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Sir Peter Michael’s journey from Silicon Valley to Knights Valley

Today, it stands as one of California’s most high-end wineries. But for its British polymath owner, the journey from Silicon Valley to Knights Valley was far from straightforward. Sir Peter Michael talks to Adam Lechmere about tech, wine and family

Words by Adam Lechmere

peter michaels, his daughter emily and her husband paul clinking glasses of wine
The Collection
Sir Peter Michael with daughter-in-law Emily and son Paul

The Peter Michael Winery must be the least well-known famous winery in California. If you’re a certain type of wine lover, the name will be perfectly familiar, but many who are intimate with the celebrated vineyards of Napa and Sonoma still find it – and the name behind it – hard to place.

There are several reasons for this. For a start, you’re never quite sure if the winery is in Sonoma or Napa, though this only adds to the slight air of enchantment that surrounds it. It’s actually set in the Sonoma County AVA of Knights Valley, which is almost unfeasibly remote. Indeed, as its website reports, it’s one of the few places in California that’s become more rural over the past half-century. There was a town, but most of it burned down in the 1960s. There are no hotels or tasting rooms, no post office. The wineries – there are a couple of others besides Peter Michael, and big Sonoma operators like Arrowood and Clos du Bois have vineyards there – use a Calistoga mailing address.

peter michael sat in a chair
Peter Michael: ‘I’m just the old man. I’m content to sit back and criticise and leave them to sort out the problems' (photo by Julian Anderson)

The winery’s founder, Sir Peter Michael, is no less self-effacing. ‘I like to keep a low profile,’ he says. ‘I do things in my own time, and I don’t really like the media following me around.’ He was brought up in Shirley, a stolid, resolutely unglamorous London suburb. A successful high-tech engineer – Quantel, the company he founded in 1973, developed Paintbox, a revolutionary forerunner of Adobe Photoshop – he’s also a prolific entrepreneur, starting a new company every year for 30 years. (‘Some of them are still going,’ he says in his mild way.) In 1991, having just netted £60m from the sale of the global electronics company UEI, he put £3m into the founding of the radio station Classic FM. He loves music, yes, but one suspects a powerful motivation was the fact that everyone told him a commercial classical music station would never work. ‘We went to 50 financial analysts, and 49 of them – including the Financial Times – said it would fail.’ He was cornered at a party by the head of BBC Radio 3. ‘He was known as the toughest guy in the media, and physically a very big man. He was jabbing a forefinger at me and saying, “No one will listen to classical music with adverts. You’re going to go broke.”’ Classic FM now has a weekly audience of 5.6 million. ‘It’s brought more pleasure to more people than anything else I’ve done.’

They told me I was going to go broke. Well, I didn’t think so

Knighted 30 years ago for services to industry, at 83 Sir Peter is still actively engaged in pioneering technology. He peppers our conversation with references to new bits of vineyard tech he has an interest in: an electric tractor that he’s working on with the Mondavi family; and an activated carbon bagging device that he has developed with the University of Adelaide to protect grapes from smoke taint. He’s also a key member of a team at Imperial College London working on a coronavirus testing system. When I ask what part he plays in this project, his reply gives an indication of his skill-set. ‘Software, micro-electronics, micro-fluidics, biochemistry, biology, manufacturing, commerce, regulations et cetera. I’ve done all that many times. So that’s my contribution.’

The vineyard was by no means an impulse purchase. In the early 1980s he was working in Silicon Valley and, inspired by California’s success in the 1976 Paris Tasting, he started looking for suitable properties. He drew up some basic criteria. ‘It had to be within reach of San Francisco; it had to be big and liveable, and I had to be able to grow grapes. This particular square mile had a river running through it. The moment I saw it, I bought it. I paid a million dollars.’ This was 1982, and there were very few people making wine on the hillsides in Napa and Sonoma. The vines were planted a year later. ‘The locals were pretty condescending. They said, “It’s going to cost you two or three times what it costs on the valley floor, and you’re going to get half the yield out of it.”’ One vintner told him his wine tasted ‘like cat’s piss’.

sir peter michael holding a panama hat
Sir Peter Michael, with signature Panama, describes his path to becoming a winemaker as 'a white-knuckle ride' (photo by Julian Anderson)

He was undeterred. ‘They told me I was going to go broke. Well, I didn’t think so,’ he murmurs. Peter Michael Winery today has 149 acres (60ha) of Knights Valley, plus vineyards on the Sonoma Coast and in Napa’s Oakville, and there’s no doubting the esteem in which the winery is held.

It’s been ‘a driving force for truly fine wines that capture the unique sense of place’, says Christopher Barefoot, vice president of communications at Opus One. Will Harlan, whose father Bill is the same age as Sir Peter, calls him ‘a wonderful vintner to share the industry with’. Jamie Ritchie, head of Sotheby’s global wine business, credits the winery with ‘laying the path for all the best-quality Chardonnays’ from the region and ‘setting a new benchmark of quality as a role model for classically structured California Pinots’. The flagship Bordeaux blends Au Paradis and Les Pavots, Ritchie told me, ‘will define their places in the highest-quality Cabernet firmament over the next 15 years’.

