Why winemaker Jonathan Pey left the Bay for France

Making wine in the Bay Area was becoming too difficult for Jonathan Pey. Climate change was decimating yields from his vineyard. The sale of bottles was more competitive than ever. And the purchase of new land seemed prohibitively expensive.

The winemaker therefore decamped to one of the most famous wine regions in France: Beaujolais.

It seems counter-intuitive, but Pey thinks establishing a new vineyard and a new wine label has proven much easier in this historic region, in the south of famed Burgundy, than it did. would have been in California. Not only does the weather in Beaujolais seem kinder, he said, but Pey was able to buy his parcel for a mere fraction of what a similar vineyard would command in Napa or Sonoma counties.

When Pey, who made wine here under the Pey-Marin and Textbook labels, told some of his Bay Area friends that he was buying a vineyard in Beaujolais, some were in disbelief. They expected him to buy something in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, or Mendocino counties. He had reviewed the listings in each of those places, he said, “but I just couldn’t contemplate buying a vineyard (in California) with such a risk of drought, wildfires and their smoke.”

The Gamay vines from Jonathan Pey’s Beaujolais vineyard were planted in 1953.

Courtesy of Jonathan Pey

On one level, the Morgon de Pey project is the realization of a personal dream; he lived in France in his teens and always loved the country. But his migration also speaks to the increasingly exclusive nature of wine in Northern California, where even a seasoned industry veteran can begin to view land ownership as untenable for both environmental and economic reasons. Although it is not yet common for Bay Area winemakers to settle in France – although Pey is not the first to do so either – many have left for other parts of California or the United States, seeking affordable land and more predictable weather.

In the Beaujolais village of Morgon, Pey found a 4-hectare plot that met all his requirements: old vines (planted in 1953), interesting soil (pieces of pink granite), height difference (more than 400 meters, with a view of the Mont Blanc on a clear day), abundant groundwater and a human price (which Pey declined to disclose).

He bought it in December 2021 and harvested his first grapes this fall. In the spring, he expects to bottle the wine. It’s Gamay, like almost all the red wines of Beaujolais. He’s not sure exactly how the finished product will taste, but so far, Pey said, the wine is bright and fruity – “a hare of acidity,” he said.

Prior to the move, Pey was producing wine in a particularly trying corner of the Bay Area: West Marin. In 1999, he and his late wife, Susan Pey, began renting a vineyard outside the town of Nicasio, just 8 km from the Pacific Ocean, in a former dairy farm. His Merlot grapes struggled to ripen in the cold and windy weather. Soon the Peys were grafting the vines to Riesling and Pinot Noir, two grape varieties that can thrive in cooler climates.

Susan and Jonathan Pey from Vignobles Pey-Marin in 2004.

Susan and Jonathan Pey from Vignobles Pey-Marin in 2004.

Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2004

They first produced wine under the Mount Tamalpais Vineyards label, then founded Pey-Marin in 2002. The couple were inspired by a rich but forgotten history of viticulture in Marin County, which culminated in the 19th century thanks in large part to the production of sacramental wine at Mission San Rafael. “We wanted to bring it back to life,” Pey said.

But even after planting the cooler climate grapes, keeping the business alive remained difficult. “The weather is terrible, the yields are horrible and there is no water,” Pey said.

Plus, it wasn’t cheap: Marin isn’t known for wine, but its high real estate costs mean renting farmland here is expensive. In 2004, the Peys began producing Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville, Napa Valley, under a label called Textbook – which proved much easier from a farming and marketing perspective. Still, Marin and Napa wine efforts were “primed,” Pey said, forcing the pair to “max out our credit cards.”

Susan Pey died in 2016. A few years later, still grieving over her death, Pey decided to exit both wine labels. He sold Textbook to Distinguished Vineyards & Wine Partners, which also owns Argyle Winery in Oregon and Markham Vineyards in Napa Valley. (He still consults for Textbook.) For Pey-Marin, however, he hadn’t expected to find a buyer. Due to worsening drought and water restrictions, the West Marin vineyard was producing almost no fruit. Last year, he announced that he had definitively stopped Pey-Marin.

Bottles of Marin County wines from Jonathan and Susan Pey in 2004.

Bottles of Marin County wines from Jonathan and Susan Pey in 2004.

Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2004

He knew he couldn’t escape climate change by traveling the world. But he thought maybe he could find a place a little easier than Marin.

Pey considered several regions of France. Champagne, Bordeaux and most of Burgundy were out; too expensive. The Loire Valley, in particular the Cabernet Franc-rich region of Chinon, appealed.

“But I always came back to the Beaujolais cru,” Pey said. believed Beaujolais refers to wines from the 10 highest quality sub-regions – called crus – of the region. Morgon, where Pey landed, is one of these wines.

Cru Beaujolais is considered the pinnacle of what this region can produce: the wines are structured, age-worthy and complex, with the best bottles costing $60 or more. However, these terrific wines remain in the shadow of Beaujolais’ most famous production – the cheap and playful Beaujolais Nouveau. These young wines are released the third week of November each year, a fast-moving product of the harvest season which has just ended. They are simple, inexpensive and not designed to age.

Pey doesn’t like the new, seeing it as a poor reflection of the full potential of Beaujolais wines. But for many Americans, Beaujolais and Nouveau are synonymous. “We need to teach people that not all Beaujolais is going to be $7.99 at Trader Joe’s,” he said.

When Pey first visited the vineyard he ended up buying, it was like fate. The seller was Maison Louis Jadot – one of the biggest players in Burgundy and Beaujolais, and, incidentally, Pey’s first employer in the wine industry. That, coupled with the amazing physical features of the site, made it feel like it was meant to be. He could hardly believe he was able to afford it.

Buying farmland in France as an American is not without bureaucratic headaches. Once the agreement was reached with Jadot, Pey had two options: Either display the transaction at the town hall, giving the possibility to the owners of neighboring plots to pre-empt the sale; or submit to the Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Etablissement Rural (SAFER), a public system in France that reviews farmland sales to ensure land is distributed fairly. (The goal is to prevent the wealthy from owning too much land and to allow small farmers to expand their holdings in order to become profitable.) The SAFER route required Pey to submit to extensive interviews with government officials French, who examined its Beaujolais dignity winemakeror winemaker.

“They wanted to make sure it wasn’t a turnaround,” he said. He had to prove that he spoke French, that he was an experienced winemaker and that he took the vineyard seriously. Obtaining a winemaking license and setting up the business added some additional logistical hassle. But he was ready to go for the 2022 harvest.

Jonathan Pey's Beaujolais vineyard sits above 1,300 feet in elevation and has large granite soils.

Jonathan Pey’s Beaujolais vineyard sits above 1,300 feet in elevation and has large granite soils.

Courtesy of Jonathan Pey

Four acres isn’t much, but the vines are densely planted – 4,000 vines per acre, or about double the standard for a Bay Area vineyard. However, Pey has resigned himself to low yields, at least for now: he is in the process of converting the site to organic farming, which tends to reduce the yield of the vines (perhaps up to 30% ) during the transition.

The growing conditions in Beaujolais this year were not perfect. Hail in the spring reduced the crop load. Irrigation is mostly illegal during the summer months (standard in French wine regions), which exacerbated a hotter than usual summer. Even with those challenges, however, Pey said it looked easy compared to West Marin.

The new venture is bittersweet, Pey said, without longtime winemaker partner Susan Pey. Yet his death may have been a catalyst for him to make the leap to France.

“When you face the loss that I suffered,” he said, “you just think, ‘Let’s do it today.'”

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: