The Estate Pinot noirs: What’s in a name?
When Nick and I planted the first 30 acres of vines, we were pioneers in this region of the Sonoma Coast. As such we were tinkerers, uncertain what clones would best express our site and how much of each would be ideal in a wine. We now farm 13 clonal selections of Pinot noir strewn across 35 acres kept distinct by clonal selection. There is no Ama block. No Scallop Shelf block. Nope, no Pomarium block, either (thank god, everyone would call it the dog pound). I am often asked by an uninitiated person how these cuveés can be distinct as the grapes come from the same vineyard. After tasting them this question is usually followed by “wow, the cuveés really do taste different!” Here is why we think this is and how each came into being.
We pick the 13 clones of Pinot noir in 25-28 separate picking blocks. Each block may have different sensory characteristics due to the clone, the soil, the aspect, and the ripeness at picking. Some lots may emphasize fruit, some may have little fruit expression but are earthy. Some may have deep bass notes, some might be very light and floral, and on and on. These blocks are vinified and aged separately and blended before bottling to make the three Estate Pinot noirs.
When making blends, Vanessa is much like a painter. Painters apply layers of paint to a canvas to create depth, light, color, and shape. Working with more than 25 pinots Vanessa has at least 25 individual paints she can layer to bring forth the voice of the vineyard in three distinct wines. There should be an overall harmony and individual character to each cuveé and within that style there should be top notes, middle notes, and bass notes that support one another and result in a complex tasting experience.
Up until the 2005 vintage, we made one Peay Estate Pinot noir named the Estate. Monthly, Vanessa would refine and we would taste blind potential blends for the 2005 Estate Pinot. Two distinct cuveés rose to the top but the three of us found it difficult to agree on the single best expression of Pinot noir from our vineyard. One was bright and aromatic, the other was darker fruited and earthy. All the trial blends had great acidity and forest floor flavors that lingered on the finish – a hallmark of our Pinot noirs in any vintage. Inevitably, neither blend represented the majority of the Pinot we made. So, we decided to pick our two favorites and make two estate Pinot noirs.
Alas, we needed names to differentiate the two estate wines. They needed to be evocative of our site and meaningful. We could opt for Peay III, IV, V like George Foreman so eloquently named his sons (there is a VI and a Jr.) Perhaps, not. At the time, we could not name them after our children, either – which appears to be popular among wineries – as we were childless. Summer was nigh, however, and we needed to print labels immediately so we pulled out a white board and started to brainstorm. Here is what came of our naming and what we think each cuveé has to say about Pinot noir from our estate vineyard.
Pomarium is Latin for apple orchard. Our vineyard was once planted to acres of apple trees; some for eating, some for drying, some for making cider. We have an old kiln onsite where the original homesteaders would dry the apples and ship them from the port at Stewart’s Point to San Francisco. Many of these 100 year old trees still produce delicious fruit. They encircle block 1 and the newest blocks 14 and 15.
We thought Pomarium was a euphonious name that evoked our land’s farming heritage. Of course, we had no idea if it was pronounced Poe-mar-e-um or Poe-mare-e-um. We also had never heard of the puffy toy dog favored by Queen Victoria, the Pomeranian. Turns out this is the 15th most popular breed of dog and based on my research traveling the country pouring this wine, more people have heard of Pomeranians than took Latin in high school. As if our last name were not difficult enough to pronounce correctly (and awkward, if not), we have added a second befuddling name to really confuse matters. You’re welcome.
But what does Pomarium taste like? Pomarium is the more broad-shouldered, masculine cuveé. The fruit flavors lean to dark berry and plum notes. The presence on the palate is larger framed than our other Pinot noirs, though not necessarily due to riper blocks in the blend but to silky tannins that ballast black fruit and earth-driven flavors. The distinctly earthy characteristics are somewhat akin to stepping on dried pine needles in a conifer forest mid-summer; or, smelling the scent of sagebrush on John Wayne while he’s keeping order out on the prairie. The mouth, oftentimes, has hints of licorice, lead, black tea, and serrano ham. After making nine vintages of Pomarium, we have a pretty good idea of what clones and blocks will comprise the core of the blend. With tinkering due to vintage expression and block development, Pomarium includes Dijon clones 667, 777, 115, and all three of the Calera heritage selections (and, oddly enough, not our Pommard selection).
Scallop Shelf is obviously a typo. Shouldn’t it be Scallop Shell? Perhaps. When preparing the vineyard for planting, we found scallop and nautilus fossils in our soils. We researched the geology of the region and learned that we farm in an outcropping of marine soils. Our hilltop was a former sea bed uplifted about 5-7 million years ago along the neighboring San Andreas Fault which created the bedrock of the Pacific Coast Ridges 250 million years ago. Like geology and want to know more? I suggest you read Vanessa’s article I Exert for Dirt at www.peayvineyards.com/i-exert-for-dirt. For our purposes, what is important to understand is we farm in nutrient poor marine soils, low in clay content, with moderate topsoil depth that drain slowly. This allows for our saturated soils – we get on average 60+ inches of rain per year – to retain just enough water to feed the vines as the water table drops for most, if not the entire, growing season. The poor soils mean we do not have to fight vigor from too much nitrogen or other nutrients; in fact, we add compost every year that we make from our pomace (skins, stems, yeast cells.)
