Peter Michael’s Quest

How an Englishman carved a great winery out of a California mountain

From the Nov. 15, 2014, issue

Knights Valley is not the sort of place an English gentleman simply stumbles upon. A secluded patch of Sonoma County, it is tucked among mountains and accessible by a tangle of country roads. There are no towns and only a few homes. It’s a beautiful parcel of California, unruffled by time or development, a place more likely to be lost than found.

But an Englishman on a quest somehow found his way there. Peter Michael traveled 6,000 miles, from London to Sonoma, on a mission that took him from extraordinary success in the high-tech world to a risky startup in the wine business. Now, after more than 30 years of hard work and investment, Michael, 76, can look back on a dream that is well and truly fulfilled.

Peter Michael Winery has reached the pinnacle of California wine. With remarkable consistency, it excels with many different grapes and vineyards. Since 1997, eight of its wines have earned spots on Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists, and three of those made the Top 10.

The winery’s flagship is the Cabernet blend Les Pavots, from the home estate in Knights Valley. This powerful, balanced red routinely earns classic ratings (95 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale); as it ages, it takes on texture and aromatics reminiscent of a fine Bordeaux. Ma Belle-Fille and Mon Plaisir are equally impressive, and while revealing the influences of Burgundy they are true expressions of California Chardonnay. The winery also delivers outstanding Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs.

Along his path, Michael has worked with some of California’s top winemakers, including Helen Turley, Mark Aubert and current winemaker Nick Morlet (see “The Winemakers of Peter Michael Winery,” same issue). His winery brought new cachet to Sonoma County and helped introduce a new wave of California wines to Great Britain. Though Michael made his fortune as an entrepreneur in microelectronics and other media technology, wine has captured his heart.

“There’s not an Englishman of any consequence,” Michael maintains, “who does not want to produce a great claret.”

Behind the wheel of an SUV, Michael maneuvers up the steep roads of his Knights Valley vineyards. With him is Lady Michael, his wife of 52 years, who goes by Maggie to family and friends. Michael, known as Pete to his friends, has been Sir Peter since being knighted in 1989.

“My friends have called me the shortest knight of the year,” quips the diminutive Englishman. A dry wit has served him well over the years, and stands in contrast to his almost professorial air. His hair has more salt than pepper these days and is often crowned by a sporty white Panama hat when he’s out among the vines. He doesn’t look like your standard California vintner.

Michael didn’t set out to plant vineyards or start a winery. He was in his 30s when he came to California on business from London—rainy, cloudy London. He was immediately smitten with the Golden State. “My God, what a fabulous place, I thought,” Michael says. “I decided I wanted to buy a patch of land for my family for the future.”

He wasn’t simply interested in a playland, however. The property had to be productive. “I’m a project-oriented guy,” he says. By the late 1970s, Michael had decided that wine country, and the wine business, would be his focus, and his explorations brought him to sleepy Knights Valley in eastern Sonoma County. In 1982, he bought a largely abandoned ranch comprising about 600 acres of mountainside wilderness.

At the time, vineyards were scarce in the valley. Beringer was the only large player, having released its first Knights Valley Cabernet with the 1976 vintage. Most of the existing vineyards were on the valley floor, however. Michael would have none of that. “In Europe,” he says, “you put cows in the valley and grapes at the top of the hill.

“Friends thought I was nuts. You have to spend at least twice as much and then you get a yield that’s half as much. Predictions of bankruptcy were all around,” Michael says, laughing at the memory. But even a veteran businessman can be surprised: “I didn’t realize I wouldn’t see ‘break even’ [for] 15 years. I paid $1 million for the ranch but that turned out just to be the down payment,” he says, smiling. “The installments came later.”

Today, his many vineyards scale the western slope of Mount St. Helena. Wedged between Alexander Valley in Sonoma and the northern reaches of Napa Valley, the mountain reaches 4,342 feet, the tallest peak in the San Francisco Bay Area. Michael now owns 630 rocky and volcanic acres, with 131 acres of it planted to vines. “You can never tame mountains, but if they like you they’ll give you the most wonderful gifts,” Michael says.

