“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

It wasn’t until I was in my midthirties, some twenty odd years ago, that I had my first wine of terroir. It was the 1998 Peter Michael ‘La Carrière’ Chardonnay, a white wine unlike any I had had from California. It seemed to translate something beyond the paradigmatic flavors one normally associates with Chardonnay, something beyond the oak vessels in which it was raised, something beyond the hands that ushered it into the cellar. Even in appearance it was revelatory; it possessed a chartreuse hue. Aromatically, it was oceanic yet earthy. Between notes of brine and saline breezes, the fragrance of cracked rocks, of petrichor, supported scents of freshly cut apples and Meyer lemon curd. There was life to this wine, a certain energy that lent it a presence in the glass. It stood out to me and I took notice.

This wine became the portal through which I entered to learn about wines of place. A writer once defined terroir best and most succinctly as somewhere-ness.

Looking down on Les Pavots at the Knights Valley Estate.

In Burgundy, over nine hundred years ago, the Benedictine order of Cistercian monks mindfully cultivated grapes in inhospitable soils. They took great care, through trial and error, to learn what grew best in the soils surrounding their abbeys. Rather than focus solely on grape varieties, they instead turned their attention toward the permanent—the earth itself, the air, the rocks, the loam. They sought to translate the voice of the elements into a beverage that would reflect the mysteries of the natural world. It is for this reason that, even today, you won’t find the words Pinot Noir or Chardonnay on Burgundian labels. Instead, you find the name of the place, the domain where the wine was born. Place matters most.

The 1998 ‘La Carrière’ Chardonnay could only have originated within the Knights Valley Estate held by Peter Michael Winery. It translates clearly the voice of that singular, nearly vertiginous block, planted as it is to volcanic soils atop bedrock that originated some 3.4 million years ago when the Sonoma Volcanics event left in its wake, among other things, a wall of rhyolite bedrock, which today forms this particular part of Mount Saint Helena.

A view of La Carrière, Belle Côte, and Mon Plaisir. The Chardonnay vineyards are planted at the highest elevations to benefit from the cooling ocean influence.

Curious to learn more about the terroir at the uncommon estates of Peter Michael Winery, I recently sat down with the estates’ Javier Aviña and Robert Fiore, the vineyard manager and winemaker, respectively. Aviña is responsible for planting and overseeing the farming of the La Carrière blocks, among the many other blocks and vineyards within the three estates. Since March of 2020, Fiore has joined the Peter Michael Winery family as winemaker, overseeing all winemaking across these three estates.

As an ardent devotee of nature and an avid weekend driver, I would have favored driving out to the Knights Valley Estate to speak to both men. The tranquil drive there, with its circuitous roads unfolding beside fields of grazing Angus cattle, horse ranches, vineyards, and ancient coast live oaks draped in diaphanous moss, towering over groves of manzanitas and outcroppings of wild lilies, calms the mind and deepens the breath. The smell of chaparral and sage entering through open car windows is transportive. When you’re in Knights Valley, you are in the country, away from the harried world of commerce.

Each varietal—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon—has a dedicated barrel room.

Alas, because of the pandemic, I instead interviewed Aviña and Fiore across the screen of my laptop. I used to lament having to speak to people across a computer screen, but over the last six months, I’ve learned that the power of one’s humanity and longing to connect overrides even the most impersonal modes of technology. When Fiore appears on my screen at 4:00 a.m., neat in appearance, wearing a well-pressed blue shirt, he is bright-eyed and eager to discuss his good fortune at having landed at such a storied winery. Behind him are rows upon rows of jars holding soil and rock samples, all neatly laid on shelves beneath bright office lights. Fiore, an earth scientist who formally studied archaeology at Ohio State and geophysics at the esteemed Colorado School of Mines, is at home among these earthbound jars.

The distance between us seems to compel him to give more of himself to the conversation. He leans into the screen, wiry and energetic, ready to talk about these terroirs that have obviously sparked his imagination. He’s prepared with vineyard maps, which he holds up to the screen frequently to illustrate aspects and orientations. “It’s been very exciting since the get-go,” he tells me. “It is an amazing crown of jewels, not just at the Knights Valley Estate, but at Oakville, which I personally believe is one of the best terroirs in California or the world, and at Seaview, where we have Pinot Noir. It’s a very unique collection of terroirs that Peter Michael Winery has. It’s a dream job.”

