Sunday, March 1, 2015

Q & A w/ Andy Peay: Peay Vineyards & Founder/Board member of West of West (WOW)

How did you get into wine and winemaking? 

I grew up in a household where food and wine were very important. My mother was very involved in the local farmer’s markets in northeastern ohio and wine was on the table every night, mostly Italian and French. That was the subliminal education I picked up when young. After a brief 2 year stint in banking after college I traveled around asia with a backpack for a year ending up in Berkeley. I decided to follow my bliss and thought I would become a chef as I loved cooking and eating. I was disabused of that idea quickly by folks in the business who assured me that being an actual chef and liking to cook were not necessarily kin. My brother would come up from Santa Cruz on occasion where he was making wine and we would brew beer and cook. And drink wine all night. He started educating me on the various wines and regions and we started visiting wine country together. On one of those trips I ate a rack of lamb with an 85 Beaucastel and my head blew off. I got it. Sanguine flavors in meat, sanguine flavors in wine. Put them together they both tasted way better than alone. I was hooked on the idea though I knew nothing about the business. I worked for Cain in 1995 as a harvest intern and loved the physical aspects of the job. After harvest I figured it was time to see what wine buyers and their customers were thinking when they bought wine so I became an assistant retail wine buyer focused on European wines. I did not have a budget to buy much but was able to taste wines from all over the world, a hundred a week. That was when the hooks set in deep. St. Joseph tasted like St. Joseph. Cote Rotie like Cote Rotie, Chambolle lilke Chambolle. Nebbiolo…I said “let’s make wine that tastes like it could only come from a specific piece of land.  No fruit bombs that obscure site. No anywhere wine. We want world class terroir.” And we were off.

Is there a varietal you wish you could grow in the west sonoma coast?  What is it? 

Nebbiolo. I love Nebbiolo. The likelihood of that ever happening on our vineyard in my lifetime is nil. We will need at least 30 years to figure out how to grow great pinot, chardonnay and syrah. To add another variety would be a distraction. And, frankly, I am content to buy nebbiolo from Italy. They do a great job with the variety there and we do not have the proper terroir, I do not think. It is like Nerrelo Mascalese. I love the combination of floral aromatics, velvety tannins and earthy palate you get in that wine from Etna. But it is grown at serious altitude on a volcano. Definitely not our terroir. I see much more potential for the grape varieties I grow on the WSC as we are able to harness the strength of the cold climate and soil. We have a long growing season due to our maritime climate and can make wines that express terroir but also have fruit and floral complexity.

What do you think would be successful in the west sonoma coast that has not been planted yet?

In colder parts maybe Riesling. But again, great Riesling is grown in Germany and Austria at incredibly fair prices. Likely it would be prohibitively expensive to grow riesling on the Sonoma Coast due to land and farming costs. Also, more people should grow syrah out here. Yes yields are terribly low and some years you get blanked, and well, yes, consumers seem allergic to syrah, but the wines are delicious and unique like no other variety we grow out here.

How do you make wine more accessible? 

We make the Cep wines. They offer great value as the reds are declassified Peay wine at half the price. The SB and Rose are very distinct and are at a price where you can drink them any day. As far as how to bring people over to drinking wine from other beverages, I actually think many wineries are doing that job for us. The big, fruity, sweet, bold - pick your pejorative adjective - wines are the stepping stones from soda, beer, and cocktails to wine. So I am all for two buck chuck, three thieves, charles smith, IPAs. Some people will evolve and want more from their beverage than a pleasant quaff. Some will not. I will meet them with a glass of Cep and eventually move on to Peay.

Why is pinot noir worth the price tag? 

This is not ground breaking to say but yields are very low for pinot noir in general and quality drops off precipitously when you push yields too high. In our case we average 1.5 tons per acre (below grand cru burgundy levels). It is about half what pinot gets in warmer climates and about a third what you can get for cabernet.

