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by Dan Berger

Starting out in the wine business in an unknown area is always a daunting task, especially when you’ve already experienced 50 harvests.

This is a story of renewal, a tale of one man’s passion for wine that’s endless and embodies the concepts of curiosity, a quest for vinous manifest destiny, and a mandate that truth and quality be at the heart of everything.

Jonathan Pey had already experienced more than 25 harvest in the Napa Valley “and a like amount in west Marin,” he says, dodging various viticultural nightmares like drought and smoky forest fires.

His beloved wife and wine/gourmet food partner, Susan, passed away at age 52 in 2016, and Jonathan pledged to continue her passion, great wine.

He did so, using several labels, one of which was Textbook. Several of his wines were phenomenal successes -- for people like me, who appreciate balance, structure, moderate alcohol, low oak, and above all precision.

That, alas, wasn’t enough. Although the Textbook wines were classics through the 2019 vintage, selling them during an era when huge alcohol and massive oak flavors were dominant had to be truly frustrating.

He was restless. What to do? “I finally decided to adjust my viticultural geography to France,” he says. “I had lived, studied, and worked in wine in France, off and on, since the 1970’s. So, it was a natural starting point.”

But re-ordering your life is not an easy task. He already knew the growers with whom he worked in California. He also owned vineyards in cool west Marin County and was comfortable making the wines that a few of us really adored. But he was never all that satisfied. 

He says, “For years I researched French wine regions, climate, soils, rainfall . . . tasting all the while. Where is a region that offers promise? Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy? Ah, too expensive - my last name is not Rothschild. Languedoc, Provence, or the Rhone? More drought and fires. I already had those in Napa.”

His research in France finally took him to a captivating place somewhat off the beaten path, to Beaujolais.

But this was no ordinary Beaujolais – the bland Nouveau wines from lower-lying Bas Beaujolais, those common, cheap, fruity, simplistic light reds that’re made for frivolity. Jonathan was fascinated by the great versions, Cru Beaujolais to the north part of the district, “the high elevation rocky hills of Morgon and Fleurie.”

There is a vast difference between most of Beaujolais and the smaller northerly district that produces Cru wines from 10 separate and exalted districts. The 10 are each designated separately because they produce unique characteristics. Most Cru Beaujolais are widely respected by connoisseurs who understand their uniqueness.

And unlike Nouveau Beaujolais, which is normally released just weeks after the harvest and is consumed well before the end of the year in celebratory situations -- and sells for $12 to $15 a bottle, the Crus are serious. They typically sell for between $25 and $60 per bottle.

It was in two of the best Cru areas, Morgon and Fleurie, that he found “plentiful water, cooler temps, amazing pink granite soils, very old vines, and more.”

Finally, he purchased two 70-year-old vineyards in the hills, “in Morgon (Belleview, 3 acres) and Fleurie (Fonfotin, 2 acres). The vineyards are planted with the traditional grape, Gamay Noir a jus Blanc. They are between 1,300 and 1,600 feet in altitude. 

It is well-known that high-altitude vineyards produce wines with excellent structure and balance. This is a style that’s exactly the kind that Jonathan had always made and revered.

Says Jon, “As you know, French vintners in California are very common, but a Napa vintner in Morgon and Fleurie? Sacré bleu – quelle scandale!

“Joking aside, I have found a region full of young vintners just starting their own viticultural journeys, many of whom didn’t inherit vineyards, a chateau, or money from their parents

“Instead of relying on inheritance, my new neighbors here have great ideas, unbridled enthusiasm, a certain grit and can start their own dreams on their own terms. I’m surrounded by their energy and enthusiasm. And as an experienced Californian investing in their poor and often-forgotten region, I have been made to feel very welcome.” 

He says his decision to move to Beaujolais was partially based on environmental issues. He is converting his old Gamay Noir vines to certified organic farming and he is using draft horses and sheep to till and mow without any diesel fuel.

Isn’t this expensive? Yes, he admits, but it’s his passion.

“I’ve introduced the first bat boxes and insect ‘hotels’ to encourage biodiversity and we’re having regenerative (farming) discussions.”

Also, he investigated packaging issues and chose a lighter weight recycled glass bottle, recycled cotton label paper with compostable inks, a natural cork, and no capsule made of tin, aluminum or petroleum-based wax.

“Perhaps because of my age, I’ve grown weary of some of the marketing BS that takes place in our industry today, especially around words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic.’ … So I added a section to my website called ‘Trade Tools/Banter or BS?’ where I state my points of view on these important subjects…”

He adds, “It’s heresy to my vintner colleagues, but I’m publishing all my organic certifications and all lab analyses online to prove I am farming organically and (reveal) the SO2 and alcohol and sugar levels in my wines.”

Pey just released his first wine. Only 345 cases produced. 

Wine of the Week: 2022 Domaine Jonathan Pey Morgon, “Bellevue” ($34.50):  Classic raspberry and plum aromas with a faintest trace of pepper mark the initial aroma. The wine improves markedly with several hours of air. Relatively rich entry, finish is superb. Best served with medium-weight foods. There are some tannins for structure, but impeccably balanced.