A Feast Between the Vines: The Sommelier Love Fest

The Sommelier Love Fest, hosted in mid-August by Sonoma Coast’s Peay Vineyards, is an opportunity for the Peays to show their appreciation to sommeliers throughout northern California who have bought and promoted their high quality wines. Now in its fifth year, there were more than 60 sommeliers who attended the two-day bash.

Peay Vineyards is a spectacular 48-acre hilltop estate located at a 700-foot elevation in the far northwestern corner of the Sonoma Coast, four miles from the Pacific Ocean. The Peay brothers planted this remote site to 33 acres of Pinot noir, 8 acres of Syrah, 5 acres of Chardonnay and less than an acre each of Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. Its unique situation in a very cool climate means vines struggle for life and full ripeness, revealing complexity and nuance in the wines, and truly speak of the place from which they hail.

Nick and Andy Peay founded the project in 1996, planted the vineyard and, with winemaker Vanessa Wong, celebrated their first vintage in 2001. Vanessa joined Nick and Andy for their first vintage and has remained (eventually marrying Nick). Each brings a specialty to the endeavor: Nick oversees viticulture, Vanessa handles winemaking, and Andy is the marketing and sales guru. In 2006, Peay produced 4,000 cases.

On a mid-August Monday, our entire group of sommeliers convened at Peay’s winery in Cloverdale, about an hour north of Napa Valley, to taste through the 2007 Peay wines out of barrel: two Pinot Noirs, (Pomarian and Scallop Shelf), two Syrahs, (Les Titans and La Bruma), the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, the estate Viognier and the estate Marsanne/Roussanne blend. Vanessa led the tasting, discussing her winemaking philosophies and techniques. She received her Viticulture and Enology degree at U.C. Davis and worked at Château Lafite-Rothschild in Pauillac (Bordeaux) and Domaine Jean Gros in Vosne-Romanée (Burgundy) before serving as winemaker at Peter Michael Winery. Vanessa is a serious and thoughtful winemaker and her observations about the difficulties of producing wines in such a cool climate were particularly interesting.

The group then climbed into cars for the long drive out to Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. A twisting, stomach-churning drive over the hills revealed monumental vistas of Sonoma on the warm summer afternoon. More than an hour later, we reached Peay Vineyards and were met by Nick, Andy and his wife, Amy. They began shucking hundreds of local oysters and pulling corks on dozens of bottles of small-production Champagne from Pierre Peters, Paul Bara and Billiot. We slurped and sipped until Nick herded us together for a walking tour of the vineyard and its various parcels. Nick’s obvious reverence for the property was balanced by his understanding that the poor soils necessitate vigilant vine nutrition and that he needed to inure himself to the often heartbreakingly low yields found on the Sonoma Coast. Nick took his graduate degree in Enology at U.C. Davis and worked with the Napa Valley estates Schramsberg, Newton and La Jota, learning the importance of controlling one’s grape sources.

We found our way back to the main house; an old Cape with a wrap-around porch perched high up on a hill overlooking the vineyards and miles of trees and hills beyond. We took our places at elegant tables set by the Peays on the front lawn; they shone with white tablecloths, elegant china and stemware. We sipped wine, traded gossip about the wine business, and watched the fog curl its way inland, as the stars and moon rose over our heads. Nick and Vanessa and Andy, along with Andy’s very pregnant wife, Amy, cook for days prior to the Love Fest. Being the highly-educated gourmand that each of them is, they create incredible meals thoughtfully matched to their wines. We dined on lamb shoulder, marinated for days and cooked slowly in the wood-burning oven. Amy slaved over handmade spätzle, delicate and cooked to toothsome perfection. Summer salads, cheeses and an incredible huckleberry brioche bread pudding (made with berries Nick gathered below Block Eleven) followed. The Peays generously poured their wines with great abandon and, of course, all of the sommeliers brought exemplary wines.  Roumier Bonnes Mares shared table space with Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet.  Kunstler and Robert Weil Rieslings made appearances, and I even spied Conterno Barolo 1977 on the table! The wood-fired hot tub provided a late soak under the stars and perfumed the air with a delicious smoke.

As the treacherous road out was not a navigable option after such a decadent evening, we were instructed to bring tents and camping gear and set up spots amongst the vines so we could crawl to our quarters after dinner. Andy Peay, always the consummate host, set up tents for the non-campers in the group (me) under a grove of old growth pine trees. Andy worked on Wall Street after receiving his BA from Dartmouth and then his MBA from the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. The wine bug bit Andy while he traveled to various wine regions. He enrolled in Wine Marketing at U.C. Davis, which was ideal training for launching the Peay Vineyards wine label.

The next morning we stumbled back to the main house for coffee and pastries, relived the evening’s prior festivities, and thanked the Peay’s for another sensational Sommelier Love Fest, and the opportunity for all of us to get together and share our bounty.