Interview with Sir Peter Michael

  • Wednesday 1 May 2002

After making his millions in the business world, Sir Peter Michael bought land for a California winery in 1982 and made it a huge success. JULIE ARKELL meets the entrepreneur.

I have always admired people who make their millions (as opposed to those who inherit or, in today's culture, merely win, their pile), so meeting Sir Peter Michael offered a great opportunity for a cash-strapped mortal such as me to take a peek into a world where 'Can I afford it?' takes on a whole new meaning.This, after all, is the man who not only put computer graphics on our television screens, but also founded Classic FM and opened the Michelin-starred The Vineyard at Stockcross restaurant and hotel with its spin-off mail order wine company, The Vineyard Cellars (considered the temple of Californian wine in the UK). These are just highlights of a hugely successful, multi-faceted career that has propelled him to position 159 in The Sunday Times Rich List 2001 with assets worth £200 million.It seems he has the Midas touch and the remote, 243-hectare Peter Michael Winery, located on the volcanic ridges that scale the western face of Mount St Helena in California's Knights Valley, proves no exception. Peter Michael wines have been on allocation since the first release in 1989 thanks to their pedigree and thanks also to the Parker effect. As Michael says, 'Robert Parker has yet to rate any Peter Michael wine below 90'.

From the beginning, Michael had a clear mission: 'To produce handcrafted, single-vineyard wines that could hold their own alongside the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy.' But while the wines (currently six Chardonnays, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc blend) are patently modelled on French tradition, it was not in an effort to imitate the French. He also wanted to convey a sense of place. The concept of terroir is very important to him, and the foundation of the winemaking philosophy is that each wine should reflect the character, flavour and personality of each vineyard. On the surface, it may seem strange that a man with a long and illustrious career in electronics should even think about embarking on such a wildly different project. In doing so, however, he realised a dream conceived as a young man when his father, who lived in France, took him to some of the renowned châteaux. 'Very few Englishmen get the chance to follow a dream,' he says. But why chase it in California rather than in France? 'The reality is that I bought my square mile of Californian property for a million dollars. To buy a quality vineyard of the same size within Bordeaux could have cost me a million dollars a hectare, or even 10 million dollars a hectare if you consider properties like Yquem. 'The French have worked out where all the best vineyards are. There's not much left today that they don't know about other than the middle sector, maybe, but I have no incentive for growing medium quality wine. It's of no consequence whatsoever.'

The choice of California was also not so remarkable given that the technology side of his life was based south of San Francisco.'I was there anyway. At weekends, being able to cross the Golden Gate Bridge into the valleys and mountains of northern California gave me great relaxation and joy. I discovered the amazing things that were going on there with wine and realised they hadn't reached their potential.' Recognising potential and realising it are two quite different things, however, and choosing the right site was no small task in spite of 'experts that grow out of the ground'. Michael looked at 40 different sites over a few years, 'but when I found the place I now have, I bought it the day I first saw it. It's the most amazing property anyone could ever wish to own.'

Experts and the relatively inexpensive price of the property notwithstanding, it was by no means a risk-free undertaking.'The act of putting vineyards on a bare mountainside with no grape-growing history was a big gamble. It was a mad thing to do. One had to start from scratch, digging lots of holes in the ground and doing soil analysis. I realised only later that a million dollars was just a down payment!' He giggles at this memory.'The costs of developing each vineyard site are staggeringly high – about $74,000 a hectare – twice, if not three times higher than growing grapes on flat land. And the yield is at most half, probably a third. But where else do you get that taste? 'Over a year, you're putting lots of money into the project. It begins to stack up and if you feel that you can't then sell the product 10 years later for more than the accumulated deficit plus the interest charge, then Mr Micawber begins to squeak.' Another laugh.

The stakes were also high on another front because, when he set out, it wasn't obvious that the US palate would change from preferring huge blockbusters to more subtle, complex, European-style wines. 'I could have been wrong,' he says, 'in which case it would have been a huge financial disaster.'When I ask him how much time he manages to spend at the winery, his answer is unequivocal: 'Insufficient. There's not enough time is there? I'm working on the next 50 years to try to fit it all in if I possibly can. We all need to live longer.'To demonstrate this point, he describes how long it has taken to clear and plant another piece of land near the coast that he has purchased for the production of Pinot Noir. 'Eleven years of my life will have gone by before a single dollar is raised. I'm going to be 70 before that Pinot Noir is really flowing. So it's a very, very long process. I started in the wine business when I was 40; I just wish I'd started when I was 30. Nevertheless, it's been a fantastic project. Marvellous. It's the only thing I have ever given my name to and I've had lots of other projects. This one isn't for sale. This is what I call my 100 by 100 policy – 100% ownership for 100 years, that's the idea.'

In fact, he visits the winery twice a year. Day-to-day decisions are left in the capable hands of general manager, Bill Vyenielo, vineyard manager, Javier Aviña, production manager, Alex Cose, and head winemaker, Luc Morlet, a team that he is quick to praise: 'It took us a while, but it's now a profitable business that no longer needs a rich man to continue to do its best. To do that is a rare achievement and it's a tribute to the winemaking team. My view is that you cannot have too strong a winemaking team.'

A recent trip to California threw up the chance for me to visit the Peter Michael Winery and meet the team – it and they were truly impressive. One comment from Bill Vyenielo has stuck in my mind: 'When I first met Pete, he told me that he wanted to make world-class wines. I thought “yeah, yeah, that's what they all say”. But the difference is that he meant it.'

Julie Arkell is the drinks correspondent for the Daily Express and has written two books.

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