Robert Fiore readily samples each wine, studying the characteristics derived from each vineyard.

Fiore knew irrefutably that he had found his winemaking Valhalla when Aviña took him to La Carrière. “I was thunderstruck. I turned to Javier and said, ‘This is amazing! Who would plant this? It’s insanely steep. There’s nothing easy about farming it, but it’s exceptional!’ And Javier said, ‘I did.’ To have a vineyard manager who identified what would become a great vineyard, and despite the challenges, said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Well, I was amazed. And then we did a vertical wine tasting later of the La Carrière wines, and I was elated to see the style and the texture of the wine.”

Granitic rhyolite rock, of volcanic origin, is a primary feature in the soils of the Knights Valley Estate.

When later the same morning I speak to the genial, soft-spoken Aviña, who has farmed the vineyards at Peter Michael Winery since 1991, he confirms that he directed the planting of most of the designates within all three estates. When I ask him about La Carrière’s evolution, he is humble in his response, but it’s clear that his viticulture daring led to the establishment of this now-legendary vineyard. “I started from scratch here. Sir Peter is a straight talker. He asked a couple of times if it was possible to grow a little bit more Chardonnay. I said, ‘Yes, it’s possible.’ By that time [the mid-1990s], I already knew the elevation of the property. I knew the influence of the ocean. We are at 2,000 feet elevation. People would tell me it’s too hot for Chardonnay here, but I thought, not necessarily. I had been tracking the temperatures and air circulation. Hot temperatures didn’t accumulate up that high because of the ocean. The cool air was blowing up high.”

“People would tell me it’s too hot for Chardonnay here, but I thought, not necessarily.”

Aviña says he “removed brush so I could look at the whole picture. We had a company help with soil analysis. We looked at the type of soil, how deep it was, and the orientation. At the time, I didn’t have
a lot of knowledge, but I followed what I saw. It came together pretty well.” Aviña, in a polo shirt with a black mask draped down around his neck, has a broad smile and polite demeanor. He is thoughtful when we speak, often pausing to consider his answers. When I ask him what is most challenging about his job, he smiles and responds that it’s these types of interviews.

Vineyard Manager Javier Aviña has been with Peter Michael for thirty years, leading the development and seasonal management of all three estates.

We both chuckle. When it comes to farming, he has no complaints. “I love working with the land, with the vineyards,” he says. As a teenager, Aviña worked in agricultural fields, farming sugar beets and tomatoes, alongside his brother in California’s Central Valley. I ask him if he relies at all on his intuition while farming. “Definitely,” he says, “I see a lot in the land when I’m working. I don’t have a strong background like a lot of winemakers, but I have energy and dedication and I study the land. That is how I understand it. Vines are like us. Vines like balanced soil. Just like we like balanced food.”

Planted on the undulating hills below Mount Saint Helena, the elevation, orientation, and ideal drainage allow for clusters to evenly ripen.

Each estate has a dedicated, full-time team mindfully managing the vineyards, utilizing low-impact, sustainable practices, including erosion control in advance of winter.

Aviña has been at Peter Michael Winery long enough to have worked with a variety of winemakers, from Mark Aubert to Luc and Nicolas Morlet to Robert Fiore. He describes Fiore as “a good fit” for Peter Michael Winery. “I am planning to support Robert in the whole picture. I don’t want to change anything unless it’s for the good. I don’t want to change anything that is already established because this land has everything we need already.”

Fiore faced a steep learning curve when he arrived at the Knights Valley Estate and leaned heavily on Aviña to show him around. “It’s an exceptionally complex estate. It’s not only a large property, but also elevation-wise; it’s intricate and elevation is a key part of terroir. Closely studying the eight-foot Burgundy map of the Côte-d’Or that I have in my living room at home showed me that the grand crus begin and end in the same elevation band across communes. Here at the estate, elevation is also a key separation, but in this case between varieties: grand cru Chardonnay up higher and grand cru Bordeaux reds lower down.”

The vineyard team and winemaking teams.

