March 2009

New Vintage: Three Young Islanders Choose a Life of Wine

Author: Paul deVere

In a way, it is easy to understand. On an island where wine consumption was and is considered an essential part of everyday life, some of the local kids are going to get into the business. Three young vintners, with strong ties to Hilton Head Island, are in the premium wine business on the West Coast: two in California and one in Oregon.
Joshua Peeples (yes, our Mayor’s son) was born and raised on Hilton Head Island. But after college, he headed west in the summer of 1999 to take advantage of the still thriving dot-com boom. On weekends, he did the “grunt work” at his wife’s family winery in Napa Valley. In 2002, he introduced his own label, Jacquelynn, named after his wife. Three years later he left the world of software and entered the world of wine full-time. He is now vintner at Châteaux Boswell, outside of St. Helena. Total production is 1,500 cases.
Suzanne Hagins was born in Savannah but grew up on Hilton Head Island. Her family still lives here. Like many kids on the island, she worked in the restaurant business as a teen. Her first job was as a hostess at Old Fort Pub.
Over the years, she worked most positions in the restaurant industry, learning a tremendous amount about wine in the process. In 1998, she went to Burgundy to work her first harvest at Comte Armard in Pommard. She moved to California in 2000 to begin her career in wine making, focusing on Pinot noir. In 2004, she founded Lutea, which currently produces 700 cases of Pinot noir from California’s North Coast region.
Kevin Wiles moved to Hilton Head Island in 1999 after graduating from the University of West Virginia. He worked in golf for a year, then got his real estate license, then switched to food and beverage and ended up at the Wine & Spirit Shop at Shelter Cove as manager and wine buyer. That last part, buying wine, did the trick. He moved to McMinnville in 2006, the heart of Oregon. He is now assistant winemaker at R. Stuart & Co. and owner and winemaker at Wiles Cellars—his own vintage.
CH2 writer Paul deVere had a chance to talk with the three vintners, all in their early thirties, to find out how they got into the wine business.

Josh Peeples

CH2: How did you make the leap from the island end land on the West Coast—in the wine business?

Josh Peeples: It was somewhat by accident. My wife’s family has had a winery out here since the mid ’70s. So after college, I came out here for the summer in 1999. I was director of operations for a small dot com startup. I became a weekend warrior, doing grunt work at the family winery, which was making 300 cases a year at the time. It wasn’t a commercial effort; we’re still a micro production. I think what I provided is that I was willing to be here full time, do sales and marketing, help with the business planning and help be a face for the brand.

CH2: Wine making is steeped in tradition. It is something beyond a “job.” It can be a lifetime career, a culture, a passion. How did that passion come to you?

JP: I’m not a wine maker. Our winemaker is a fourth generation winemaker from Champagne with a PhD in wine making. He has made the 99/100 points wine before. It’s matching the talented wine makers with the right vineyards. It is more than just a job. It’s a lifestyle here where people work phenomenally hard. It’s something I truly enjoy.

CH2: What is it you most enjoy about wine making?

JP: I become very vocal with the final blends to make sure that the wines are in a style I like. I tasted wine for a living for two years. The fun is matching the talented wine makers with the right vineyards. Then you let the talented growers and talented wine makers do their thing.

CH2: What aspect of wine making do you think people of your generation least understand?

JP: What a lot of people don’t realize is the phenomenally long lifecycles of the wine process from start to finish. You start the business one day, but you have nothing to sell for three years. I think that since we are the instant gratification generation, that might be one of the aspects people take for granted.

CH2: Considering where you are in the wine business now, where would you like to be in 10 years?

JP: For me it would be to get the business to a comfort level. There is no plan in the business model to be big. We play in a very small, niche market: micro producer of a luxury product. Our wines are not publicly distributed. A few restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta carry them. We’ve been growing a little each year and have a great name with a quality reputation.

Suzanne Hagins

CH2: How did you make the leap from the island end land on the West Coast—in the wine business?

Suzanne Hagins: It was to work in the wine industry. Early on, Pinot noir became my focus. I wanted to make world-class Pinot noir, so I moved out to California. It was mainly through exposure in the restaurant industry. I became very interested in food and wine together. My first harvest was in 1998 in Burgundy, France. From then on, that was it. I moved to California in 2000.

CH2: Wine making is steeped in tradition. It is something beyond a “job.” It can be a lifetime career, a culture, a passion. How did that passion come to you?

SH: I’ve always had a strong work ethic, given to me by my family. I just wanted to build off the interest that I had. It was a real natural progression. It became more and more clear to me. There was no hesitation. It was a very easy decision for me to make. That first harvest in France did it.

CH2: What is it you most enjoy about wine making?

SH: I really like the seasonal aspect to it. Each (season) influences the vintage. Each vintage is always different. I have long-term contracts with growers in the area. All of my grapes are organically grown. Other than the environmental benefits, I think the vines show a little bit more sense of place, a little more authentic. Pinot noir, which is such mirror of where and how it’s grown, it really comes through.

CH2: What aspect of wine making do you think people of your generation least understand?

SH: The importance of organic grapes. Conventional farming requires huge amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farming produces more expressive wines without the chemical residue that threatens the environment and the workers.

CH2: Considering where you are in the wine business now, where would you like to be in 10 years?

SH: My production is right about where I want it, right at 1,000 cases. But I would like to add a winery and an estate vineyard.

Kevin Wiles

CH2: How did you make the leap from the island end land on the West Coast—in the wine business?

Kevin Wiles: The short story on that would be a function called Oregon Pinot Camp. Basically, it’s a trade event held out here every year for people in the business. I came out here for three days and was already a huge fan of Oregon Pinot noir. On my trip out here, I fell in love with Oregon. The Pinot camp was in 2005. I moved out here in June of 2006 with a four-month contract for the harvest. I had made up my mind that I wanted to make wine and, more importantly, wanted to start my own label. Things worked out.

CH2: Wine making is steeped in tradition. It is something beyond a “job.” It can be a lifetime career, a culture, a passion. How did that passion come to you?

KW: Passion? Without a doubt. I pretty much handle all the day-to-day wine works. I had no practical experience when I moved out here. But I was determined. This is not your typical 9-5 job. It’s definitely based on passion and love of wine and hard work and long days and nights.

CH2: What is it you most enjoy about wine making?

KW: It’s pretty much the evolution of what Mother Nature hands us during the months when the vines are beginning to bear fruit and ripening. Bringing it in, going in the barrel, aging. From what you start with to what you get, once it finally makes it into the bottle, that’s it for me.

CH2: Considering where you are in the wine business now, where would you like to be in 10 years?

KW: With the 2007 vintage, I bottled 125 cases of my label, Wiles Cellars. Hopefully, in the next 10 years, we’ll have that built up to 2,500 cases, so I’ll no longer be working, more or less, two jobs. I would just like to focus on my own label. If you can dream it, you can make it happen. Three years ago I was probably sitting on the beach on Hilton Head Island. I sure didn’t imagine I’d be knee-deep in 800 gallons of wine.

*You can find Wiles Cellars locally at the Shelter Cove Wine & Spirit Shop. 843.785.2277

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