As for shelf, when you stand on our porch and look south you will notice the former ocean bed forms a shelf perched above the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River below. I have hiked off the southern end of the vineyard and you have to hold on to trees to keep from sliding down the hill to the river 600 feet below. Steep. That river is our conduit to the coast. The fog sneaks up the river valley to embrace, if not downright smother, the vineyard in the evenings. Around noon the coastal wind blows bringing cool wind dropping temperatures into the 60s on average. So, the shelf is key to our micro-climate. But Scallop Shelf? King Solomon would have loved the name.
Scallop Shelf is our most feminine blend. Our francophile customers tend to find affinity with this cuveé due, I think, to its floral, red-fruited profile, and graceful, natural beauty and elegance (think Catherine Deneuve). The fruit flavors tend to lean to cranberry and bing cherry. Floral notes of jasmine tea combine with orange rind on the nose to provide lift and prettiness. The mouth has a more serious and focused character compared with the nose with dried cherry, copper and dried blood aromas. The tell-tale forest floor quality you find in all of our Pinot noirs remains on the long finish. The blend is a majority of the Pommard selection which, in our vineyard, offers a distinct orange rind flavor not the deep cherry flavor you find in wines made from the Pommard clone in warmer climates. Dijon clones 115 and 777 provide the mid-palate depth and roundness with Swan and Mount Eden selections accenting the fruit flavors with high tone floral scents.
After such success naming our first two blends, we decided to play it safe. In a multitude of languages, ama means “love, being of love, a Japanese female diver, grandmother, and land or place.” The last definition is pertinent as ama means “land or place” in the Kashaya language of the Pomo people. The Pomo thrived in our region of the Pacific Coast for millennia. They named our knoll “where scallops lie”. We are focused on making wines that speak of a place, mainly, our vineyard. Best showcasing that voice is our goal as wine growers and winemakers. By the 2009 vintage, we felt the more recently planted blocks were revealing a distinct expression of Peay Vineyards Pinot noir and deserved to be elevated to a vineyard designate and by 2012 priced on par with our other two estate Pinot noirs. Stylistically, Ama fits in between the muscle of Pomarium and the intellect of Scallop Shelf. The cuveé more directly speaks the language of Pinot noir; cherries, minerals, spice, smoke. There is a guaranteed hedonic response to this wine. It has grace but it is not shy or ethereal. It is masculine but not brutish or uncouth. It is Sean Connery as James Bond. Though Scallop Shelf and Pomarium are blends from many blocks and clones, Ama is a little bit more block driven as it is 80-90% from 2 blocks we planted in our second large planting in 2003. The first block we had originally planted to zinfandel but pulled out after 6 years as it could not handle our fog (the rot, the rot!) This block, block 7, is planted entirely to a suitcase clone of Pinot noir that someone says hails from one of the most heralded Burgundy vineyards. Eh, not so sure I believe him, but in any event, the wine from this clonal selection makes a bold and suave wine. The dark cherry notes are quite appealing and are undergirded by a mineral – like lead or brass – note providing real armor to the wine. In our tasting notes, I have compared the wine to a Club where men back in the ’50s would go to read the papers; a masculine, tasteful and refined library to retreat from the drudgery of business (and to shirk domestic duties, clearly.)
The second block is planted to the infamous “828 clone “ and is the yin to block 7’s yang. This clone was all the rage for a few years in the early oughts. We sourced one of the first cuttings—which is likely not 828—and planted a large panhandle shaped section to “clone 828.” The “real” clone 828 clone has been accused of providing huge yields and ripening early. We have had the opposite experience. It is the last Pinot noir block to come off the vine and yields have been tragically low. Even worse, for the first 8 years the wine was not that interesting, either. This began to change for the better in 2011, and even more so in 2012, just when we decided to replant an acre of it to a different clone. The wine is often bright, floral, earthy and non-fruit oriented. We still have a few acres that are making a solid argument for their survival. We shall see. The remaining 5-10% of the cuveé is rounded out by a smattering of Pommard, Dijon 115 and 777 that knit the two expressions of Pinot noir together.
Are we done with all of this naming and cuveé-making? Yes, it is very likely we will not make another estate Pinot noir cuveé. Oh wait, oops, I forgot. Elanus. The exceptional 2012 saw the inauguration of a 3 barrel cuveé we will only make when we feel a vintage is exemplary and the overall quality of the wines is so high we must pull aside the three best barrels to offer only to our mailing list customers. But that is a story for another day.