“I am fortunate to work with an extraordinary, tight-knit team who has worked together for many years: associate winemaker Emily Raab, cellar master Rafael Aviña, and longtime cellar workers Epifanio Esquivel and Francisco Cruz.”

There are nine different vineyards within the Knights Valley Estate. The vineyard numbers signify when they were originally planted. Vineyard One is Les Pavots. It’s the lowest elevation on the slope at the Knights Valley Estate. There, one will find Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and some Bordeaux reds. Vineyard Two, also within Les Pavots, is solely dedicated to Bordeaux reds. Further up, the Chardonnay vineyards unfold at the highest reaches of the estate’s elevation. Vineyard Three is Belle Côte, which has its own singular terroir, followed by Vineyards Four and Five, which comprise La Carrière. Above that, adjacent to Belle Côte, is Vineyard Six, the location of both Ma Belle-Fille and Mon Plaisir. And Vineyard Nine, which is currently being developed and is as of yet unnamed, will also be devoted to Chardonnay.

The Knights Valley Estate vineyards climb the western slopes of Mount Saint Helena from 900 feet to nearly 2,000 feet.

As Fiore discusses these various vineyards within the Knights Valley Estate, I wonder aloud if he was intimidated at all by the process of having to learn so many terroirs. “I spend a lot of time out in the vineyards. There is an elevation demarcation here similar to what they have in Burgundy: grand cru, premier cru, and the villages model at the bottom. Here it’s more distinct: the Bordeaux blocks appear first, and up higher there are the Chardonnay blocks. In talking with Javier and looking at the data we have on temperatures, it is cooler up where the Chardonnay is planted. On a hot day, it can be six degrees cooler where the Chardonnay is planted, compared to the Les Pavots blocks. When you add that up throughout the growing season, that turns out to be an almost entirely different climate and growing region.”

The French understanding of terroir includes the people who farm it. This seems a particularly elusive concept to grasp, at least for me. I can say with some certainty, though, that my own experience of human beings informing the terroir of a given site appears to be through the practice of intentionality. In order for vineyards to thrive and evolve in a given terroir, the stewards of that land must have an intention toward greatness. Both Fiore and Aviña are ardent in their belief that the Peter Michael family holds this intention for their estate. This is perhaps best illustrated by the family’s “100 x 100” initiative: 100 percent family tenure for 100 years. The family views this commitment as informing not only day-to-day winery and vineyard practices, but the caliber of wine that emerges. This understanding of the human element extends to Fiore, who, in addition to relying on Aviña for guidance and on former Peter Michael winemakers, brothers Nicolas and Luc Morlet, the greatest teacher thus far may be his interaction with the estate itself.

Evening skies over Knights Valley.

In early March of 2020, around the time he joined the estate, his family vacation plans were suddenly halted due to pandemic mandates. It was his son’s spring break, and so, rather than travel, the family decided to camp at the Knights Valley Estate. Though they currently live in a cabin on the grounds, Fiore and his son, then seven, pitched a tent outside. “We would go on ten-mile hikes every day. We’d start at Les Pavots, and then hike all the way to Vineyard Two, then up to Belle Côte and then Ma Belle-Fille—a beautiful viewpoint up above. We hiked all the way to Vineyard Nine. Just boots-on-the-ground to me is the best way to learn the terroir. You notice, as you’re walking, when the soil changes. The way it compacts under your feet. The color of the soil. You pick up the rocks. I carry my rock hammer. I’ve had it since I was thirteen when I began cracking open rocks. That’s part of my story. I’ve always been interested in the earth and natural surroundings.” In 1994, Fiore realized one of his childhood dreams when he worked at a classical archaeological second-century AD Roman bath site in Isthmia, Greece, while studying abroad. “I lived in Ancient Corinth at a family-run hotel. We had five-course, homemade family-style nightly dinners with Greek wine. I gained twenty-five pounds in just three months.”

Each vineyard site is designated by its unique attributes and carries the French name of the wine.

He searched out a USGS (United States Geological Survey) bedrock map, focusing on the quadrangle where the estate is located, and geo-referenced the Knights Valley vineyards in Google Earth with the survey map, overlaying them so he could better study the site. “What is fascinating is that all of our vineyards here in Knights Valley are on rhyolite bedrock. It is an entirely different terroir.