I’m not a winemaker or a hotelier – I’m a businessman

I meet Sir Peter Michael first over Zoom and then, later, with his son Paul and daughter-in-law Emily, at The Vineyard at Stockcross. He opened this luxury hotel and spa 40 miles west of London in 1996 and gradually turned it into a centre of excellence for US wine. The hotel – and its wine merchant arm The Vineyard Cellars – together have one of the most comprehensive American wine lists in the world. In person, Sir Peter is small and spare and fit-looking. He has the air of a man who is still quietly in command, although he’s handed over the day-to-day running of the business to Paul and Emily. (Besides the winery and the hotel, there’s the nearby Donnington Valley hotel and spa, a no-less-luxurious counterpart to the Vineyard.) ‘I’m just the old man. I’m content to sit back and criticise and leave them to sort out the problems,’ he says drily.

Over lunch with Paul and Emily, I get an impression of a gradual shifting of priorities aimed at raising the winery’s profile. There is no doubting the closeness of the family, but they’re not going to let that stand in the way of progress. Emily has just appointed a marketing director for the first time, which entailed a battle. ‘Oh, I fought. I had to persuade [the board] that it’s not just the importance of what’s in the bottle.’ They have also just been taken on by the Bordeaux négociant CVBG; from September, the flagship Les Pavots and Au Paradis will be sold through the Bordeaux Place. CVBG managing director Mathieu Chadronnier loves the wines but acknowledges, ‘Peter Michael is not as well known as wineries of similar quality.’

peter michael vineyard long shot
Most of the winery's sites are in Knights Valley, Sonoma County

It’s not that Sir Peter didn’t promote his winery – and California wines with it. The Vineyard hotel, for example, was renowned for its extensive wine list a generation ago. Don Weaver, director of Harlan Estate, credits Sir Peter with creating ‘an excellent, somewhat unique platform and showcase for California wines in the 1990s’ and recalls that he ‘used to get lavish orders for Harlan’ as a result. No expense was spared on the ground either, Sir Peter always employing the very best winemakers in the business – from Helen Turley in the early days, then the Epernay-based Nic and Luc Morlet, to the newly appointed Robert Fiore, a highly respected winemaker with a background in geophysics who has just been recruited from Tim Mondavi’s Continuum.

Paul and Emily taste all the parcels individually but don’t join blending sessions. ‘I’ve thought about that, but it’s not how we’ve done it. I’m not a winemaker or a hotelier – I’m a businessman,’ Paul says. It’s a typical understatement. The family is intimately involved: in normal times, Paul will fly out several times a year, as his father would have done, and the whole family is there for the summer months. When in the UK, they communicate with the winery daily, Paul says. Like all good owners, their skill is in employing the right people. Paul conducted the recruitment process for Fiore, but his father must have been in the back of his mind as he made his decision: ‘When we’d decided, I told him, “You’re going to like this guy – he’s a scientist.”’

sir peter michael wine
Among the winery's most renowned wines are the Ma Belle Fille Chardonnay and the Les Pavots Bordeaux blend, from a vineyard Peter Michael planted in the 1980s (right). (Bottles photo by Facundo Bustamante)

Paul has his father’s reserve and, I suspect, prefers to be interviewed with Emily, who is not reserved at all and has a loud laugh that punctuates our conversations. The business is still very much a family operation. The huge yurt-like tent they put up at the hotel during the pandemic is decorated with about 50,000 corks hanging on wires, all threaded by Emily and the children and whichever employees happened to be there. ‘The whole family has been involved in one way or another – we had to, because we’d furloughed 300 staff.’ Lady Michael – Maggie – who runs the pedigree herds and organic crops of the family’s Berkshire farm, also takes a close interest in the farming at the winery.

The importance of continuity is enshrined in what Paul describes as ‘100 by 100: 100% ownership and 100% commitment for 100 years’. How certain are they that their children (who are in their late teens and early 20s) will want to come into the business? ‘That is the idea of 100 by 100,’ Emily says. ‘I want my children’s children in 100 years’ time to be authentic and to be telling the next generation’s story.’ She’s talking about sustainability, about ‘what goes into the ground’, but there’s also a strong generational angle here. When Sir Peter was starting up, he took orders by fax and telex (they still have a working fax machine) and would not have had to field too many questions about the sustainability of his farming methods. Now, Paul says, ‘we can’t take for granted that we can always sell the wine. The generations have different attitudes: they’re looking for more authenticity; there are climate factors and local factors they want to know about. There are many more choices out there. If you can’t see what the winery’s values are, why bother?’ It would be wrong to give the impression that a new generation is busily sweeping aside the attitudes of the old. The founding ethos – mountain vineyards, classical winemaking, limited production – is as important and as relevant now as it was in 1982. It’s just going to be a bit more visible from now on.

The word ‘passion’ is overused in the wine world, but you know it when you see it. Sir Peter’s achievements in the engineering field are considerable and lasting, and they made him a fortune – many fortunes. But of all he’s done, it’s his winery of which he is most proud. ‘It’s one of the joys and wonders of my life,’ he says. He might bridle at the description of his first years in Knights Valley as hobbyesque. ‘It was a real white-knuckle ride,’ he says. ‘The money was very significant. Some might say, “Here’s this business guy just dumping a few spare bucks for a bit of fun,” but it wasn’t like that at all.’ Throughout his career, there have been doubts, he says, and sleepless nights. (The list of his start-ups that didn’t make it is surprisingly long.) ‘But I’m not prepared to talk about that. I’m only going to talk about the good bits. In this life, you try to do as many things as you can, and you hope that you make more right decisions than wrong ones. The winery turned out to be one of the best.’

sir peter michael from the back with panama hat on

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