Growing & Winemaking


Jonathan Pey

April 2009
by Laurie Daniel
Jonathan Pey
Jonathan Pey has worked in the wine industry for nearly 25 years, but for most of that time, he was marketing wine rather than making it. He's been a sales manager for Kobrand Corp., worked with Schramsberg founder Jack Davies on a venture in Portugal, run the international division for Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines, helped establish a joint venture between Mondavi and Rosemount, and was general manager of Penfolds' North American business. In 2005, he left Penfolds to focus on the wine venture he started with his wife, Susan Pey, corporate wine director of the Il Fornaio Restaurant Group.

Pey Vineyards, Marin County, CA
Their business, Scenic Root Winegrowers, is the umbrella company for several wine brands, including Pey-Marin (Pinot Noir and Riesling), Pey-Lucia (Pinot Noir), Textbook (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Spicerack (Syrah). The Peys also farm about eight leased acres in western Marin, a vineyard that is the fruit source for Pey-Marin.

Pey has a degree in agronomy from the University of Arizona and a master's in business administration from the McLaren School of Business at the University of San Francisco.

Wines & Vines: What are some of the challenges of growing grapes in Marin County?

Jonathan Pey: The first is climate. Marin County is the only wine region in California surrounded by water on three sides. This gives us very wet, and slightly warmer winters, thus accelerating bud break. This is a good thing, as Marin does not usually see much frost pressure. It gets our vines out early.

Marin's very long and cold season enables us often to see flavor development before sugar development. This is unique in California. Flowering gets pushed back a bit, and for some reason we sometimes have challenges with fruit set. The cool climate also gives us Botrytis pressure on Riesling, especially when farmed organically. We are now embracing it and will see whether Mother Nature wants Pey-Marin to make late-harvest Riesling or not.

Then there's real estate. This is Marin, not Monterey or Mendoza. We have some of the most expensive land and homes in North America. Agricultural zoning for much of West Marin is 80-acre lots per single residence. This combination makes it hard to develop extensive new vineyards, especially at 1 to 2 tons per acre.

W&V: You grow Pinot Noir in Marin County for your Pey-Marin wine, and you also purchase Pinot grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands for your Pey-Lucia brand. What differences do you see in the grapes from the two places?

Pey: We farm Pey-Marin ourselves and have a long-term contract in the Santa Lucia Highlands for our Pey-Lucia Pinot Noir. Pey-Lucia comes from a vineyard right next to the famed Rosella's Vineyard--a great locale, no doubt. It is farmed by Andy Mitchell, a superb grower dedicated to growing distinctive Pinot Noir.

The growing seasons are quite different in Marin and Santa Lucia Highlands. Both are certainly very long and cold, but SLH starts a bit later and has less diurnal temperature swings than Marin. SLH gets much more wind, as anyone who has been to the district in mid-afternoon can attest. Both regions seem to regularly see a warm spell in late August and both end up harvesting in late September or early October. Acidities are very bright for both areas, which is great. We are acid freaks.

Vigor in SLH seems stronger, and Pinot berry and cluster size are much larger in SLH than Marin. Cluster weights for Pey-Marin Pinot have been in the 60-70 gram range, whereas Pey-Lucia is in the 100-gram range. We see dark red fruit themes out of SLH Pinot and more earthy/spicy qualities in Marin Pinot Noir.

We make Pey-Marin and Pey-Lucia in largely the same minimalist fashion, yet when the two wines are tasted side by side, they are very, very different. To us, this is the pivotal piece of interest for Pinot Noir--it truly shows where it is grown. The sense of place overrides genus and human intervention.

W&V: How do you decide when to pick?

Pey Pinto Noir
The Peys grow Riesling and Pinot Noir in West Marin County to make Pey-Marin wines.
Pey: I guess you could call it "flavors followed by facts." After enough years, you just know when a vineyard is ready to shed its fruit. The vines show it, the berries show it, the weather shows it and the flavors show it. At this point, we also check all the numbers and then make the call--this is a business, after all. We are not in the overripe camp and believe Pinot should be the delicate red--more Catherine Deneuve than Pamela Anderson.

W&V: Are you inoculating with yeast before fermentation?