The 64-acre Les Pavots vineyard, first planted in 1983, sits at about 1,000 feet. At that elevation, the vines avoid much of the summer heat from the valley below, allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux reds to mature more gradually.

The Chardonnay vineyards, planted a few years later, begin just a few hundred feet higher. First comes La Carrière (French for “The Quarry”) and then Mon Plaisir (“My Pleasure”). Michael has a penchant for giving his vineyards French names.

“As the family came from the U.K. and had a total background of France—living [there] and speaking French—it just seemed the natural thing to do,” Michael says. “Especially once we had worked out that the direction [of the winery] was to be ‘the best of California with the best of Europe.’ ”

Mark Aubert, Michael’s winemaker at the time, remembers the challenges of planting those Chardonnay vines. “There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into those vineyards,” Aubert says. La Carrière was particularly demanding because of its dramatic 40 percent slope and intensely rocky soils. Michael, a trained engineer, was fascinated by the process, Aubert recalls, helping to plot out ways to deal with soil erosion and drainage. “He was always three or four steps ahead of you.”

Cabernet and Chardonnay are rarely planted so closely together, even in anything-goes California. “We discovered this strange phenomenon,” Michael explains, “where the climate on top of the mountain is totally different from inside the valley. Chardonnay starts from around 1,200 feet, and we get this breeze from the Pacific, coming through the gap in the mountains and across the valley, that keeps it much cooler.”

Indeed, the air chills and the wind turns brisk as the SUV climbs to 1,700 feet and approaches the Chardonnay vineyards of Belle Côte (“Beautiful Slope”) and Ma Belle-Fille. Ma Belle-Fille (“My Daughter-in-Law”) is named for Emily Michael, who is married to Peter’s and Maggie’s elder son, Paul. Planted in 1999, it is the youngest of Michael’s Knights Valley vineyards and also the highest, reaching 1,900 feet. That places Ma Belle-Fille above the fog line, allowing for maximum sun exposure, although daytime temperatures remain cool.

Beginning in 1989, Michael began building what today is still the only winemaking facility in Knights Valley. The architecture of the small complex of buildings recalls a homestead farm, and the design takes inspiration from the buildings of the 19th-century town of Kellogg, a small community that was once nearby but which has been gone now for 50 years.

Looking out on his property from Côte Deux Mille, the winery’s dramatic mountaintop pavilion, Michael says he has only one regret: He should have bought more of Knights Valley when he had the chance. “Buying this patch of land was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

Peter Michael was born into a well-to-do family in a small town south of London in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War II.

“I look back at my mother and father and think they must have had a hell of a life during the war. It just ruined their lives. But they didn’t let my sister and I know about it. They were very caring parents, at least my mother was. My father,” Michael pauses and sighs, “was a pretty hard businessman, but he was a good guy.”

His father, “Mick” Michael, served as a military engineer and in peace time built his hobby of stamp collecting into a thriving business, eventually becoming chairman of international collecting firm Stanley Gibbons.

The elder Michael was also an enophile. “As a kid, I was dragged around the Burgundy and Bordeaux wineries,” Michael recalls. “I didn’t think a lot of it at the time, but I got used to the idea of wine, shall I say.”

Michael was 18 when he met his future wife. Always on the small side, he decided to learn self-defense, so he enrolled in a judo school. A dancing club happened to be next door.

“One night I took a good look at the women coming out of the dancing club, and a good look at the women coming out of the judo club, and I said ‘I’m in the wrong club.’ ”

Maggie was in the dancing club. But she was a gold-medalist ballroom dancer and would have nothing to do with him until he learned to dance. “So you’re looking at a bronze-medalist ballroom dancer,” he says. “I’m not going to give you a demonstration.”

At Queen Mary College University of London, Michael received a degree in engineering, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. He did postgraduate studies in nuclear physics and aeronautical engineering but discovered his math “wasn’t quite up to solving the three-dimensional differential equations of flight.” Instead, he earned an MBA at Thames University.

Michael started his first company, Micro Consultants Group, in London in the late 1960s. The era of microelectronics was taking off, and Michael could see that the launching pad would be California’s Silicon Valley; in 1972, he founded Quantel there, which became a tech pioneer. Its big break came at the 1976 Montréal Olympics, when the firm’s technology allowed broadcasters to show a smaller image framed within the overall TV screen. Common today, it was radical at the time. Quantel followed that in 1981 with Paintbox, which revolutionized television graphics and spawned TV and video technologies.

