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Monterey Peninsula Winery

Monterey AVA

Their winemaking philosophy was both simple and innovative.

Some wine enthusiasts are content to just dabble in winemaking, but for Roy Thomas and Derych Nuckton the only way to approach winemaking was to get fully immersed in the craft, jumping in with both feet-literally. An amateur winemaker during the 1960s, Derych decided it would be fun to celebrate the harvest with a good old-fashioned grape stomp. Both men, who had met just recently, along with their wives rolled up their pants and waded into a vat of fruit. This bit of ancient winemaking fun kicked off a friendship that eventually led to the creation of Monterey Peninsula Winery.

The Monterey Peninsula Winery rose principally out of Roy Thomas’ passion for good wine. He started by becoming a knowledgeable wine drinker, then progressed to amateur home winemaker, then wine student learning from several different winemasters, and then in his spare time became a wine appreciation teacher. It was during his wine appreciation classes offered through the Monterey County Wine Appreciation Society that Roy started secretly entering his homemade wines in the class’ blind taste tests. To his surprise, on repeated occasions, his wines were overwhelmingly favored over those produced by the large established wineries. In 1973 after this positive response to his wines, Thomas approached Nuckton with the idea to start a winery of their own.

Their plan was to open a winery and tasting room combined, but the Monterey County zoning laws at the time prohibited the selling of wines on property where wine was being produced. Without the ability to build a tasting room, the partners surmised their business would have little chance for success. They finally found a site just outside of Monterey where they could open both facilities, in a picturesque old stone building that had once been a private ranch house, and later a restaurant. They managed to muster up about $15,000 to get the operation in gear, and on that shoestring start, proceeded to make wine.

Their winemaking philosophy was both simple and innovative. First and foremost, they used only high quality ripe grapes, then handcrafted the wines in small manageable lots, preserving the flavor and intensity to make full-blown, full-bodied wines. They also felt it was important to produce vineyard specific wines that were labeled and sold as such. Roy has always been resolute in the belief that each vineyard has its’ own unique characteristics and personality that carry forward into each wine. “You can taste the difference between each grape’s personality depending on the particular varietal and vineyard,” says Roy. In fact he often went a step further by separating grapes from different sections within the same vineyard. “If there is a distinct variation of microclimates within the vineyard, and if these differences show up in the wine,” Roy explains, “then we’ll bottle them separately.” This innovative approach was unheard of during the 1970s in California, but today it’s a practice followed by many of the state’s top winemakers.

Also unique to California was the winery’s policy of pricing their wines differently from vintage to vintage according to the quality that year. If the grape quality and resulting wine was not as good as the previous year, the price would be lowered to reflect the difference. Likewise, a better wine would be priced a bit higher.

The winery’s first crush took place in 1974 producing about 1,200 cases of Zinfandel and Cabernet. Their first winemaking efforts met with great approval, as visitors to their tasting room carted home all the wine the winery produced. In those days, visitors to the winery would often sample wines right out of the barrel, and if they wanted to buy a particular selection, the bottles were filled on the spot right out of the barrel. For labels, the winery stuck a blank sticker on the bottle, hand printed the varietal name, alcohol content and other specifics then sent their smiling customers on their way! Monterey Peninsula is reportedly the only U.S. winery to be approved by the BATF to label their wines in this manner.

The word got out and soon the public’s enthusiasm grew for the winery’s style and philosophy of hand crafted, vineyard-specific wines. During the winery’s first ten years of operation they made dozens of different varietals. Perhaps the most important wine was Zinfandel. At one point there were as many as 15 different vineyard-specific bottlings of this varietal available. Chardonnay, Barbera, and Cabernet Sauvignon were also prominent wines for Monterey Peninsula. Their Merlot was among the first in California to be bottled as a single varietal.

Each year the quantity produced of each bottling was determined by the yield of the selected vineyards. In the beginning, as few as 1,200 cases were bottled, other years as many as 15,000 cases. No matter how much they produced, the same Old World wine making practices were used. Wines were hand-tended, fermented in small quantities and naturally clarified in casks and barrels.

