Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The Peju Experience
In the Napa Valley, as you drive north on Highway 29 near Rutherford, you will spot an absolutely beautiful place on the right hand side of the road. Everything about this place will make you want to turn into the driveway, get out of the car and look around. The winery is called Peju. A stunning homage to French provincial architecture, it has everything you would want all rolled in to a package that is easy on the eyes and the palate. Just one visit will make you come back to it again and again...
After seeing a photo of the winery at a local wine store, I made a decision to visit them during my first and second trips to the Napa Valley. Everything was beautiful about the place--from the perfectly landscaped grounds, to the interesting artwork sculptures that line the property, to the winery building itself complete with a fifty foot tower (pictured above). Inside, there is a colorful stained glass mural, two well-designed tasting rooms decorated with artwork and other items for purchase.
Each time I visit, I still marvel and how this place came to be. All that Peju is and stands for is a dream come true story for Tony and Herta Peju, a Los Angeles couple who shared a vision and passion for art and culture. They dreamed big and slowly made owning this winery a reality. Starting out with a small floral shop in southern California, they began searching the area for a bigger property. Eventually, a visit to the Napa Valley in the 1980s brought to light thirty acres of prized land. Tony decided to become a winemaker, attending UC Davis to hone his skills. Initially, in order to establish himself, he began conducting wine tastings and selling wine out of his garage. The wines received critical acclaim, however he didn't have the cash flow to build the winery yet and this met with much resistance from the law. Eventually, Tony went to court to establish that he could indeed continue holding these "garage" tastings and he won his case. The case was instrumental in defining the meaning of a "winery" in Napa County. It paved the way for other wineries to be able to this also. Since then, Tony and his family (which includes their two daughters, Lisa and Ariana, both involved in the business) have built a spectacular winery. It is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest wineries I've ever seen. Their attention to detail, whether it be with the landscaping, architecture, artwork or the wines is impeccable. Over the years, Peju has become one of the top California Cabernet producers, earning a spectacular amount of accolades along the way.
The second time I visited, I had the chance to chat with their Communications Coordinator, Katie Lewis Vandermause. She was really great and gave my group a walking tour of the grounds, the tasting room and the barrel room. What else can I do but mention their excellent customer service! If you are there to do a tasting, I recommend you spend some time watching the musical show their wine pourer, Alan Arnopole, puts on in the tasting room. His homage to Peju and Napa Valley has been talked about in the media and is a real treat! This is a total package for a winery named "Artisan Winery Of The Year" by Wine & Spirits Magazine.
But what about the wines? Once you get past the beauty of this place, you will taste the wines and realize they are just as great as you thought they would be! That's how I felt when I did both my winery tastings and recently again when I had the opportunity to taste three of their current releases, sent to me as samples. In coordination with the latest tasting, Katie arranged for me to speak with their winemaker, Sara Fowler, via cell phone. Sara and I had a pleasant conversation during which I asked her many simple but introspective questions, bringing me into her winemaking world, albeit for a short time. Since I'm not a technical writer, I wanted to put myself in her shoes for a day and see what it was like...
Sara Fowler has been with Peju since the Summer of 2006 and her winemaking skills are starting to come to life as some of her own are now being released. In keeping with the Peju tradition of excellence, she brings to her winemaking a passion for Bordeaux varietals, innovative creativity (creating new and interesting wines) and the knowledge and experience of a seasoned winemaker. Sara began her road to winemaking with family experience as she grew up around farming. However, she initially chose a different path and studied art. But it was not to be. Changing her mind and looking to the future, she looked at winemaking and began her journey by working at Kendall-Jackson and studying enology at Fresno State University. Her impressive resume includes associate winemaker positions with Franciscan and Mt. Veeder wineries, working with Veramonte in Chile and working with world-renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland. At Peju, she is committed to helping the winery receive organic certification as well as overseeing the sustainable farming practices of several of their vineyards. She sometimes puts in 12+ hour days in the vineyards all while juggling a schedule of speaking engagements, training, traveling, hosting wine dinners and most importantly, being a Mom to two sons. She does it all! Will she ever want to stop doing this? She doesn't see retirement on the horizon because this is her labor of love! The owners have empowered her to make the best wines she can make and many of the decisions are her own. Well-deserved. I know she will continue to make excellent wines for Peju for many years to come!
But what about those wines? I'm finally getting to that! Here are some recommendations based on what I sampled recently. All the samples I received were current vintages and handcrafted by Sara Fowler.
The 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is most enjoyable! Fresh key lime, lemongrass, exotic fruits and thyme spiciness dominate the flavors. It's a little burst of "Ooh La La!" and the perfect accompaniment to any seafood dish or light salad. An award winner, this delectable wine sells for $22.00.
2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc--What can I say? After I am finished drooling over the fact that they make a Cabernet Franc, I am highly recommending this one. 84% Cabernet Franc and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, it is plummy, full of chocolate, coffee, and toasty vanilla. It is amazing! This wine will turn anyone into a Cabernet Franc lover! $45.00.
And now for a very unique wine... The Peju Provence. A non-vintage blend of white and red varietals (Chardonnay, French Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel), it is strawberry-rhubarb heaven served chilled. This would be the perfect Summer sipper on your patio. I love it! $22.00
Sara also makes some wines that are her own creations, such as 50/50-a unique blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In recognition of Breast Cancer research she does Peju Pink, a proprietary blend. So many great wines to taste! The wines are available on their website at www.peju.com. I would like to thank Katie for her friendship and for giving me the opportunity to speak with Sara. I hope to meet Sara in person during my next visit! If you are in the Napa Valley, please make a stop there and find the magic that is Peju. The grounds will mesmerize you, their hospitality will delight you and the wines will entice you! I can't wait to visit them again and again!