Despite his success in Silicon Valley, Michael had no love for the place, and mostly commuted from England. “I rapidly determined that the inhabitants of Silicon Valley are largely lunatics,” he likes to say.

Today, working with Paul, 49, and a small team, Michael runs his many business and investments from Newberry, England. (Michael’s younger son, David, lives in Berlin and is not involved in the winery.) They are eminently successful; in 2013, The Sunday Times estimated Michael’s net worth at $250 million.

Work is something Michael loves, his friends say. “Loafing is not one of his pastimes,” says longtime friend Dick Kramlich, a venture capitalist. Michael approaches the world as an engineer: focused and intensely detail-oriented, pushing himself and others to think outside the box. “His standards are incredibly high,” says Michael Meyers, a friend and business associate of 30 years.

Yet he is inquisitive and engages people easily, and isn’t afraid to aim his wit at himself. “I think he thrives on people,” daughter-in-law Emily says. “He enjoys supporting people so they will do well, through thick and thin.” Indeed, Aubert remembers that Michael made the staff feel like they were “part of the family.” Vineyard manager Javier Aviña and many other employees have been with the company 20 years or more.

Winery president Scott Rodde recalls the early days when Michael returned from a stay in England and suddenly had a working command of Spanish. He’d taken lessons while away. Rodde says, “He must have been 60 years old at that point, but he wanted to be able to speak to the guys in Spanish.”

Paul Michael was 17 when his father bought the Knights Valley property; Sugarloaf Ranch originated in the 1880s but had become ramshackle. “We came driving to the middle of nowhere as far as I could tell,” Paul remembers. “We were [far] away from any young California ladies, who just loved our English accents at the time.” The ranch house hadn’t been inhabited for 30 years and a hundred head of cattle roamed freely through a dust bowl of weeds and scrub oak.

“I spent the first holiday in spring of 1983 going back and forth to the hardware store and planting some vines in Les Pavots vineyard,” Paul says. “Pretty soon it worked out to be quite a lot of fun, and I very quickly grew to love this place.”

Paul Michael graduated from the École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland in 1990, then worked in the hotel industry in Europe and the Middle East. Since 2000, he has taken a more active role in the family business and particularly the winery. “We decided this business was becoming very important to us, and becoming quite complicated, and very much a ‘people’ business and that we should be here much more often,” Paul says.

Peter flies from London twice a year, while Paul makes the trip as often as six times annually. “We share the load,” Paul says of his relationship with his father, “both here in California and in the U.K., where a lot is delegated to me.”

Thirty years ago, however, Paul could never imagine how much his life would be wrapped up in wine. Making wine in California seemed more like just another of his dad’s “crazy ideas.”

Indeed, Michael admits he might not have planted vineyards at all if not for his “one-sided love affair” with singer Peggy Lee. Attending her concert at San Francisco’s Venetian Room in 1976, Michael asked the sommelier to suggest a good local wine with dinner. What little Michael knew of California wine at the time was Paul Masson and generic jugs. The wine that arrived was one of the first vintages of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

“That was a revelation,” he recalls. A few months later, when he read that Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay had won the famous Judgment of Paris tasting, he knew what he was going to do.

Over the course of the next several years, Michael considered sites all around the San Francisco Bay Area, and all the while California’s wine reputation was building. “Napa was impossible. I couldn’t buy land there,” he says. And not only was Sugarloaf Ranch just a few miles from Chateau Montelena, there was also a rich British connection—Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson settled on nearby Mount St. Helena in 1880 and used it as inspiration for Spyglass Hill in Treasure Island.

“I’m glad I didn’t [buy in Napa],” Michael says now. “We found this great potential here that nobody had really tapped into.”

It took some time to tap into that potential. “The wine business is like the tech business. You make a mistake and it takes five years to put it right. I can identify perhaps five big mistakes, but I’m not going to tell you what they were,” Michael says with a laugh, before offering a single example. The first 18 acres of Les Pavots had to be replanted after five years because its AXR rootstock was not resistant to phylloxera. It was a mistake many California growers shared at the time.

