A Day in the Life of a Sonoma Winemaker at Harvest

Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards takes the long road at harvest.

“Organization is most of this job; cleaning is the other half,” jokes winemaker Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards. Her office exposes the truth: There are stacks of thick binders with meticulously coded tabs, color-patterned charts, and towers of sticky notes and logbooks tracking the infinite, minute details of winemaking, from press fractions to punchdown schedules to fermentation temperatures.

One binder focuses on the ripening status of what seems like every cluster of the fog-enshrouded, 53-acre hilltop estate vineyards in Annapolis, 4 miles from the coast, which she manages with her husband, Peay winegrower Nick Peay. A separate log details intricate daily sanitation schedules—everything from scrubbing floors to sanitizing empty tanks and steaming barrels—at their boutique winery in Cloverdale.

Vanessa Wong and Nick Peay of Peay Vineyards. (Kim Carroll)
The Wong-Peay home in Healdsburg. (Kim Carroll)

Now in her 35th vintage, the Healdsburg resident says such obsessiveness is simply a way of life. They are lessons she’s learned through a storied career, including stints at Peter Michael Winery in Calistoga and France’s Château Lafite-Rothschild. Her signature wines—elegant, aromatic Pinot Noir (her goal, she says, is to make it “hedonistically pleasing”) and Chardonnay that sings with beautiful citrus and mineral notes—attest to the rigor of her daily practice.

Running a tight ship is absolutely necessary to survive the grueling time that is harvest season, she insists. “Nick and I work together, and I told him, if you calculate it, for the time harvest takes you away from your kids, every six years, you miss out on a year of your child’s life,” she says of their two children. “It’s like being in the military.”

5:45 A.M.

Wake up. Coffee!

6 A.M.

I leave home to make the hour-and-a-half drive over Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road to our vineyards. I visit every day to take cluster samples and taste the grapes from each block, making audio notes on my phone. Nick usually leaves with a load of fruit while I’m there, and I’ll call the winery to let them know how much is coming and where to put it.

11 A.M.

I drive back to the winery, wishing there was a human drone to pick me up. It’s such a winding, skinny road to the Sonoma Coast.

12:30 P.M.

I process grape samples, do all my analyses, taste the juice, transcribe my vineyard notes, log all the data. Then I study the weather and historical forecast, calculate grape tonnage, and review my Brix charts. I always tell our crew, ‘Don’t ask me what we’re picking tomorrow before 2 o’clock,’ because it will make me grumpy. And then I taste through the fermentation samples and check all of our tanks for temperatures and cap management.

3 P.M. 

I get to eat! I don’t like eating anything before tasting grapes and juice. I pack two sandwiches— very plain, like bread and tomatoes.

3:30 P.M.

I establish our crew’s work orders for the next day and go through the tasks on my master list all over again. Sometimes it takes forever; all the little things add up to so much time. In between, I check on my kids, to make sure they’re not eating junk food and playing video games all day.

6 P.M.

I have dinner, maybe with Nick if he is there. Or sometimes I have to go back to the vineyards, where the main hazards are wildlife and logging trucks on the road at twilight, when I’m so super-tired.

7 P.M.

I triple-check my list and plan out the next day. We need to know which grapes are coming in so we can hand-sort the clusters on a conveyor to get out the leaves, stems, and shriveled grapes. And we need to know how much red or white we’re getting, because each has a different press process. We are very gentle with our grapes, because we don’t like how machines can abuse the beautiful fruit we so carefully grew.

10 P.M.

I go home and try to shut off my brain. Harvest usually lasts 8 to 10 weeks. I do not get a single day off. Both Nick and I are gone about 100 hours a week. (Wong points to a note pinned to her wall, written in a child’s scrawl.) “Hi Mom! Have a good sleep,” it reads. “What is it like out at the winery? Is it hard? Thank you for working hard.”

Peay Vineyards

Winemaker Vanessa Wong and her husband, winegrower Nick Peay, make Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Voignier, and more from estate fruit grown in the newly-designated West Sonoma Coast AVA, the 19th AVA in Sonoma County. They also source Pinot Noir from the famous Savoy Vineyard in the Anderson Valley. Their second label, Cep, offers excellent value Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from other local vineyards. Tastings are offered daily at the winery in Cloverdale, and current releases are available at the winery or through the website.

707-894-8720, peayvineyards.com