A Visit To Peter Michael Winery

In honor of our upcoming wine dinner with Paul Michael of the Peter Michael Winery — I wanted to share my experiences with their amazing vineyard and wine.

This past spring I had the honor to visit the Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma, California as part of their Sommelier Summit, an annual event they host. The Fearrington House has participated in the Peter Michael Foundation’s charity dinners in years past,  and I have had the opportunity to become very familiar with their wines. Their nuanced and age worthy Chardonnays, their Pinot Noirs, and of course, the great Les Pavots — all wines that Chef Colin Bedford and I love working with.

The view from the Observation Deck, with “Les Pavots” vineyard in the foreground and the rest of Knights Valley behind it.

As much as I love the wines, I did not however, fully understand them, save for in a purely conceptual fashion. When our group drove up to Knights Valley from Healdsburg on the first day of our visit, the puzzle parts, which were the wines that I had come to know, interlocked together as one picture as we were greeted by Sir Peter Michael himself.

The Peter Michael Winery is not ordinary. This is evident by the elegant reception area and beautifully maintained gardens. Each aspect of the property was truly extraordinary — the vineyards and the consequent wines from which they come. After a tastefully done, yet decadent dinner, paired with library selections from the wineries cellar, we were given the full history of the estate by Sir Peter Michael. He talked of his journey to California from England, his creation of the computer company Quantel, and the day that he stepped on the property at the foot of Mount St. Helena in 1982 and decided to purchase the land and start the winery. The same land that Robert Lewis-Stevenson and his new wife Fanny chose to spend their honeymoon in 1880, on the slopes of the great Helena. When we toured the vineyards the next day I realized the power of the land, the different weather effects of Mt. St. Helena and the coast, and how that place could make one dream to write great stories and make great wines. Out of the beauty of the wild often come our greatest inspirations, this spot, I would find, has inspiration for the ages.

Nick Morlet, winemaker for the Peter Michael estate, and myself on the observation deck overlooking the estate and Knights Valley

Our guide for the two days was Nicolas Morlet, a very friendly and affable man, and the person who has been making the estates wine longer than any other. The list of winemakers is a who’s who of California wine making: Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, Venessa Wong, and Luc Morlet (Nicolas’ brother), all preceded Nicolas. Despite this long list, it appears that Nicolas is the winemaker that will leave the longest and greatest mark on the estate. Nicolas and his brother grew -up among the vines at their family estate of Pierre Morlet in Avenay-Val-d’Or in Champagne, an estate that still makes fantastic bubbles to this day.   Nick, as everyone refers to him, studied at the Lycée Viti-Vinicole in Beaune, Burgundy. His resumé includes such wineries as Maison Chanson in Burgundy, Chateau Lascombe in Margaux, and his first American wine job, working for Craig Williams on the Insignia and Bacchus wines for Joseph Phelps Winery. He began his position with Peter Michael winery in 2005.

Breakfast at Peter Michael Winery. A vertical of “Les Pavots” from 2006 to 2011.

The morning after the welcome dinner, we went back to the winery and started the day off with a vertical tasting of Les Pavots from 2006 to 2011 lead by Nick Morlet.  We also had the opportunity to taste the 2011 vintage of their newest Cabernet based project, Au Paradis. Au Paradis comes from a single vineyard in Oakville in Napa Valley, and really stood out to me during the tasting , so much so that we are going to feature it during our dinner with Paul Michael this month. Les Pavots has long been a favorite of mine and having the ability to taste six vintages of the wine side by side with the winemaker was a real treat. Each vintage showed great complexity and potential to age. These are “big wines” as they say, but unlike the over-powered, super-charged California Cabernets of the late 1990s and early 2000s these wear their weight with class and style, with nuance and elegance reminiscent of great Bordeaux, warmth and openness harkening back to its California birthplace. Sitting there, tasting the wines, a metaphor for the wines arose in my mind: imagine yourself at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Grateful Dead steps on stage and they start playing Ravel and Debussy, and it works, beautifully.