Les Pavots debuted with a small amount in the 1988 vintage. The wine was made by Helen Turley at Vinwood Cellars, a custom-crush facility in nearby Geyserville. The early vintages were good, not great, but Michael expected that. There were issues with hard tannins and brettanomyces. But Michael’s goal was ambitious: to make world-class wine, the sort of wines he would be proud to pour for his Francophile friends in England. He gave his staff the tools and money they needed to accomplish that, and while he never pretended to be a winemaker, Aubert says Michael wasn’t shy about saying what he liked and didn’t. “He was a very astute taster.”

Michael predicted it would take 25 years to make great claret. Another mistake. Within 10 vintages, Les Pavots was at the top of its game. Current vintages command about $200 per bottle.

The winery’s Chardonnays, which have proven equally successful, came as an afterthought. While the Cabernet program matured—and money continued to flow out the door—Michael added Chardonnay to bring in early revenue.

The combination of elevation, exposure and cool climate gives the vineyard-designated Chardonnays distinctive qualities. La Carrière 2012 (94 points, $85) is sleek and graceful, with sharply defined, rich fruit. Belle Côte 2012 (94, $85) is riveting and vibrant; Ma Belle-Fille 2012 (95, $90) is powerful yet graceful, with pear and fig flavors and a lift of fresh acidity. Mon Plaisir 2012 (95, $85) is the most exotic, with toasty and smoky flavors and ultrarich fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc was actually Michael’s first choice in whites. “In Europe, we always open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in the early part of the evening,” he says, “something like Michel Redde or Didier Dagueneau [from France’s Loire Valley].”

Sauvignon Blanc will grow just about anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it will become great wine. Then-winemaker Helen Turley called it a waste of time, but Michael persisted. Eventually a few acres were chosen, in Les Pavots. “If you want to make great Sauvignon Blanc, you have to sacrifice a piece of land that will grow Cabernet Sauvignon,” Michael says.

The first Sauvignon Blanc debuted in 1991, and today the winery produces two bottlings, both from Les Pavots: L’Après-Midi (“The Afternoon”) and Coeur à Coeur (“Heart to Heart”). L’Après-Midi 2012 (92, $52) has expressive peach cobbler and jasmine flavors and a terrific backbone of acidity.

The winery tried one other noble grape in Knights Valley, just as an experimental block, but it failed miserably: Pinot Noir. “It was the wrong soil, wrong climate and just not worthwhile doing,” Michael says.

But he didn’t give up. With the 1997 vintage, the winery turned to Santa Lucia Highlands and the Pisoni Vineyard to produce Le Moulin Rouge Pinot Noir. Its success fueled Michael’s desire to grow his own Pinot and, on a parallel track, to explore new vineyards in order to produce a distinctively different style of Cabernet. These twin projects are setting the Michael family’s goals for the future.

From a few thousand feet up, the Sonoma Coast is a ragged edge of land against blue water. Rows of vines snap into focus as a helicopter touches down at Seaview Vineyard, located in the heart of what many call the true Sonoma Coast. Marcassin Vineyard is “a good wood shot away,” Michael likes to say. Flowers, Hirsch and Martinelli’s Blue-Slide Ridge vineyards are also nearby.

Paul Michael and winemaker Nick Morlet are here to inspect the vineyards. The family bought this 400-acre property in 1998, but it took eight years to plant the first vine, thanks to the demands of the remote location and rustic terrain and to strict environmental regulations. Just 30 acres have been planted to vines, with the rest devoted to uncultivated habitat, including 800 new redwood trees.

Ranging in elevation from 1,000 to 1,500 feet, three sections each produce a distinctive wine, variations on a theme: Ma Danseuse, Le Caprice and Clos du Ciel.

Ma Danseuse (“My Dancer”) was named for Maggie and her ballroom victories. “Once I named Ma Belle-Fille for Emily, I had a problem,” Michael says. “There was a lady named Maggie who said, ‘I’ve been married to you for 50 bloody years, why can’t I have a wine named after me?’ ”

The vines are planted on rolling slopes, many of them steep. They’re generally above the fog line, allowing for excellent sun exposure and ripening, and the wines retain lively acidity. Yields are low, usually 2 tons an acre or less. Since the first release, with the 2009 vintage, the Seaview wines have joined the ranks of the top Sonoma Coast Pinots.