Another Old World practice revived by Roy and Derych was their annual Zinfandel Wine Stomp. Each year 300 or so friends and lucky members of the public were invited to the party. Bare feet and premium grapes combined to make a number of exceptional wines. However, in 1975 the state health officials put their foot down and stopped the Stomp claiming that the human contact was not sanitary. (This notion is actually erroneous because the high acid and alcohol levels kills any bacteria in the finished product).

Despite the end of the Stomp, Monterey Peninsula Winery continued to produce award- winning Zinfandels and other varietals using many different specially selected vineyards. One particular wine that has developed a cult-like following among Monterey Peninsula fans is Black Burgundy. This unique wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah and Ruby Red. It sounds odd, but the resulting wine somehow ends up rather extraordinary. The top-of-the-line wines often are bottled under the Monterey Peninsula, Doctor’s Reserve label. (Both Roy and Derych are Dentists).

In 1995, Monterey Peninsula teamed up with a group of other small wineries under the umbrella name of Rutherford Benchmarks. The team is headed by acclaimed winemaker Anthony Bell of Beaulieu Vineyards fame and by wine-industry veterans Brent Simpson and Jack DuArte. During the next five years, he group strengthened the winery’s presence in the marketplace while still maintaining the winery’s tradition of producing classic, rich, Old World style wines. Then in 2000, recognizing the enduring strength of the Monterey Peninsula name, Robert Mondavi purchased the brand. His specific plans for the label are as of yet undetermined.

Renowned wine writer and critic, Robert Parker Jr. says, “Thank goodness there are innovative wineries such as Monterey Peninsula Winery. All of the wines are unique and some are delicious. I would not hesitate to try any of the wines from this winery for the simple reason that when they are good, they are extremely good as well as unique and great individual expressions of winemaking art. In my opinion, it is preferable to taste wines such as these and support wineries such as this than to blindly follow the large commercial wineries that are turning out bland, standardized product each year that is not bad, but neither is there any personality, character, charm or appeal to the wine.”

Roy Thomas - Winemaking pioneer

Picture of Roy Thomas - Winemaking pioneer

Looking at Roy Thomas’ upbringing it would be hard to guess that one day this studious young man would become a winemaking pioneer. Born in Berkeley, California, to a father who was a psychiatrist and a mother who was a strict tea totaler. Roy started out studying to be a chemist, but then abruptly switched to dentistry.

While attending dental school in San Francisco he became fervently interested in wines and winemaking. ‘Some people get hooked on golf or fishing, for me my passion was wine,” says Roy. Graduating from UC San Francisco, Roy moved to Carmel to start his dental practice so he could be close to the developing wine region of Monterey County. ‘I was attracted to Monterey County for its grape growing potential,” reveals Roy. While he worked on teeth by day, his free time was devoted to winetasting, and learning as much as he could about winemaking.

His first teachers, were veteran wine masters who schooled him in the Old World traditions of making wine with minimal intervention and by taste, instead of chemistry and economics.

In 1968, after spending time at a number of wineries and learning largely by osmosis, Roy bottled his first homemade wine. Pleased with his first effort, he continued making wine as well as new acquaintances in the Monterey and San Francisco wine circles. It was two of these winemaking acquaintances Deryck Nuckton and Bob Zampatti who eventually became partners with Roy in the creation of Monterey Peninsula Winery.

‘It wasn’t easy getting started, because Monterey County was not really set up for winemaking. We looked all over before we found a facility zoned so we could make and sell wine at the same location,” says Roy. ‘In fact, parts of Monterey County even had ‘dry” ordinances still in place.”

The site they chose was a large stone building that had previously been a restaurant. Picturesque from the outside, the building had cumbersome 4-foot thick walls and was a bit small for operating a winery. However, what they lacked in space they made up for in energy and creativity. The crushing was done outside, the fermenting was done everywhere inside, outside and all around the town. Roy also brought in young winemakers, fresh from UC Davis enology school to help out and learn the art of winemaking. ‘We were sort of the Underground Graduate School of U.C. Davis,” he quips. With each vintage he instilled his philosophy of winemaking. ‘As winemakers we believe that the wine is grown in the vineyard. We are merely the stewards of nature while the wine is in our cellar, having selected grapes which experience has shown will give full and lushly intense flavors,” states Roy rather eloquently.

It’s a philosophy that has proven itself over and over, resulting in great winemaking for over 30 years.