Taking over as winemaker at a California cult winery is no easy task. Vanessa Wong, who has done just that at the Peter Michael Winery, talks to SUSAN KEEVIL
Vanessa Wong is one of a generation of young Californians that finds computer programming as easy to grasp as in-line skating. She understands – really understands – the kind of technology that would make most of us reach for the Times crossword and a pen to prove that our mental worth lies elsewhere.
Wong oversees winemaking operations from a turret above the old Ida Clayton schoolhouse in what was once the cattle town of Kellog, now home to the Peter Michael Winery. A flick of a button and vat 29 cools to 18?C – there’s not a puff of chalk dust in sight. This is a far cry from the days of Ida’s school and charming though these buildings are, they now house one of the most sophisticated wineries in Sonoma County. And I can’t be sure, but instead of a school mouse, I’m sure there was a plastic dinosaur lurking as a good luck charm beside the fax machine.
Young, female, diminutive: you could argue that Wong is out of her depth. On the winery floor, dwarfed by storage tanks, tall and narrow like silvery grain silos, she certainly looks tiny. But Vanessa Wong is the doyenne of all this – winemaker in charge of the illustrious and expensive Peter Michael Winery – and she’s also filling a giant-sized pair of shoes (more later). One gets the feeling that with a burst of ‘new millennium’ energy, she’s more than tough enough and ready to take on today’s cult winemaking world without thinking twice. Wong explains that she asked Sir Peter Michael to give her the job. ‘I said I’d be happy to work for a new winemaker after Mark Aubert left in 1999, but as I would end up training them, why not just give the job to me instead? A year later and they want me to write the newsletter too, so it’s obviously not going too badly!’ Wong trained in oenology in Bordeaux, so the decision to hire her as winemaker reflects the aim for classic-cum-California wines at Peter Michael. After Bordeaux, she spent time working at Franciscan winery back in Napa, but pretty soon returned to France to continue her studies under her own steam. ‘As a student, you get to see so much more,’ she says. ‘You’re less of an intrusion and people take your presence for granted, so I thought I’d take advantage of this while I could! ‘My experiences in Bordeaux and Burgundy have contributed a lot to my winemaking style – indeed it’s so ingrained that I even dream in French sometimes!’ Wong clearly feels that everything she’s seen and heard on her travels has helped in what she does today. ‘Winemaking has to be a synthesis of things – Alsace, Barolo, Montepulciano, they’ve all influenced my winemaking. I have no particular favourites. I don’t want to emulate anything because I don’t see the point. Just because we make Pinot and Chardonnay there’s no need to use all Burgundian techniques in California. Instead, I mix many of the different techniques I’ve seen to make the best of what I have.’ Ask anyone following in giant footsteps what their own path will be, and what changes they will make, and you’re unlikely to receive more than soundbites. These are tough questions to answer. Mark Aubert was winemaker at Peter Michael from 1990 to 1999 and developed an unmatched reputation as the architect of the current, much revered PMW style. Aubert is now consulting winemaker at the ultra-premium Colgin estate, setting up his own vineyards, and it will be difficult for Wong to improve upon what’s gone before.
‘My goal is to perpetuate the quality of what Mark established,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to do anything revolutionary, but simply to evolve and fine tune the style; to capture the essence of this block and that block, and to make small changes. I have only had four years here, and while I’m amazed at how much I can draw from even that history, there’s still always something new to discover.’ Wong is not even persuaded into varying the grape varieties. PMV grows Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Meritage and Pinot Noir, and that’s what she believes in. ‘I would like to extend Pinot Noir, but I don’t want 20 different grapes. It would be difficult to keep the focus,’ she explains.
Despite her caution, it’s clear that she is far more than a mere caretaker of Aubert’s legacy, and it is by no means too early to sense the mark she’s making on her own – Wong’s way. She recognises genuine talent when she sees it and suffers no fools. No time has been lost in cultivating the friendship of Mexican vineyard manager Javier Avia, who is helping to improve her understanding of the vineyard. ‘I try and spend as much time as I can outside, as this helps me make decisions for future blends,’ Wong says. Javier, she acknowledges, knows far more than anyone else, and she describes him as ‘my “better half”, wine-growingly speaking’. It’s very difficult to draw her on the subject of whose palate she respects the most – they have to be really good to earn her esteem. ‘Tough one…’ Long pause. ‘The winemakers I admire are Mark Aubert, whose judgement I really respect, and Michel Gros, who is as wonderful a vintner as his mother. ‘But palate… I think that being in tune with flavours is so important. My mother is an excellent cook, working very well with a multitude of different herbs and spices – Chinese cooking, of course. It has to be her palate I respect most.’ And Helen Turley? (Another influential predecessor at Peter Michael.) ‘Oh yes, she’s very daring!’
As crucial as team-building are the estate’s new vineyards. There’s great excitement about the new Sonoma Coast land bought in 1998, directly across from Marcassin (‘we can shout hello to Helen Turley across the valley’). ‘I love it out there, it’s wonderful and beautiful,’ says Wong. ‘We need to do basic things first, like build roads, but I think the wines, when they come, will be more perfumed, deeply scented and more complex than before.’ The Kellog vineyards in Knights Valley, on the side of Mount Helena (at the northern tip of Sonoma above Calistoga) are also dramatically scenic – and steep – with sweeping views out to Alexander Valley and the hills beyond. Does Wong feel that the wines of the two viticultural areas should be kept separate? As head of an extremely progressive winery, what is her role in marking the different vinous geographies of North America? ‘Appellations [AVAs] are important,’ she says. ‘Climate and geology, elevation and growing conditions are things people can recognise. It means they can identify why a wine tastes as it does. Winemaking is all about reflecting geology and geography too. But it would be wrong to go with just one grape. You must represent your product and your land correctly, but there must be creative liberty too. That’s the freedom of America! That’s why Sir Peter came here.’ As a newly arrived figurehead in the California wine industry, should Vanessa Wong be encouraging the proliferation of cult wines, produced in such tiny quantities that few wine lovers can afford or find them? ‘They are a good thing,’ she says firmly. ‘They recognise the effects of people really putting effort in. There’s a huge difference in quality between these and other wines, and it’s good to see what can be done. ‘That said, a lot of wineries don’t pay the wine the same attention we do, and yet these are still called “cult”. That’s what I object to. These wines are faddish though. They get attention, then they’re last year’s news. The goal at Peter Michael, from the start, has been to be classic, steady and here in 30 years’ time. Not just a flash in the pan!’
Wong is coy about her ambitions. She wants to make the ultimate wine with whatever the vintage throws at her, but beyond that she doesn’t have time to think. ‘I get a lot less sleep than I used to,’ she says. ‘Dealing with a product that’s really up to Mother Nature when you have a reputation for quality to maintain is tricky. There are hard decisions to make and you can’t go back on them later. ‘You have to be really confident with the decisions you make, and live with them. People will back you up, but you have to be confident for them to have confidence in you.’ Somehow I doubt that Wong has a problem in instilling confidence in her team. As a fully fledged practitioner of modern, holistic winemaking, fully at ease in a world of technology and terroir combined, she is surely the epitome of a 2000 generation winemaker who has far to go.