In June 2024, Sir Peter Michael shared elements of his autobiography, Le Chapeau Blanc - documented across five chapters of his life.

Chapter 1: Early DaysChapter 2: The Legacy Begins | Chapter 3: Expanding Horizons | Chapter 4: A Winery is Born | Chapter 5: Heritage & History

The sky above is moody, overcast, as I make my way to the main house at the eponymously named Knights Valley estate of Sir Peter Michael. Flowering dogwood trees send pink and white bursts of color into the grey morning, punctuating a light mist with colors so bright the blossoms seem lit from within.

At the top of a wooden staircase leading to a well-appointed patio sits Sir Peter Michael, patiently navigating the suggestions and recommendations of two camera men, here to interview him on this day in his eighty-fifth year. They hover over him, performing sound-checks, asking him to turn this way and that, adjusting his microphone. A pro, he’s accommodating, even amused, and interrupts only when his daughter-in-law, Emily, asks if he’d like a cup of coffee. Yes, please.

Always a sharp if understated dresser, he is wearing a signature Panama hat, this time straw, rather than bright white, which he reserves for more formal occasions. He’s curious about the videographer’s equipment, and during quiet intervals asks after the cameras they’re using, the sound, the lighting. Sir Peter has just penned his autobiography, which unfolds here in these pages, and I’ve come to chat with him about his storied, adventurous life.

By his own admission, Sir Peter was a middling student until the age of 15, when he discovered physics. A facility with physics gave the young Peter a much-needed confidence, which he carried with him as his life broadened: A fascination with digital electronics compelled him to establish Quantel, a company which designed digital production equipment and was responsible for the popular Quantel Paintbox, which changed the face of broadcast journalism. He founded Classic FM, which brought classical music to public radio, and by extension, countless countrymen. At the age of 50, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Throughout his life, he has answered a personal call of service by establishing several charitable organizations. He is an avid art collector and shares this passion with others, having spearheaded a sculpture garden at the Knight’s Valley estate, and an esteemed permanent collection at the family’s Vineyard Hotel in South London.

And, to hear Sir Peter tell of the birth of Peter Michael Winery is to listen to a veritable love letter to California. It was the 1970’s and television was (and remains) an international business. Sir Peter soon found himself working in the San Francisco Bay Area, where television stations were keen to update their studios with the kind of state-of-the-art equipment his companies were producing. With offices inside San Francisco’s Embarcadero, Sir Peter began to fall in love with California.

At the airport, the first time he flew into SFO, he was greeted with a garland of fresh flowers. From there, he was enchanted by the sunshine. The open smiles. Fresh air. The coastal and mountainous vistas.

Soon, too, he fell in love with the wines of California. Having grown up with an appreciation for Bordeaux wines, fostered mostly by his father, Sir Peter took a shine to California wines in the mid-70s during his frequent trips to the Golden State. One night, while listening to Peggy Lee in concert at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, Sir Peter ordered a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from the Napa Valley after two white Burgundies he ordered had been off. The Napa white “knocked our socks off”, he says, and that wine, along with the beauty of California, inspired Sir Peter to set down roots in Northern California.

As he recounts his many adventures, he sometimes seems to have surprised himself with all he has achieved. He is not shy to recount what he’s most proud of---namely, his philanthropic work---but does so without a hint of arrogance. He’s a man of confidence; just as the etymology of that word suggests, a man with trust in himself, in his own intuitions and hunches.

A genteel force in her own right, “Lady M”, as she is affectionately called, has deepened and widened both her and Sir Peter’s life, supporting his visionary plans while cultivating her own. Together, they raised a family, various businesses, and created nothing short of a family legacy.

And, yet Sir Peter is resistant, almost uncomfortable, when I use words like “legend” and “icon” around him. He cringes a little whenever attention is turned too directly toward him. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles when I get too hyperbolic and effusive with compliments. One gets the sense from Sir Peter that to do meaningful work is far more interesting than talking about it or getting celebrated for it. There’s a sense that he still has much he’d like to accomplish, his eyes set firmly on the horizon.

The morning has meandered while we’ve been chatting, the camera men slowly packing up their equipment as the day begins to warm. The sky above has become hazy, a soft, bright glow peeking through the sky. We stand to stretch, exchange a few more pleasantries than say our goodbyes. A handshake turns into a hug, and then I’m off, back down the staircase, turning once to glimpse that straw Panama hat reflecting an emerging sunlight.

Original art and poem by Edward Monkton