The soils are worked by hand.

That was a really interesting discovery for me. Whether it was by plan or good fortune, we’re in a very good spot terroir-wise. Then you have the soils that sit on the bedrock, which are a different thing because they can be washed down or can be from a different origin. Or they can be weathered in place. I discovered that we have volcanic ash . . . what they call tuff . . . and we also have the solidified lava itself. Mount Saint Helena is part of a caldera. The Sonoma Volcanics was the event for all the volcanic activity in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Rhyolite is the most explosive of volcanic forms.”

Mount Saint Helena overlooks the vineyards.

Vineyard blocks within vineyard designates that form the estate recall for Fiore the time he spent in Burgundy. “You can be in a grand cru site, and within 150 meters, you’re in a premier cru, and 150 meters from that, you’re in a villages designation. I used to be very skeptical about Burgundian designations,” Fiore says now. But in 2014, while studying at the University of California, Davis, he received a rare fellowship, bestowed by the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, allowing him to study terroir in Volnay, Burgundy, for three and a half months. During that time, he worked with Michel and Frédéric Lafarge, at Domaine Michel Lafarge.

“They were very supportive of my studies and they were very interested as well,” Fiore says. “So they allowed me to dig in each of their premier cru, village, and regional vineyards and compare the soils, break rocks, take a look. I acquired a geologic map from the local bookstore in Beaune, and I superimposed it with all the vineyards and found geologically how different their sites were within Volnay. I discovered why their terroir tastes different; a lot of it was directly related to the actual rocks, soil, and elevation, where you are on a hill. Soil moves over the years. So the drainage on the bottom, where the soil gathers, collects more water, resulting in wines that are not as good as they are somewhere in the middle of the slope

So I was able to investigate and taste extensively within the Volnay commune. I discovered a common thread, an expression that was consistent. That was ground-truthing. That’s when I knew terroir was real. I was very excited. I wanted to come back to the United States and find a place like that here, where people are that interested in all these variables. I found that here at Peter Michael Winery. Their approach is very Burgundian. They are in this for the long haul. They have made the commitment. That’s as good as it gets. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. It’s the terroir and the commitment of the family. It’s the wine. It’s a great challenge for any winemaker, but for someone who is keen on terroir, it’s a fascinating proposition.”

The Knights Valley Estate covers nearly 700 acres, though only 140 acres are planted. The remainder is left as a wildlife corridor to preserve the native ecosystem.

Terroir is also informed by plant life, trees, and wildlife. On their long hikes together, Fiore tells me that he and his son spotted “kestrels and other raptors. And there is an abundance of wild turkeys running around. In fact, yesterday morning there was a rafter of them with eight or nine poults (baby chicks). We also see a lot of turkey vultures here. There are rattlesnakes and skunks. Outside our cabin, we always see deer walk by.” And though he has yet to see one himself, black bears have been spotted in the Les Pavots block. “They sample the grapes. That’s been an indicator of when things are ripe down there.” Of the tree life, Fiore enjoys the variation, with oak trees, laurels, and hardwoods in abundance, and, as one climbs higher, pines, conifers, and wild sage. “When you hike as high as Vineyard Nine, you have the forest above you.”

While Aviña was in Burgundy just last year, he used his time there to drive from commune to commune, studying the climate, the soils, and the aspects. Highly inquisitive by nature, he engaged with locals, learning as much as he could about individual terroirs, later tasting those wines and discussing them with winemakers to better understand the subtleties of each site. From his travels, and from having worked with a number
of winemakers at Peter Michael Winery, Aviña has concluded that although winemakers come and go, “terroir does not change. The land is everything. The soil does not change. The quality will always continue.” During a recent trip to South Africa, Aviña tasted many of the continent’s wines, which he described as having “great potential.” While there, Aviña enjoyed South African braai, the native barbecue, with locals in Cape Town. “The people there are beautiful,” he says. “Very good people.”

As he’d done in Burgundy, Aviña spent time observing vineyards and speaking to farmers and winemakers alike about their practices. “This is how I learn more,” he tells me.

Terroir does not change. The land is everything.

“Aviña spent time observing vineyards and speaking to farmers and winemakers.”

