We are changing the landscape, but at the same time, we are preserving the landscape,” says Herb Westfall, who for nearly thirty years has performed the duties of estate manager at Peter Michael Winery.

When Herb arrived at the Knights Valley property in 1991, he was tasked with maintaining the first planting of what would eventually number about ten thousand trees introduced by the Michael family to protect the estate’s watershed.

“I remember irrigating these young trees. They were maybe 5 feet tall at the time. Now when I walk out there, I’ll see one of those trees, and it’s about 24 inches in diameter and 80 to 100 feet tall. That’s a big reward, seeing those little tiny trees get huge over time. The work has paid off.”

The “work” Herb is referring to is the thoughtful undertaking of conservation. For the Michael family, Herb says, the key to conservation is understanding that they are guardians of the land, and that even though they are altering the estate, they intend to leave the landscape healthier and more balanced than it was prior to their stewardship.

Sir Peter on the bank of Kellogg Creek.

When the Michael family acquired their estate in 1982, it had been previously grazed by cattle and planted with prune plums, pears, apples, and table (not wine) grapes. The property had a long history of agriculture, with the original founder, F. E. Kellogg, a farmer and stock raiser, establishing a legacy of animal husbandry at the site. A township named for Kellogg once stood where the Peter Michael Winery is situated today.

Paul Michael on the porch of the original Alexander Valley School building, which stood at the entrance to the valley and served as inspiration to the school house design at Knights Valley.

Kellogg Creek overflows the banks with winter rains.

Sir Peter oversees the construction of the winery “school house” and fermentation room, which were designed to reflect the original Kellogg town architecture.

In an effort to conserve a part of the region’s history, one of Kellogg’s original homes, built in the 1880s, now serves as the Sir Peter Michael family residence. The winery itself and the administrative buildings surrounding it stand where the Kellogg schoolhouse, post office, and hardware store once stood. Kellogg Creek feeds into Redwood Creek, the estate’s two vital water systems. Running the length of the estate—3 miles long from top to bottom—both creeks are critical to the ecosystem of the estate and surrounding environs. However, both are highly susceptible to intrusion from erosion, animal life, and agricultural runoff.

Although a large part of the estate remains protected as forestland, the Michael family did, of course, convert a portion of the parcel to vineyard land. In so doing, they were keen to preserve two crucial aspects of the estate: the watershed and the health of the soil. Water and soil management are crucial for sustaining a delicate ecosystem, ensuring that it remains balanced, regenerative, and harmonious. This requires paying close attention to the landscape throughout the year.

“That’s the key thing,” says Herb. “Preserving the soil—by preventing it from washing away in the creeks. Because creeks have natural erosion, they move around from year to year. During a big rain year, you have tremendous volumes of water coming down. And we also get boulders the size of bowling balls coming down like tumbleweeds. You can hear them crashing to the ground during a storm. Boom! Boom!”

During dramatic winter storms, natural erosion occurs, causing culverts to overflow. Runoffs that follow the contours of the vineyard will travel to a common spot and drop into an intricate drainage system developed at the estate. Those drains empty into a buffered system of straw waddles and settling areas. Grass seed is also put out for further erosion control. By the time the runoff has leeched through the settling areas and waddles, the water emerges into the creeks crystal clear.

The Michael family has received credentials from the Fish Friendly Farming Certification Program, sponsored by the California Land Stewardship Institute, for their constant and focused protection of the Kellogg and Redwood Creeks. Not only do fish thrive in the creeks; sustaining the health of this watershed has also fostered the return of native turtles and a natural mitigation of invasive bullfrogs. Both of these phenomena indicate that this ecosystem is recovering its natural balance.

Trees occasionally fall into the creek, diverting the water flow and disrupting the watershed. Those trees are promptly removed. Non-native invasive blackberry vines growing along the creek bed can attract all manner of wild animals who pollute the creek water with their waste and also disturb the creek’s flow with their foot traffic. Therefore, these vines are trimmed accordingly. “We have to be conscientious of the nature that surrounds the creek and impacts it.”

Herb, who grew up next door to the estate, says, “I can see the house I grew up in every day. It was an old adobe house with 32-inch-thick walls of mud and horsehair, built in 1840 by General Vallejo as a gift to Lieutenant Berryessa—a hunting lodge. At that time, there were grizzly bears on Mount Saint Helena, and they were captured and brought down to the valley where they were made to fight buffalos,” Herb says. When he was a boy, fishing was legally allowed from Kellogg and Redwood Creeks, and fish them he did.

“I used to fish this creek for trout and steelhead when I was a boy. The steelhead still come up from the Russian River. They travel about 40 miles through switchbacks to get here. They’ll come upriver to spawn in our creek. The magical thing about steelhead is that they can spawn in fresh water and then return to the sea to live, whereas a salmon will spawn and then die there. Steelhead that are hatched can stay in fresh water for their entire lives, but usually after two years, they’ll go to the ocean. And when they return, they return to their native beds. Whether it’s the smell or the temperature of the water, they know where they came from,” Herb says.

Estate manager Herb Westfall grew up next door to the estate and has managed the ranch since 1991.

He remembers one particularly dry drought year a few years ago. The creeks got so low that the water came to a standstill. “Some of the shallower pools were drying up and we were afraid the fish might die. Sir Peter Michael grabbed his grandkids and I grabbed my son and we told them, ‘Start grabbing fish!’ The kids threw the fish in buckets and we moved them to areas of the creek with more water, and so they all survived.”

As a child, Herb recalls fishing in Kellogg Creek for steelhead on their journey up from the Russian River to spawn.

In 2019, the Kincade Fire, which traveled through the Chalk Hill area of Knights Valley, stopped at the Peter Michael Winery—but sadly, not before destroying a significant percentage of the estate’s protected forestland. The Michael family continue a replanting program for the burned areas with native grasses, brush, and trees.

Herb continued, “We have some old redwood trees on the property that survived a big fire here in 1964. These same trees survived the Kincade Fire. They’re scarred on both sides, but still, they stand. What’s neat about conservation here at the estate is that the Michael family really does believe in having the property emerge better and healthier than they found it after any natural or other event. Their commitment to protecting the watershed is evident and the estate, the creeks, the vineyards are testimony to that…they’re all very healthy, which is evident in the natural beauty of the place.”

Since acquiring the ranch, the Michael family has planted nearly ten thousand native trees to protect the watersheds. Here, Paul Michael looks up at some of the redwoods today, towering nearly 80 to 100 feet tall.