Every time she bought a pint, it would melt before she got home. That’s because her home is tucked away in the farthest comer of the Sonoma Coast appellation, where Wong and her husband, Nick Peay are proprietors of Peay Vineyards’ new vineyard and winery.
“We really are out there,” she says with a grin. People who visit the vineyard are astounded by the remoteness of the location and the 40-mile stretch of road sans gas station that leads to their driveway. Wong gave up more than ice cream and her subscription to The New York Times to follow her career path of making terroir-inspired wines. She gave up her job as winemaker for Peter Michael Winery, one of the best producers in California, where she succeeded elite winemakers such as Mark Aubert and Helen Turley.
She grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of immigrant Chinese parents who drank tea, not wine, with meals. It wasn’t until Wong was 14 that someone offered her a sip of wine. She says she remembers looking at the bottle and thinking, “This wine has a name.” The name was Chardonnay.
Wong read everything she could about wine. An admitted science nut, she loves things that ferment; she muses that she might have ended up a cheesemaker if not a winemaker. Her parents didn’t protest when she said she wanted to study viticulture at UC Davis, concluding that any science was “probably practical.” Her studies included a year at the Institute of Bordeaux, where she researched malolactic bacteria.
At 33, she has covered a lot of ground in a short time. Before settling at Peter Michael, she worked at Robert Mondavi Winery and Franciscan in Napa Valley, first-growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, Burgundy’s Domaine Jean Gros and Montrose Winery in Australia.
In 1996, Wong took a job as assistant winemaker to Aubert at Peter Michael. She liked the small venue and the winery’s spectacular vineyard holdings in Sonoma’s Knights Valley. Wong was clear on her goal. “I wanted to make wines where you have control over the quality.” She became winemaker for the 1999 and 2000 vintages and is responsible for impressive wines such as the Les Pavots Knights Valley 1999 (96 points) and the Chardonnay Sonoma County Belle Cote 1999 (93).
Wong’s approach comes largely from her time in Burgundy. A proactive winemaker, she says, is one who controls the grape source. On the subject of blending, she sighs and shrugs a little. “Is the art of winemaking blending? It can be your best tool as a winemaker. But what I learned in Burgundy and at Peter Michael is that the wine is an expression of the vineyard. That is the thread. That’s it distilled down to its essence.”
Peay shares her passion for terroir. By the time he and Wong met in 1999, Peay and his brother Andy had already driven up and down the Pacific coast, geological maps in hand, looking for prime vineyard land. In 1996, the Peay brothers purchased 280 acres near the town of Annapolis, just south of the Mendocino County line.
In 2001, Wong left Peter Michael for the first harvest at Peay Vineyards. The site is 4 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, with a long growing season of warm days and cool nights; she believes it’s ideal for Pinot noir. Currently 48 acres are planted, 30 of them to Pinot noir. Wong is relieved, she says, to be in a situation where the “winemaking and grape-growing goals are the same.”
Now that she is on the coast all the time, Wong has purchased an ice cream maker. It’s not as easy as stopping at a store, but that’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make. —M.W.