ANNAPOLIS, California – At Peay Vineyards, 53 acres of vines on a ridge near this small town just 5.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the fog generally burns off around 9 a.m. and the air begins to warm, at least for a little while. Towards noon, a breeze begins to blow, ruffling the leaves of the towering redwoods and strengthening until the fog lifts again in the late afternoon.
This is part of the challenging winegrowing life in the northern part of the West Sonoma Coast, which became the latest official US wine designation in May.
If the name sounds oxymoronic — it’s not like there’s an east coast of Sonoma — it’s a testament to the gerrymandered nature of American winegrowing regions, as wine names are formally known in the United States.
The new designation was created after years of debate to distinguish the area along the coast from the vast area surrounded by the original Sonoma Coast designation. When that appellation was created in 1987, it stretched absurdly eastward to areas so far from the coast that the ocean had little influence on the climate.
Thus, the West Sonoma Coast was established to designate the area that actually stretches along the coast, extending from the Pacific Ocean five to seven miles inland, north to the border with Mendocino County, and south to the Petaluma Gap, another ocean-influenced American Viticultural Area.
The new appellation spans three subregions: the area around the towns of Freestone and Occidental in the south, Fort Ross-Seaview in the center, and Annapolis in the northern reaches of the appellation near the Mendocino border. Peay planted the first major commercial vineyard in the Annapolis area in 1998.
For Peay Vineyards, the new designation comes as an acknowledgment, if not exactly a justification, that the area they pioneered 25 years ago offers distinctive qualities that are transparently displayed in their wines, primarily complex, polished pinot noirs; savory syrahs; fresh, intense chardonnays; and smaller amounts of vibrant Rhone white.
“The wine, the quality in the glass, justify our gamble to grow grapes here,” said Nick Peay, who owns three, along with his wife, Vanessa Wong, and brother, Andy Peay. “The AGM just helps to communicate with the wine-buying public, let them try the wine, get the wine in their glass. The wine speaks for itself.”
The area along the coast is completely different from the interior which still qualifies for the larger Sonoma Coast designation, generally cooler in the days, warmer at nights and wetter. But the circumstances in the sub-regions also vary widely within the appellation.
Fort Ross-Seaview, south of Annapolis, is defined in part by elevation changes. Vineyards must be 920 feet above sea level or more, effectively placing them above the fog line. Due to the higher elevation, it is generally warmer there, with earlier harvests than around Annapolis, which is lower and cooler during the day.
In the mid-1990s, when the young Peay brothers — Andy is now 52 and Nick 56 — decided they wanted to plant a vineyard and make wine, they were something of an anomaly. They had grown up in suburban Cleveland in a wine-loving family, but Andy had no experience growing grapes or making wine. At least Nick had worked for a small winery that bought grapes from all over the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In addition, neither wanted to create the kind of powerfully fruity, sometimes overripe, alcohol-rich California wines that were gaining popularity in the late 1990s.
“We were looking for a cooler place than anywhere else,” Andy Peay said. “The theory that Nick had was that if we could find a place where we didn’t struggle with the beautiful California sun, we could make wines that were fruity but also had different aromas.”
They decided, Andy recalled as he, Mrs. Wong, and I walked through the vineyard in early June, looking for ridges in the coastal mountain ranges, places where cool air from the ocean could get in, but where they could get at least a little protection. had against the fog.
“We drove around in pickup trucks, looking for rivers and low spots and other things that could indicate fog, like lichen and moss on poles and trees,” Andy said. “Ferns would tell you that water was trapped in the soil.”
Finally, they found a promising site near Annapolis, an old sheep farm and apple orchard. “The old-timer had a spiral notebook and kept a daily log of temperatures and precipitation,” he said. “We saw how the temperature changed throughout the season. There was quite a bit of rainfall on average, but it’s California, so we don’t get any rain in the summer.”
In 1996 they bought 280 acres 600 to 800 feet high, with a weathered barn and house. Gravenstein apple trees still dot and land, as does the wood of old sheep pastures.