Also with Pinot, you need to be gentle with the fruit in the picking and winemaking so you cannot use machines but must do everything by hand. The skins are thin so susceptible to rot and pinot is best grown in cool areas where oftentimes there is a lot of fog or rain. And all that manual labor comes at a significant cost. Other varieties you can and often need to use pumps, hedgers, skip sorting, not Pinot. Lastly, look at the substitute product to pinot…what else has the potential to show site, to be ethereal yet profound, to engage your brain as well as your belly? Look at the prices from the WSC and we are a bargain compared to Burgundy. You cannot find a quality premier cru Burgundy below $80 these days. At the $40-60 price point where most of us sell our wines, you are drinking village level wine and often, not very complex village, at that. Same goes for Oregon. Prices there have skyrocketed. On the WSC we are comparatively a value.

Do you find your region more difficult to farm than others, like Russian River? 

Oh heck yeah. No question. I have never farmed there but just on the face of it, we suffer much greater and more extreme weather. We have lots of fog and rain so mildew pressure is high. We are on hillsides so it takes much more time to spray, undervine till and do other tractor work (we are organic.) We are also remote. It is difficult to get labor out there. We solved it by hiring 8 full time year around vineyard workers who have stayed with us for over 8 years. That has become a strength but it is very expensive.

What is the role of the sommelier to you? Do they inform your process? 

The sommelier is extremely important to a winery like mine. Our vineyard makes a style of wine well suited for food. Good sommeliers put together a list that matches their chef’s food with the various customer style preferences and price points that work with that food. When they talk with the customer tableside they are trying to tease out those preferences and steer them to the right wine. They are in effect my sales force though they are unbiased, unlike me, as they purchased everything on the wine list. This gives them great credibility.

When I started out I focused my marketing efforts exclusively on sommeliers and not the wine press. I do not send wine to reviewers. I want people to buy my wine because someone they can trust - who has their palate in mind, not their own - recommends it. So I decided to sell all my wine in the SF Bay Area myself, direct from the winery. I want to meet the sommeliers and wine buyers, to pour them every wine I make, every year so they can knowledgeably talk about it. It is my favorite part of my job as, essentially, we sit down and talk about what we are eating or drinking (and seldom about my wine as they know my wines and can taste them without my input). I see 100 people twice per year who care about what I care about and have dedicated their careers to the subjects. How cool is that? I do not see toothpaste salesmen getting together with grocers and passionately and hilariously talking about toothpaste. I love it and feel lucky.

What would you like sommeliers to know in Chicago?

First, and foremost, that there are some really excellent and unique wines being made in the U.S.; specifically, in the western portion of the Sonoma Coast. To show your peers you have good taste, you no longer need to stock your list full of hard to get Old World wines or assemble a slew of esoteric wines from the Jura and Corsica to earn your hipster stripes. There are excellent wines being made everywhere. Yes, I drink Old World wine most of the time but there are a lot of solid domestic producers out there making terroir driven wines that are delicious. Your job is to give consumers what they want and that is not just the same old wines they know or some experiment that “will be good for them” that explodes when it is opened, but a wine and food experience. Not every consumer wants that but many of them do. Turn them on, don’t be lazy. Be open-minded and check out the wineries from the West Sonoma Coast. This ain’t your mama’s chardonnay.

Secondly, call Matthew at Rootstock and ask to taste Peay ☺

What's your dessert island wine?

Cold climate syrah though I hope the desert island is cold most of the year and has lots of birds and animals I can grill and braise. I love the meaty, pepper, iron, sanguine flavors you get in cold climate syrah. Sure, I love white Burgundy, old nebbiolo, aged red Burgundy, Nerello, champagne, dry rielsling and on and on. But cold climate syrah hits me in the belly and the brain. I just want more.Got any Jamet?

What's the single best bottling of peay that you have done?

It is a tie:
2005 Peay La Bruma Estate Syrah
2012 Peay Estate Chardonnay

With pinot noir I feel we have made some superb wines but they are only getting better every year as the vines age. I think we have some excellent pinots behind us and better ones to come.

What’s your favorite single vineyard that you make? 

Our estate, of course! If you mean estate cuvee I would say Scallop Shelf is most consistently my favorite though Pomarium and Ama have been my favorite in 2 of the last 3 years.

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