Interview with Winemaker Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards

WAS THERE A MOMENT THAT YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU KNEW THAT YOU WANTED TO BE A WINEMAKER?

When I was in high school I worked for a wine & cheese shop in San Francisco. I was really interested in cheeses and cheese making but back then, other than cloistering myself with a bunch of nuns in the Jura to apprentice the making of Vacherin or working at some giant factory in Wisconsin making brick cheese, I didn’t really see a path in how to make cheese on a small commercial scale. Now, of course, there are tons of artisanal cheesemakers. At this wine shop, I also had to learn a little about wines so I could help customers (even though I was only a teenager). I also worked for a caterer who after the gigs we would sit and relax with a glass of wine and that is when I started tasting wines. So when it came time for applying for university, I came across the course descriptions for obtaining a degree in Viticulture & Enology in the course catalog of the University of California at Davis. Firstly, I was amazed that I could study grape growing and winemaking as a major in college! And furthermore, the coursework included subjects that I liked: microbiology, plant sciences and the like. You can imagine that for a high schooler whose parents have no family background in wine this was a way-out there occupation but I talked my parents into because there was so much science involved–it seemed pragmatic. I also studied French because I knew that I wanted to study winemaking in France. I liked how wine was this very fascinating intersection between science, agriculture, culture, gastronomy and even art or a craft, rather.

OVER THE YEARS YOU’VE MADE QUITE A LOT OF VARIETIES INCLUDING WINES AT LAFITE-ROTHSCHILD, DOMAINE JEAN GROS, FRANCISCAN ESTATES AND PETER MICHAEL. WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE TO WORK FOR SUCH LEGENDARY BRANDS?

Each of these winery estates is different as they make diverse wines but the thing they all have in common is that they are exemplary in their category or terroir of what a great wine producer is. In their own distinctive ways they farm grapes and make wine in a particularly meticulous fashion, drawing on knowledge, experience and tradition. From them, I learned what it is that makes the stuff of great wines. There is nothing willy-nilly about what it takes to make quality wine.

HOW DID BORDEAUX WINEMAKING COMPARE TO CALIFORNIA WINEMAKING?

When I was at Chateau Lafite-Rothchild I worked in the winery cellar and in the vineyard. And although some of the great producers were highly revered for their great estates and wines, I realized several things about how California had caught up to or even surpassed top end producers in Bordeaux in terms of vine cultivation and the level of care in the vineyard. I observed how much more efficient vineyard and winery workers worked in California—maybe because they didn’t take cigarette breaks every row vine they finished! Perhaps we Americans work too much and should take a “pause-café” and stop to smell the coffee like the French do with their espresso wagon pulling up in the vineyard (gotta love that!) but efficient and quality vineyard work coupled with more favorable weather during our growing seasons gives me no doubt that we could produce comparably distinguished wines. Of course, farming grapes in the most ideal climate and terroir is key and I definitely recognized that these hallowed places in France had both centuries of wine-growing history and tradition on our young New World wine industry. But I also came to realize that it is never good to rest on one’s laurels because quality isn’t something that just happens.

WHAT WAS ONE OF THE BIGGEST MISTAKES YOU HAVE MADE IN YOUR WINEMAKING CAREER?

Not checking on someone’s references before hiring them for harvest—won’t ever do that again! Harvest is such an intense time: we work incredibly hard and it is very important to have diligent people who gel as a team.

WHO HAS BEEN THE MOST INFLUENTIAL MENTOR IN YOUR CAREER?

Madame Gros who is the owner of Domain Jean Gros and mother of Michel Gros, the vintner of then Domain Jean Gros and now Domain Michel Gros. She is regal and carries herself with graceful authority: manager of the Domaine but of her household as well. She was the mayor and the mother (and grandmother) to a family of winemakers and various personages that are always over at her house at any given moment. She juggles a lot (family, business, civic duties) and does it with style. Watching her in action in her daily activities was an enlightening study in balance.

CAN YOU SHARE MORE STYLISTICALLY ABOUT PEAY VINES?

For me, one of the most important aspects of making quality wine is growing grapes in an ideal site. If you start with grapes grown in an ideal site, you are that much closer to producing a high-quality wine. As a winemaker, my job is to coax out and accentuate the defining characteristics of the grapes to produce wine of distinction. I feel that the Sonoma Coast is a new frontier, viticulturally, with its unique climate and topography that lends the crucial elements for growing grapes for quality wine: long sunny days but cool nights, and mild autumns that offer slow but continuous ripening seasons. With our vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, we have an ideal location and I am able to grow balanced vines that produce fruit of the highest quality to make wines that express a sense of place, or the terroir of the Sonoma Coast. I try to bring out that quality in a wine that is expressive and has an intensity, elegance, nuance and balance and not be forceful, obvious and heavy.

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT HAD A CHANCE TO VISIT PEAY VINEYARDS (AKA HEAVEN AS I LIKE TO CALL IT) CAN YOU DESCRIBE THIS REMOTE BEAUTIFUL DESTINATION IN ANNAPOLIS (THE SONOMA COAST)?

A lot of times when people think of the coast of California they envision beaches, sun, Bay Watch. But although on the Sonoma Coast, the first ridge of inland mountains where we farm our organic grapes, is sometimes sunny and has just enough sunlight and warmth for photosynthesis and berry ripening, it is a pretty unfavorable climate. There is often fog, wind and rain that make fruit set meager and ripening kind of dicey. When you are out there you could be standing on our knoll and feel the warmth of the sun on your face but also the cold air one moment and then as the late afternoon passes into theevening you can literally feel the chilly fog envelope you like a stealthy shroud. It is very visceral. You can read about terroir but here you can feel it. Farming in this inhospitable terroir is often nerve-wracking and discouraging. But the tradeoff is that the character of the aromas and flavors of the grapes much more complex and intriguing.

WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE ABOUT SONOMA COAST WINES THAT THEY MAY NOT KNOW?

They have a distinctive character, a true essence that is different from other appellations. They also possess a characteristic minerality in both the nose and the palate.

AS A WINEMAKER YOU TASTE (AND SPIT) LOTS OF WINE, WHAT WINE DO YOU FEEL BAD ABOUT SPITTING BECAUSE YOU LOVE IT SO MUCH?

When tasting wine for winemaking evaluations and winemaking decisions, spitting is just part of the job. But when it is for tasting wines for appreciation or learning it can be difficult to spit any great wine, an aged Grand cru Burgundy, for example, but most of the time the greater part of the sensory experience is just smelling it. Champagne is hard to spit, it just feels weird.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE AFTER WORK DRINK?

During harvest, we sometimes brew batches of beer and so that is a lot of fun to have but because the workday ends like at midnight or later, usually not after work. And Champagne is always particularly agreeable.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LOCAL SPOT IN SONOMA COUNTY? HOW ABOUT NEAR THE VINEYARDS IN ANNAPOLIS?

We like to go to Doran Beach or Goat Rock Beach to build driftwood forts, make sandcastles or fly kites. Hiking in the redwoods is also very peaceful and we love foraging for mushrooms in wintertime near our property. We sometimes take drives around West County to check out vineyard areas and up to Point Arena (up in Mendocino county) to have pizza, or check out the lighthouse which is very cool.

TELL US SOMETHING THAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT YOU?

I can still do pull-ups at the gym!

Winemaker Vanessa Wong

No Comments Yet.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.