As if understanding as complex a piece of land as the Knights Valley Estate weren’t enough, Aviña also oversees farming at the other two Peter Michael estates; Oakville and the Seaview Vineyard in Fort Ross-Seaview. It takes Aviña about forty minutes to drive to the Oakville Estate, which he tries to do daily during harvest. When the winery first acquired the Oakville Estate, it needed work. Aviña spearheaded the revitalization of this site. “We started from scratch. We changed the irrigation. Before, it was not well cultivated. It took a lot of work to develop it. I surprised myself. I am feeling so good about this vineyard. I changed the farming completely—how it was farmed before and how it’s farmed now. I definitely can see that year by year the wine improves.” It’s clear when we discuss Oakville that Aviña is proud of his efforts, but he’s quick to praise his foreman, Mario, whom he says “knows the vineyard even better than me.”

Millions of years ago, a catastrophic geologic event left behind the now-famous iron-rich debris.

Oakville’s acclaimed “red dirt” highlights the soil between the vineyard rows.

Fiore was over the moon when he visited Oakville for the first time. “When I learned about the Oakville site, one of the best terroirs in the Napa Valley, I thought to myself, How does it get better than that?! It was a thrill to learn where it was. Within Oakville, it’s one of the highest vineyards. The volcanic event that formed Pritchard Hill also formed the bench the Oakville Estate sits on. It’s a very unique spot. You’re not on top of the mountain, but it’s very different than in the valley — very red, acidic volcanic soils. I am a great admirer of wines that come from this sub-appellation.” Like Aviña, Fiore visits Oakville nearly daily, and now with harvest underway, he is at the site with great frequency, sampling fruit.

Red Bordeaux varieties thrive in the Oakville Estate’s idyllic climate.

The drive out to the Seaview Estate, in coastal Fort Ross, is considerably longer and takes about an hour and a half to reach. Although he visits the Seaview Estate frequently, Aviña relies heavily on his vineyard crew, headed by Jesús, whom he credits with farming the three separate blocks of Pinot Noir there with “focus and attention. They stay on top of it there, because Pinot Noir is very sensitive.” Fiore has been exploring the Seaview Estate with greater frequency and camped there with his son, whom he says “can now give a tour of the property himself. He gave my wife a tour of all three vineyards!”

From grapes to glass, the volcanic soils define the minerality found in the final wines.

Fiore has a great passion for Pinot Noir, which he personally feels translates terroir perhaps more intimately than any other grape variety. When we begin to discuss this extreme maritime site, he becomes visibly excited and leans even closer to the screen. He describes the drive out to Seaview as “beautiful, going through the Russian River, all the way through Jenner, and then going up north. The first few times I went, the fog was so thick I wondered why they called it Seaview, because there’s no view of the sea! It reminded me of the Ocean View Trail and Muir Woods, where there’s hardly ever a view of the ocean,” he says, chuckling.

On the shaded, eastern slopes of the Seaview Estate, native ferns thrive in the damp forest

Less than a mile away from the Seaview Estate lies the Pacific Ocean.

Several Le Caprice Pinot Noir blocks, nestled between forests, are oriented in an east-northeast exposure

“It’s a gorgeous drive; incredibly close to the ocean. Then, you drop down from this ridgeline on the road and there you are, in exceptionally steep vineyards. When my son and I went camping there, we wanted to find a flat place to pitch our tent. We hiked through all three sets of vineyard blocks and we pitched down in one of the very few flat places in the entire vineyard.” He compares the Seaview Estate to Hermitage in the Rhône Valley, which is an incredibly steep hillside. The vineyards that comprise the Seaview Estate are very distinct from one another; so much so that they result in three singular labels, each dedicated to a precise block within Seaview. “They’re separate from each other, some by about a quarter of a mile,” Fiore tells me. “They’re not contiguous. There are swaths of trees between each block. Terroir-wise, they’re all facing slightly different angles at different elevations. I was out there sampling recently and some blocks are definitely much further ahead than others. Just like in Burgundy, the premier crus come in first, because they’re in the best ripening spots. If it’s warmer, they’ll ripen sooner.” For the longest time, Fiore held the idea that if something had a longer hang time, it would naturally be better. But his work in Burgundy and now at Seaview has disabused him of that notion: the best blocks are the early-ripening blocks at this Pacific site.