“We knew we were taking a chance,” Nick said, “but I had learned a lot about sea air exposure and temperature changes with altitude.”
The brothers started planting the vineyard in 1998, mainly with pinot noir, which, before the movie “Sideways” boosted pinot noir’s popularity in 2004, was a risk. They planted smaller amounts of Chardonnay and Syrah and small amounts of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.
It would be a few years before they had enough grapes to make wine. Nick took on the role of farmer. Andy would handle the marketing and sales. In 2001, in time for their first vintage, Mrs. Wong, an experienced winemaker, joined the team. Since then she has made every vintage.
The West Sonoma Coast region has flourished over the past 30 years, starting in the more southern areas with Summa Vineyard and Coastlands Vineyard at Occidental and Hirsch Vineyards, Fort Ross Vineyard and Flowers Vineyards around Fort Ross. The Annapolis area followed. Wineries in the area now include Hartford Court, Campbell Ranch, Goldrock Estate, Ridgetop Vineyard, and more. However, the planting has been delayed as environmental regulations limit the available land.
Peay’s first wines were not in the dominant style of the time. They were intense without being heavy or fruity, and tight and refreshing with lively acidity. The goal, Andy Peay said, was to showcase the vineyard’s characteristics and potential in wines meant to go with the food. To do this, he had to sell the wines virtually by hand.
“When we started, I didn’t want critics to taste our wine because our taste buds didn’t align,” recalls Andy. “In the 1990s, you submitted your wine to a few reviewers, got a 98, and disconnected your phone. That wasn’t the style we wanted to create.”
Instead, he visited sommeliers in Bay Area restaurants who then largely avoided California wines because they were too heavy and too much alcohol to fit their menus.
In the past 20 years, the stylistic pendulum of California winemaking has swung toward Peay. Flavors are much more diverse and the Sonoma Coast is known for being a source of fresh, balanced wines, although that depends as much on the intentions of the producers as it does on what vineyards have to offer.
After 20 vintages, the Annapolis area is still a challenging place to make wine. Immigration rules and the difficulty of living in the area make it difficult to attract vineyard workers. The Peay winery is located inland, in Cloverdale, where the 2021 vintage is maturing in barrels, as it would have been too expensive to build a winery near the vineyard.
Their farming and winemaking has also evolved. They changed the pruning method and had to redo a few blocks that were either planted in the wrong place or with the wrong clones.
“It was naive to plant 30 acres at a time with no experience,” said Andy Peay.
Nick Peay hates to label his farming practices, but Peay is certified organic and follows regenerative methods.
“We have come to the style of farming that we practice by being aware of our responsibilities as stewards of the land, being sensitive to the long-term effects of farming, and desiring to pass on a natural system that will last forever,” he said. he.
Mrs. Wong’s winemaking has become more accurate over time. In good vintages, Peay now makes several pinot noirs, syrahs and chardonnays, a viognier and a blend of roussanne and marsanne (if these two mature enough for a wine). In addition, they have a second label, Cep, for wines made from purchased grapes that are sold for about half the price of the Peay wines.
The wines age well. A 2014 Chardonnay was floral, mineral and mealy in a Meursault style, while a 2014 Pomarium pinot noir had complex aromas of flowers, tea and red and black fruit. A 2005 La Bruma syrah was peppery and olive-flavoured with tightly coiled acids and plenty of time for it.
I’m not much of a Viognier fan. I often find them flamboyant and slack, but Peay’s 2019 was fresh and vibrant with focused flavors of ginger and fruit.
Important challenges remain. For example, when they planted the vineyard, they did not anticipate the effects of the climate crisis.
In 2020, the billowing smoke from wildfires forced the Peays to make just 500 chests from their estate of Pinot Noir instead of the usual 2,000. A spring frost this year on May 8 killed an estimated 10 percent of the crop. The local waterway, the Wheatfield Fork, which flows into the Gualala River and used to be good for kayaking, was already dry in June.
No one said life on the west coast of Sonoma was easy. The fog keeps rolling in and the wind starts to blow. But the wines are worth it.