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Exploring California’s Terroir with Peter Michael

One of the state's top vintners showcases Knights Valley, Sonoma Coast and Napa wines

Augustus Weed
Posted: October 28, 2013

In a morning otherwise devoted to Europe, Englishman Sir Peter Michael took to the stage to showcase a collection of top-scoring wines from his eponymous California winery. It was a rare opportunity to taste through a diverse lineup from one of the state's most respected producers, whose wines senior editor and moderator James Laube described as “uniformly among the finest in California.”

Employing a combination of charming dry wit, detailed maps and beautiful vineyard photographs, Michael told the story of his winery and highlighted the different grapes and regions he works with. An entrepreneurial electronics engineer, Michael moved to California’s Silicon Valley in the 1970s and started exploring the coast for a plot of land to call his own. During a 1976 dinner in San Francisco, he tasted an early vintage of the Barrett family's Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which inspired him to start his own winery. “At that point, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my patch of land I wanted to buy,” he said.

While searching for a site, Michael decided to follow in the footsteps of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and traveled to Knights Valley, on the Sonoma side of Mount St. Helena. At the time, only a few grapevines were planted on the valley floor, but he was more interested in the hillsides. In 1982, Michael purchased a 600-acre cattle farm, then planted his vineyards on the mountain's western side.

The first wine he poured, La Carrière Chardonnay 2009 (93 points, $80), was rich and layered and comes from the highest section of the estate. Michael said the site is well-suited to Chardonnay because a gap in the surrounding hills allows cool marine breezes to sweep through, keeping temperatures lower than in the other vineyards.

The ocean also influences the winery’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs, grown in the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation on steep slopes that are protected by a ridge from the brunt of the cold marine breezes. Winemaker Nicolas Morlet used grapes from the coolest section of Peter Michael's Seaview Estate vineyard to make Ma Danseuse 2011 (91, $110), named in honor of Michael’s wife, whom he met while dancing.

Morlet, who made all of the wines poured in the tasting, is the latest in a line of notable vintners to work for Peter Michael. The winery’s first winemaker, Helen Turley, set the stage for the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc, L’Après-Midi 2011 (91, $52), planting the original section of vines on the Knights Valley estate.

Next, Michael contrasted a pair of Cabernet Sauvignons from different regions and vintages. The Les Pavots 2007 (95, $175), a Cabernet blend from the oldest section of the Knights Valley vineyard, is a culmination of Michael’s desire to make distinctive wines. “It produces, for me, the wine I wanted 30 years ago,” he said.

He also poured a sneak preview of his new Napa project—the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Au Paradis (not yet rated) from his vineyard in Oakville—which will be released next year.

For Michael, the Oakville property is a testament to his family’s commitment to continue his legacy, and he explained that his son and daughter-in-law have agreed to take responsibility for the vineyard. “We have a family with a credo: 100 by 100,” he said. “100 percent ownership by the family for 100 years.”

Peter Michael Chardonnay Knights Valley La Carrière 2009 (93 points, $80)

Peter Michael Pinot Noir Fort Ross-Seaview Ma Danseuse 2011 (91 points, $110)

Peter Michael Sauvignon Blanc Knights Valley L'Après-Midi 2011 (91 points, $52)

Peter Michael Les Pavots Knights Valley 2007 (95 points, $175)

Peter Michael Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Au Paradis 2011 (NYR)

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