When an Englishman set out to produce his own wine, he chose a remote valley in California, much to the chagrin of family and friends. But connoisseurs worldwide—those who can get a taste, that is—are so very glad he did.
Peter Michael's chardonnay vineyards.
California’s Knights Valley isn’t a spot that most people know about. Travelers are unlikely to find it on any list of places to see before they die. Even natives of San Francisco Bay Area are mostly unfamiliar with the nearby valley. It’s had no town to speak of since the 1960s, when the hamlet of Kellogg was destroyed in wildfires. With no indie boutiques, artisanal cafés, or wine tasting rooms, most tourists would not venture here. Yet in 1982, the soon-to-be-knighted Peter Michael drove from San Francisco to this remote locale in Sonoma County.
By all accounts, the 630 acres he found could have been classified as derelict. But the then-42-year-old English engineer, who had amassed a fortune in the tech industry, shelled out $1 million for the property. With nary a grapevine in sight, he thought the cattle-chewed land would make the ideal spot to cultivate a fine Bordeaux. Foresight or foolhardiness?
A year later, Knights Valley was officially designated a Sonoma appellation. Michael hired star winemaker and wild-yeast proponent Helen Turley, and in 1999 the Bordeaux blend Les Pavots (“The Poppies”) ranked number five on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines list. The correct answer is foresight.
Today, the wines of Peter Michael Winery are widely regarded as even better. The 2012 bottling of Au Paradis topped Wine Spectator’s list in 2015, while esteemed wine critic Robert Parker has bestowed high marks on many of the portfolio’s 15 wines, with both of the 2010 Pinot Noirs, Ma Danseuse and Clos du Ciel, scoring a perfect 100. Trust the crowd more than critics? You could try jockeying for a bottle online (because Ma Danseuse is currently selling for about $550, be sure to authenticate the bottle with its unique QR code), or you could join the winery’s members list (they earn first dibs on the 20,000 cases released yearly, only 500 of which are made available to restaurants). Chances are good you’ll clear the waiting list within 18 months.
Even better, sample one for yourself at any of the fine-dining restaurants at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore or Wynn Palace, Cotai. Wynn Executive Director of Wine Mark Thomas counts some 31 vintages and varietals on his wine list and points out that he has never turned down an allocation from Peter Michael. “The winery isn’t trying to make wines that fit into molds or certain buckets to earn scores,” Thomas says. “They are producing the best expression of the varietals.” He’s particularly taken with the Chardonnays—even more so after standing at the winery’s highest point for a bird’s-eye view of the six Chardonnay vineyards.
Because my visit coincides with epic rains in Northern California, that money shot is too muddy to reach even with an all-terrain vehicle. But the property in Knights Valley is heavenly. As the gates to the Peter Michael ranch swing open, the sun seems to part the low clouds, the air is sweet with mint, and birdsong breaks the silence of a forest of redwoods, oaks, madrones, and olive trees, all planted by the family in consultation with a forestry expert. The creek, teeming with trout, thunders over rocks. But winemaker Nicolas Morlet’s mind skips straight to the storm’s gifts. “It’s going to be a great vintage,” he declares.
Newly constructed winery buildings are so true to the 19th-century Victorian village of Kellogg, it’s as if the town has risen from the ashes. English whimsy is tucked into the 130 acres (the other 500 remain wilderness), with tidy dry stone walls like those of England’s Grasmere countryside, lavender fields, a garden of edible plants, and benches set in meditative places.
The winery’s Yukon Denali is a necessity on the unpaved mountain roads that ascend through a landscape that at times resembles a Gainsborough painting. The slopes of the Mayacamas’ Mount Saint Helena are carpeted green, not the drab ocher of the drought. The entire vineyard is planted on decomposing rhyolite, volcanic rock that is millions of years old. It lends Peter Michael’s Knights Valley wines their signature minerality.
At nearly 1,000 feet, we reach Bordeaux territory: the birthplace of the winery’s flagship bottle, Les Pavots. The varietals grown here and blended into Les Pavots are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. In France, Bordeaux and Burgundy are separated by 365 miles, yet at Peter Michael the trip from Les Pavots’ Bordeaux to La Carrière’s Burgundy is just 200 yards. Chardonnay vines are planted at 1,200 feet above sea level but continue to 1,900 feet. That the proper conditions for two different varietals can be found in such close proximity is one of the geological wonders of Knights Valley. The Petaluma Gap is like a highway for the cooling marine air of the Pacific Ocean 50 miles away, which races up toward the Chardonnay grapes. It’s a beautiful alchemy.
So why don’t more wineries choose mountainside locations? Because it costs nearly three times more to plant on a slope than a valley floor Morlet says. It takes more labor—and patience—to grow vines on 40 percent grades at 1,700 feet, as is the case with La Carrière Chardonnay. The harvested fruit must also be transported from the mountain. Peter Michael Winery complicates this process by using 20-pound carriers that prevent the grapes from being crushed under their own weight (the standard bin in the industry holds half a ton of fruit).
There’s no doubt that Michael pays attention to details. As does Morlet, who, when dissatisfied with the quality of the 2015 estate Pinot Noir, chose to declassify it. That was a seven-figure decision, but Morlet has no regrets. Setbacks like that are baked into the winery’s long-term plans, particularly when the acreage is new, as was the case here (the Sonoma Coast Seaview property, where the estate Pinot grows, was added in 2006).
California has certainly tested Morlet during his 11-year tenure. His education at the prestigious Jules Guyot Institute and stints in Champagne, Burgundy, and Haut-Médoc didn’t teach him about wildfires. “When we dial 911,” he says, “it takes 15 to 20 minutes for a truck to arrive.” Still, Morlet’s path has been paved with gold and silver medals; he bottled his first vintage at 15 while working in his family’s winery, Pierre Morlet & Fils, in Avenay-Val-d’Or, Champagne.
By a crackling fire, beneath the soaring ceilings of the exquisite Calvin Holmes room, named for an early settler in Kellogg, I taste five wines. Peter Kay, the winery’s director of sales and marketing, sits across from me. “The good news that I tell those members who come to visit us is you’ll get no hard sell from me,” he says. “The bad news is there’s nothing available to buy.” (And trust me, I begged.) The minerality of the 2012 Mon Plaisir Chardonnay is expertly balanced by a citrus creaminess. Similarly refreshing is the Sonoma Coast’s 2014 Le Caprice Pinot Noir, a mouth of red berries that finishes delicately with leather, maybe even a touch of brine.
Certainly, Peter Michael’s wines express the terroir of its three locations: Knights Valley, Fort Ross-Seaview, and the latest, Oakville, in Napa Valley’s prime Cabernet country, neighboring Screaming Eagle. And then there’s the human factor. Morlet’s decisions—when to pick, the type of barrel, how long to keep the wine in oak, the wild yeast—impart aromas, flavors, depth. But the allure of the Peter Michael way isn’t so much in the details as in the emotional response that this level of detail can elicit. After all, when connoisseurs are willing to wait 18 months to experience it, this is more than just a wine.