Pey: For inoculations, we follow two paths. Our consulting winemaker, Scott Peterson, Sue and I like to use "local" yeasts to start the ferment on our reds, but about halfway through we always inoculate with cultured yeast so we lower the risk of stuck fermentations. This gives us the opportunity to capture some of the potential of funky flavors from "local" yeasts, as well as the certainty of cultured yeast and its ability to go to dryness. (Note that I specifically do not use the overused "native" yeast term, as it has been proven by DNA testing that many so-called "native" yeasts are actually nothing but cultured yeasts that have migrated from the cellar out into the vineyard. In my view, "native" ferments are more hyperbole and marketing B.S. than fact.) Pey-Marin Riesling is inoculated on day two with cultured yeasts from Germany.

We ferment different clones and vineyards separately and use a combo of small 3- and 5-ton temperature-controlled tanks, and sometimes some T-bins to supplement our needs. Everything is hand picked, and we are fanatics in this regard. Everything is also hand sorted at our sorting table. Depen ding on the year, we destem 100%, like to have a good percentage of whole berries, cold soak for a few days and punch down a few times per day. It all depends on the vintage, vineyard and clone. No set rules, really, just look, taste, listen and go.

We like to press off our reds before complete dryness (usually at about 5° Brix) and complete red ferments in small French oak barrels, as it gives a nice nuance of oak and secondary aromas we like very much. We are not making Pinots with a heavy percentage of new French oak. We see new French oak as a complement of the vineyard and varietal, not a primary character.

W&V: In addition to Pey-Marin and Pey-Lucia, you make wine under several other brands. Why not stick to one umbrella brand?

Pey: We are basically putting a different label on wines that come from different AVAs. We make a few different wines, each about 500 cases or so, and are kind of like the Burgundy "Proprietaire-Viticulteur-Eleveur." We grow, we buy, we make and we blend.

We have a long-term contract for Cabernet in Oakville with Alex Vyborny at his amazing vineyard next door to Screaming Eagle. We call this wine Textbook, and it is surprising a heck of a lot of people. We also produce a Syrah, which we call Spicerack--hopefully for obvious reasons. It is from two great vineyards and is aged in 100% neutral French oak. Penfolds makes an amazing high-end Shiraz called St. Henri, which is all neutral oak. I wanted to try the same here in California, since no one seemed to be doing it. Zero new oak really "opens up the kimono," as we do not hide anything behind heavy oak. And it forces you to have superb fruit. Lastly, Spicerack Syrah is only 13% alcohol.

We have a few new labels in the works as well, some using our family name in a variety of ways. Our labeling may not conform to classic marketing doctrine or a "brand" company background, but we really don't give a damn.

W&V: You've worked with well-known winemakers from around the world, like Jacques Lardiere of Burgundy's Domaine Louis Jadot and Peter Gago of Australia's Penfolds. What have you learned from them that has helped your winemaking?

Pey: I have been very fortunate to have spent time with superb winemakers. Each of them has helped us gain a broader perspective on farming and winemaking. I learned about pressing off the reds before fermentation is complete, for example, from Peter Gago.

Some people in our industry have a myopic view on the world, as they have not lived or worked overseas and do not keep up on developments around the world. They only see their vineyard and cellar and their neighbors' wines. It's a shame. Sue and I make sure to continually taste other people's wines on a weekly basis. We religiously avoid getting a Pey Wines cellar palate.

Sue's part-time role as wine director at the Il Fornaio Restaurant Group gives her an opportunity to taste some of the most unique wines in the world. She buys about $15 million worth of wine per year for them. Few winegrowers have this luxury. We try to bring this global and historical perspective into our vineyard, wines and winemaking style.

These winemakers have also taught me to look for nuance. This is increasingly hard to do in today's sound-bite world, as it demands patience. We hope we are making wines that have a lot of little things going on in them, rather than one primary attribute.

Lastly, these winemakers have taught me to be humble. Many novice winemakers here in the U.S. get a big score, and suddenly their ego grows exponentially. That's very shortsighted. Sure, we've had plenty of big scores, but we recognize that winemaking is really just a craft that has been going on for more than 5,000 years. So we are just a modest continuation of the craft. Anything more, and you are believing too much of what people are saying.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail
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