At the Seaview Estate, each block is planted uniformly to the most compatible Pinot Noir clone.

Clearly taken by Seaview, he describes it as “an extraordinary site for Pinot Noir. If you could design a vineyard in fantasy land, this would be it. The vines are immaculate, uniform, meticulously taken care of by Javier, Jesús (the foreman), and their crew. They do a great job. It’s remarkable. Not many people get to see Seaview. Basically, just the people who work here and maybe a few guests over the years.”

The dedicated vineyard teams have worked the estates for years, learning how to incrementally improve their practices with each vintage.

The three vineyard designates within Seaview of which Fiore speaks so fondly are Le Caprice, at between 1,000 and 1,500 feet elevation, with rocky alluvial sediments, volcanic material, and clay. It has an east and northeast orientation and is named for the oftentimes capricious nature of its namesake variety. Clos du Ciel is grown on the southernmost section of Seaview, and enjoys the greatest sun exposure. It, too, is at a high elevation of between 1,000 and 1,500 feet and is oriented toward the east and northeast. The third block, Ma Danseuse, has a special resonance with Fiore. It is the northernmost block and the coolest and results in a wine of feminine elegance. Fiore is fond of the name, too, which translated means “my dance partner.”

While Sir Peter named the wine in honor of his wife, Maggie, who was an avid ballroom dancer, Fiore, a dancer himself, met his wife of over twenty years in a ballroom class at the Colorado School of Mines. “We have danced consistently throughout our marriage. Tango, salsa, waltz, swing, cha-cha. Dance and music are a big part of our lives. I also play bass guitar, guitar, and some piano. And my son is now learning piano and how to dance salsa. He enjoys it. He’s the one who asked if he could go to classes!”

While we’re talking, Fiore informs me that he and his wife have just purchased a home in Napa, which, incredibly, they’ll be moving into the next day, even despite the hectic demands of harvest. While they were home-shopping, hardwood floors were a requirement. “So we can have dance soirées at our house,” he says with a broad smile.

Three generations of the Michael family have been a part of the Knights Valley Estate since Sir Peter Michael and Lady Maggie discovered the site in 1982: Sir Peter; Paul and Emily, and their children, Elliot, Anna, and Mylo, along with Tucker, the estate mascot.

Three generations of the Michael family have been a part of the Knights Valley Estate since Sir Peter Michael and Lady Maggie discovered the site in 1982: Sir Peter; Paul and Emily, and their children, Elliot, Anna, and Mylo, along with Tucker, the estate mascot.

When later the same morning, I ask Aviña what he enjoys doing when he’s not working, he’s quick to answer that his favorite pastime is being in his backyard with his wife, Elsa, and their three children. He enjoys manning the barbecue, and his favorite meal is fresh salmon from the nearby Pacific, which he buys locally and prepares with grilled vegetables. “I never had a vegetable I didn’t like,” Aviña says, laughing. To accompany these backyard meals, Aviña often turns to a crisp glass of Chardonnay or an elegant Pinot Noir, as he believes both accompany seafood perfectly. “I have a big memory and I hold a lot about wine in my mind. I don’t write a lot down, but I can remember vintages and wines. An advantage I have is my nephew, Rafa, who has been working in the cellar at Peter Michael Winery for twenty-five years. He tells me everything about the wines in the barrels. Things he’s picking up in the barrels or things he hears from the winemakers. So we spend a lot of time together in his home or in my home, talking about wine. We can spend five hours talking about our wines and I learn a lot. At this point, I have a good palate because I put a lot of energy into it.”

When Aviña isn’t enjoying a glass of wine from Peter Michael Winery, he’s pouring a wine a colleague has shared with him, for another favorite pastime of his is breaking bread with other winemakers, exchanging wines, and learning from one another. “I love that a lot,” Aviña says. As our remote interview nears its conclusion, I thank Aviña for his time and ask him if there’s anything he’d like to add. “No, not really,” he says, his hands folded in front of him. Then he pauses, thinks, and smiles broadly before adding, “I want to say, especially to Sir Peter, that they have become like family to me. And that I hope I have another hundred years here…a little more time to learn this property.”