“The morning I saw it, I bought it. It was beautiful; it was unique; and it cost less than one million dollars.” That was Peter Michael talking last week in New York City during multiple horizontal and vertical tastings of his wines for a small group of journalists. The property he was referring to—640 acres on the volcanic slopes of Mount St. Helena in Knights Valley, California—was a rundown ranch when Michael bought it in 1982. Today, much of the steep, undulating, rocky terrain remains wilderness, but a small part is home to some of the most exquisite vineyards (and sought-after wines) in northern California.
Peter Michael—Sir Peter Michael to be exact (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989)– is a formidable man. One of England’s early tech entrepreneurs, he founded three prominent technology companies there before establishing Quantel, a digital special effects company in California’s Silicon Valley. Slight in frame, Michael has an intellect of steel and the confidence to match.
The winery (www.petermichaelwinery.com) is founded on a philosophy that revolves around what Michael calls 100 x 100—100% family ownership for 100 years. There are four pillars: neo-classical winemaking; mountain vineyards; limited production; and French names. “We are inspired by the great wines of France,” says Michael. “Giving our wines French names honors that and acknowledges that we feel we have the California equivalent of a Grand Cru terroir.”
The tasting that the Michael family and winemaker Nick Morlet conducted in New York last week was comprised of six sets of wines, beginning with the winery’s phenomenal chardonnays (considered by many, including me, to be the best chardonnays in California) and ending with three vintages of the relatively new “Au Paradis” Cabernet Sauvignon from the family’s Oakville property.
Here were the highlights.
PETER MICHAEL “Ma Belle-Fille” Estate Chardonnay 2009 (Knights Valley, California) $110
The name means “my daughter-in-law.” From a sun-washed vineyard 2000 feet in altitude, the highest on the estate, comes this chardonnay of exquisite creaminess overlaid with a fine nuttiness. Long golden threads of citrus and dried apricot. Earthy, exotic, minerally, impeccably-balanced and complex. Endlessly long.
PETER MICHAEL “Point Rouge” Estate Chardonnay 2006 (Knights Valley, California) $250
This wine is 10 years into its 20 year lifespan according to Michael. Point Rouge is comprised of the very best barrels from the entire vintage. The name (“Red Dot”) refers to the little red dots affixed to the best barrels to mark them. Seamless and hedonistic, the wine exudes nougat, honey, vanilla and crème brûlée flavors, all of which have coalesced into a wine of rich beauty. Another utterly long finish.
PETER MICHAEL “Ma Danseuse” Estate Pinot Noir 2013 (Fort Ross-Seaview, California) $200
From a coastal vineyard on a 46 degree slope comes Ma Danseuse (“My Dancer”), a lusciously supple yet precisely focused pinot noir that is about as rich as pinot noir can get and remain pinot noir. Layers and layers of complex flavors–red fruits, minerals, mushrooms, Asian spices, and violets—plus a fine dark savoriness. Certainly among the top pinot noirs in the state.
PETER MICHAEL “Les Pavots” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Knights Valley, California) $210
Cabernet and supple are words that don’t often find themselves in the same sentence, but Les Pavots (“The Poppies”) has an unreal texture that’s thoroughly hedonistic. Exquisitely structured, the wine has a majestic “frame,” yet the tannin is virtually undetectable. Vivid black currant, mocha and chocolate flavors interwoven with notes of cedar and chaparral.
PETER MICHAEL “Au Paradis” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Oakville, California) $230
The vineyards for Au Paradis (“In Heaven”) are nestled in the eastern hillsides of Oakville– near neighbors Screaming Eagle, Dalle Valle and Rudd Estate. Dense and intense, the wine is palpably packed with flavor and structure, but needs several years before its full personality (and beauty) will unfurl.