Sir Peter Michael
Sir Peter Michael is the owner of the Peter Michael Winery in the Knights Valley appellation of Sonoma, California. Since it was founded in 1982, the Peter Michael winery has accrued dozens of accolades for its wines.
Born in London and trained as an engineer, Peter Michael spent much of his early career as a technology entrepreneur. He founded of Micro Consultants’ Group and UEI PLC, and was the driving force behind a group of high-tech companies including Cosworth Engineering and Quantel, the digital special effects company for television and film production. The graphic-arts tool Paintbox is just one of the commercial applications his company introduced in its 20 years of operation.
In 1992, Peter Michael founded Classic FM, the UK’s first national commercial radio station with an audience of 6 million listeners. With his family, he owns the luxury hotel The Vineyard, in Berkshire just outside London. The hotel has one of the largest collections of California wine in Great Britain. Peter Michael became Sir Peter Michael after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1989.
Learn more about Sir Peter in the written interview below.
Karen MacNeil: Although your cabernet sauvignon Les Pavots came first, your six chardonnays—all of which are renowned–were many wine drinkers’ first introduction to your wines. There are hundreds of chardonnays in California that are just okay; and very few truly great examples. How did you “get it right?”
Peter Michael: We got it right with time, patience, a dedicated vineyard manager of thirty years, and a set of talented winemakers. My goal has always been to produce wines that rival those of Bordeaux and Burgundy and the teams worked hard to achieve this benchmark level of quality and style in our wines. And I believe we found the right terroir – the climate, soils, and elevations provided by Mt. Saint Helena. While we started with the red Bordeaux varieties first, I also believe chardonnay in California and the greater U.S. has always been the most popular varietal wine, so it is not surprising our chardonnays captured attention rather quickly. While Sonoma Cabernet is still gaining the respect it deserves nearly forty years later!
KM: When you bought the land in Knights Valley in the early 1980s—land that would become Peter Michael winery—that area was largely unproven for great wine. Beringer back then made a mid-priced cabernet and that was about it. Were you ever concerned that maybe the terroir you were buying wasn’t really going to match your ambitions?
PM: No. True that it was early days for hillside plantings in California, but I was always confident that California was capable of producing world-class cabernet sauvignon from mountain vineyards. So I was certain that the volcanic slopes of Mt. Saint Helena at the higher elevations, would achieve greatness. My biggest concern was water!
KM: If you could make wine in someplace other than California or France, where would that be?
PM: We have certainly explored this question over the years but each time we come back to California as the right answer. Perhaps we should be looking for cooler climates that stand to benefit from global warming – and with less fire risk – over the coming decades. The difficulty lies in finding that quite unique combination of a climate that is consistent, reliable, and friendly to grape growing and enterprise. It needs to be accessible too!
KM: You own a super luxurious hotel in Berkshire England. On the hotel’s website, set against exquisite photographs, the text simply says: EAT, SLEEP, AND DRINK WINE. That’s a very short message to your potential guests. Tell us about that.
PM: The Vineyard Hotel is a Relais & Chateaux hotel and spa, located in the countryside of West Berkshire, a one-hour drive west of London. I like to think of it as an extension of Peter Michael Winery, offering guests the greater experience of wine – the indulgence of fine wine set in the countryside with impeccable hospitality and cuisine and surrounded by wonderful art. While the list offers an expansive library of Peter Michael wines, our head sommelier, Romaine Bourger has curated one of the finest global wine lists in England.
KM: You’ve had three winemakers—Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, and Nick Morlet. Winemakers can be temperamental, even difficult. What do you look for in a winemaker?
PM: We have had five winemakers over 34 years: Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, Vanessa Wong, Luc Morlet, Luc’s brother, Nick Morlet, and today Robert Fiore is our sixth winemaker. Passion and inherent talent. We’ve been fortunate to work with each at the forefront of their careers and delighted to see them move on to produce some of their own exquisite wines. Robert joined the team in 2020 and in addition to his degree in oenology, he is both a geologist and a geophysicist. He has winemaking experience in both California and Burgundy, providing a wide perspective that is certainly beneficial to the challenging role of the winemaker.
KM: Your L’Apres Midi is considered one of the finest sauvignon blancs in California and a wine that helped usher in new era for sauvignon blanc in California. When you first made L’Apres Midi, most California sauvignon blancs were rather thin, weedy, and fairly cheap. In fact there was no market for expensive California sauvignon blanc at the time. Why did you decide to make it?
PM: Simple; I loved a good afternoon white wine, hence the name. I had always enjoyed the white wines of Bordeaux and while the winemaker at the time was not excited about the prospect, we proceeded with planting the vineyards at Knights Valley and it has been a wonderful addition since. In 2001, Luc Morlet added sémillon to the wine and made it even more interesting. The structure of the wine allows it to age beautifully as well.
KM: Did being in the tech business provide you with any valuable lessons for success in the wine business?
PM: Business in general has informed me that you can always learn from others. Seeking talented individuals has always been important, then listening and learning from them leads to success. The success of Peter Michael Winery is the result of a brilliant team for the past forty years.
KM: What’s your view of the current state of wine criticism?
PM: Like art, wine is evaluated by the individual’s impression. I think we could all play a better role in supporting the diversity of wine from different regions rather than such heavy emphasis on critiquing. Often people are overwhelmed by the vast numbers of regions and producers and need support navigating wine. Wine is a personal preference and people should feel confident in exploring it and take pleasure in learning about it, all the while discovering what suits their palate best.
KM: Is wine good for a society, a culture? How so?
PM: Wine has a cultural place in both art and science. It is also synonymous with celebration, family, and coming together – socializing. Something we have all certainly missed this past year.
KM: Is there a style of wine you like the least?
PM: Overly jammy, barnyard, no fruit at all, short. I like my wines to be balanced, elegant, fresh, with some complexity and a decent finish.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favourite beverage?
PM:: Vodka Martini.
KM: Tell us something about yourself that would surprise most people to learn.
PM: I have always loved beautiful jewelry and in the nineties ran a project called,… ‘Scintillate’…combining microelectronics and lasers with modem jewelry. I put together a team of around thirty international designers who came up with some lovely ideas.
In 2000 Helena Bonham-Carter modeled a Scintillate head-piece on the catwalk in Milan and won the World Gold Council first prize for innovation.
But, we went to the market for distribution in 2001, and then 911 happened after which nobody was interested in buying jewelry for a few years. Scintillate became one of my sponsored art projects with a piece in the archives of the Goldsmiths Company in London and few close friends have early prototypes that occasionally appear, ‘Ma Belle-Fille’ being one.