“The goal is to have everything balanced on the vine,” Morlet says of Seaview. That’s a philosophy that guides all of the winemaking at Peter Michael. In the winery, native yeasts are used for fermentation, and new oak is employed judiciously. “Balance and purity are what I’m looking for.” It’s “California meets France,” which seems a happy marriage of site and winemaker.

France-born Morlet, 40, grew up in Épernay, where his family has owned Champagne Pierre Morlet for five generations. He graduated from Lycée Viti-Viticole de Beaune and the Institut Jules Guyot, a university for enology in Dijon, and worked at Maison Chanson Père & Fils and Château Lascombes. During his obligatory military service, Morlet served as sommelier for commissioned officers on a submarine in the French Navy.

Moving to the United States in 2005, he worked with Insignia and Backus bottlings at Joseph Phelps Vineyards before joining Peter Michael that same year. There, he followed his brother Luc as winemaker. Luc, who arrived in America in 1993 and worked at Peter Michael from 2001 to 2005, continues to consult with Nick on the winemaking.

The most-recent addition to Michael’s wine portfolio is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville, called Au Paradis (“In Heaven”). The debut 2011 is the first release from vines the family bought in 2009; the former Showket vineyard is located in the eastern hills of Oakville, the same neighborhood as Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle and Joseph Phelps’ Backus Vineyard.

The goal was to find an expression of Cabernet that was the equal of but different from the Cabernet grown in Knights Valley. Morlet says the deep, rocky red soils of Au Paradis provide an ideal foil to Les Pavots.

The winery spent more than a year improving the 40-acre site, ending up with 18 acres of Cabernet. “We pulled out 10,000 tons of rock, which was getting in the way of the roots,” Michael says. “Since you’re not allowed to remove rock from a site unless you’ve got a quarry license, we crushed it and built the most glorious roads in Napa.”

As his winery enters its fourth decade, Michael looks to the future. He personally shows no signs of stepping down from its leadership and remains fit and active. “He never retires. God help us if he does,” Paul says.

In addition to the winery, the family owns The Vineyard, a wine-themed luxury hotel just outside London. Its restaurant offers a 3,000-selection wine list that holds a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator.

“We have over 100 wines by the glass,” says Emily, who helps run the resort, which offers wine tastings and classes. “We eat, sleep and drink wine there.” Naturally, California wines are featured, and the cellar is also strong in Bordeaux and Tuscany. “It’s certainly the biggest California wine list in the U.K., and one of the biggest in Europe,” she adds.

Beyond its diverse business portfolio, the family is deeply engaged in philanthropy. The focal point is the Peter Michael Foundation, which is revolutionizing new imaging technologies to fight prostate cancer. The foundation has donated an estimated $15 million to the effort so far, divided among the U.S. and U.K.

Paul and Emily, who married in 1997, have three children: Elliot, 15, Anna, 13 and Mylo, 9. The family spends frequent holidays at the Knights Valley ranch. The couple’s younger son has already claimed Mount St. Helena as “Mylo’s Mountain.” He also inspired the name for Au Paradis when he awoke one morning after a campout on Mount St. Helena, saw a sea of fog below him, and asked, “Are we in heaven?”

“Elliot has been saying he’s going to grow up and run the winery since he was about 12,” Paul says. The family encourages the children to think of their future in the winery, within limits. “I do think it’s important that they go out and find their own roots and their own strengths and life experiences,” Paul says.

Emily laughs and says, “ ‘Wait ’til I’m 75,’ he means.” That leaves a good 25 years for the kids to prepare.

A legacy is indeed something Michael hopes he is building in Knights Valley and beyond. “Heritage and history,” Sir Peter says, “are important to me.” And that’s particularly true with the winery. As Paul points out, his father has started dozens of businesses that have made him wealthy and brought him admiration, but the winery is his favorite.

“It’s the only one my dad put his name on.”