After the morning tasting we jumped into the winery’s vehicles and headed up to the vineyards. The Les Pavots vineyard is the lowest in elevation (between 1,000 and 1,400 feet), and in a way is surrounded by slopes on three sides, creating an amphitheater. This creates the perfect lay of land for optimal air flow, most importantly cool air coming from the coast cooling down the hot Knights Valley. Here is where the majority of the estates Bordeaux varieties are grown. Knights Valley is the warmest appellation in Sonoma County and the flow of cool air, which you can count on like clockwork, is very important for balanced grapes and wine. The Les Pavots vineyard was planted between 1989 and 1999, and is about 64 acres.

Nick Morlet talking to us about the “Les Pavots” vineyard, in the “Les Pavots” vineyard. Mt. St. Helena is in the background.

From there we drove up to the La Carrière vineyard. Standing at the top (1,700 feet), I could see how the vineyard swoops down into a bowl. With a 40% grade this is a steep vineyard, and it has no natural protection from the wind. To combat the wind the winery puts up wind breakers on the side of the vines facing the ocean, where the winds can be so strong that they can affect the harvest or destroy the vines. This vineyard was planted in 1994, and produces Chardonnay with a nice balance of ripe pear and apple fruit, small amounts of tropical fruit, and a full-body made more complex by elevated acidity. One portion of the vineyard faces southeast granting a sweeping view of Mt. St. Helena, and a small wind-gap in the lower mountain that brings cool coastal air over the Mayacamas Mountains and into Calistoga. Both the Les Pavots and La Carrière share a similar soil type known as Rhyolite, which is a type of volcanic soil created by subterranean volcanic activity, and one which is very rare.

View from the top of “La Carriere” vineyard, Mt. St. Helena in the background.

After speaking to Nick and Vineyard Manager Javier Avina about the intricacies of working with these vineyards, we headed up to their observation deck. The drive up is steep and full of turns, during the drive Nick and Emily Michael (Paul’s wife) talked about the dinners they do for the Peter Michael Foundation, hosted on the Observation Deck. As we approach I sit imagining trucks full of catering equipment and later buses with guests maneuvering the one lane road, sweaty-palmed drivers, and hopes of no one coming down when you are going up. As we park and get out of the vehicles we see an expansive view of the entire valley, we look down to the Les Pavots vineyard, more than a thousand feet below us, and west to the high slopes of the Ma Belle Fils vineyard, the highest in elevation and the source of my favorite Chardonnay from the winery. This vineyard was named by Peter Michael in honor of his daughter- in- law Emily. The observation deck is one of those places you never want to leave, a place where you could sit for hours contemplating all of the great thoughts of life, enjoying some great wine with friends. In other words, it is simply, breathtaking.

The Observation Deck at Peter Michael Winery

After the tour through the vineyards Nick lead us through a lateral tasting of the 2012 and 2006 vintages of their four single vineyard Chardonnays; Mon Plaisir, La Carrière, Belle Côte, and Ma Belle-Fille. In my opinion there are few producers in California that make as elegant and age-worthy Chardonnays as Peter Michael, they are very rich on the palate, and it is certainly a full-bodied, full-oak style, but tasting them side by side showed how they are truly expressive of all four sites. On top of that they age with grace.  We had the 1997 Cuvee Indigène Chardonnay the night before, and it had lots of life left, indeed, it still had some youthful characterstics, something that only a handful of California Chardonnays can lay claim to at that age. Only one of the 2006 Chardonnays showed any sign of age, all of the others were still vibrant.

After the Chardonnay tasting we had another great meal, again paired with amazing wines from the cellar.  That night I had the opportunity to sit next to Paul Michael, Peter’s Son, who oversees the Vineyard at Stockcross, a fellow Relais & Chateaux in England, is the Chairman of My Tiny Planets Ltd, and helps run the Michael winery and Michael holdings.  His belief in his father’s vision of the winery, and also their vision of hospitality as shown by the Summit and also well known at their Relais & Chateaux property, reminded me of the power of family owned businesses, small or large.  The ability to tranport and pass on passion, drive, and beauty to the next generation is perhaps one of the greatest arts of human kind.  To have that interwoven with an ability to be economically viable at the same time is genius.

I am so excited to be hosting Paul Michael on Wednesday, September 24th at The Fearrington House for a tasting dinner paired with his family’s wines. The dinner will be small, with only twelve guests, which I believe will be perfect to experience these wines in their truest form, and provide an opportunity to better understand and get to know Paul and his family’s vision.  That vision that was seen on the slopes of Mt. St. Helena.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” Robert Louis Stevenson

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