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Jay Anderson, founder and winemaker, Pét Project
Issue 40: On building a brand around pét nats, using common grape varieties in uncommon ways, and how climate change is affecting the wine industry.
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Jay Anderson is the founder and winemaker of Pét Project, a pét nat-focused wine brand taking a minimalist approach to winemaking. With a distinct focus a single style of wine, Pét Project uses grapes from across Washington State and places a big focus on experimentation — creating wines that are equally simple and complex.
I met Jay at RAW WINE, a natural wine fair in Brooklyn, this past spring. We later chatted about building a brand around pét nats, using common grape varieties in uncommon ways, and how climate change is affecting the wine industry.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me about your background and how you got started in winemaking.
Jay Anderson: I've only been making wine for about five or six years, but my family owned a winery — it's kind of our second business. Our winery is called Foundry Vineyards. My family has another business that’s art-focused. It's an actual Foundry where we cast contemporary artwork.
The wines I was pouring at RAW WINE were from Pét Project, which is my side label that focuses on experimenting with sparkling wines in the pét-nat style. I made my first pét-nat the first year I started making wine, and then it was the next year that I started Pét Project.
That was our family's first business and we planted a vineyard about 22 years ago. Where I live in Walla Walla, Washington, there are a lot of vineyards here now and it's a big wine area. My folks wanted to get into that too, so they planted a vineyard around their home and we sold grapes for a couple of years. Then we contracted with a winemaker to make a bottle for us, basically from our estate vineyard. That was 2003 and we started with other winemakers making the wine. Then eventually it got to me deciding to make wine.
It grew from having one person making one wine to probably 15 or 16 different wines now. We have a tasting room in Seattle and then we have our main tasting room and winery facility in Walla Walla.
I went to culinary school in Seattle and I cooked in restaurants there. I was very into making things so I ended up going to University of Washington after cooking school. And I got a degree in art and art history. And then I moved to New York City.
I went to grad school of the School of Visual Arts and did art and moved back to Walla Walla eventually. I was working a little at the winery and a little at the Foundry, and then I just kind of dove into it. Based on research I'd done and my interests I decided that I wanted to start sourcing organic fruit and I wanted to convert our family vineyard to organic one. I also wanted to start shifting to native fermentations and be as minimal intervention as we could.
Brianna Plaza: How do you start learning how to make wine?
Jay Anderson: I knew a few people that could kind of help me out a little bit or to give me some advice. We also have a community college in Walla Walla that has a wine program and one of the instructors there helped me out. I also hired someone who had just graduated from the program. And so even though I was brand new to wine, I had someone who had wine knowledge and someone else who could oversee and help us out.
I wanted to learn more about non-conventional winemaking or more old school traditional winemaking and so I got this book called Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural Winemaking and I read it cover to cover.
I started really simply with my own vineyard, I took some cabernet sauvignon that we harvested and decided I would do these open top barrels and do them with totally native fermentations with no additives at all.
I didn’t want to jump into big batches right away, not knowing what I was doing. I tried to get better ingredients and within a few years, 100% of our production was organic. It's from about seven different vineyards across the state. I’m pretty sure I am the only person in Washington that’s doing that. Which is really interesting because Washington's the second largest producer of wine in the United States, but it's mostly because there's a couple of gigantic producers here like Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Brianna Plaza: Why did you decide to shift into natural wine?
Jay Anderson: I think it can be a few things because in business, people always have to think about marketing. But I don't think that's the primary thing because natural wine isn’t a very profitable decision to make — it's just much more risky. I like the challenge of it. I like the idea that you're trying to get to a place where you're tasting exactly what's there and not an altered version of the grape. It’s a different style of winemaking where you're just trying to get it right from the very start.
And then what does that taste... That's going to taste different than it would've otherwise tasted. I think it's a challenge to see how close we can get getting it right. And that's more interesting to me. I think that's the kind of wine I really want to make and will keep me interested in making wine.
If I just say here's a generic formula … I don't want to have anything to do with wine if that's what I'm doing.
Brianna Plaza: What was the decision behind focusing on pét-nats instead of any other wine style?
Jay Anderson: A couple of years earlier, we’d worked with a gentleman who knew how to do Champagne Method wine. He said, “If you make a base wine, like a Chardonnay, then bring it to me after it's aged a little bit and we'll get all the stuff going and we'll make a Champagne Method wine." He had all the equipment and everything. So we did this project with him and it ended up being very expensive to produce.
So I thought, how could we make a sparkling wine that isn’t so complicated? And I didn’t know anything about what else was out there other than Champagne Method or Charmat Method — 6 or 7 years ago when I started researching, you could not really find pét-nats anywhere.
There aren’t a lot of them available but I started doing a lot more research and that sort of triggered something where I was like, "Well maybe I should make some pét-nats and then maybe I should try to make them very naturally and not modify them a lot."
So I liked that because it seemed like we'd get some real fruit character. We'll see what happens, because it's kind of wild and it's taken a little bit to try to dial them in. I mean there's inconsistencies with them, but then there's also some big successes where it works out great. It's been a really interesting process, but it was trying to find out more about sparkling wine and do sparkling wine in a different way with minimal tools.
When I started to do pét-nats I was like, "We should keep this off to the side so that I can do whatever I want with this." I like keeping it separate from the main brand — I feel like they are two different things. I believe the two brands will start to pull a little closer together. I just felt like it was safe to say like, this is the experimentation, that is some consistency. And then now maybe we'll bring them together a little bit more.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk to me about some of the varietals you use?
Jay Anderson: I get grapes from around the state and a guy I’ve come to know pretty well went on a trip to Austria, maybe 14 or 15 years ago and he was tasting wines and he thought he wanted to plant a little bit of fruit at his place in Walla Walla.
Walla Walla is kind of weird because it’s both hot in the summer, and doesn’t get a lot of rainfall, and cold in the winter. So you can’t really dry farm very actively here. So he just thought he’d try some grapes that work in cooler weather on his property. Now those vines are around 13 years old and then about a year or so ago he started to sell grapes to me. It’s a super uncommon grape in the states.
I am also doing a Syrah for a sparkling red like they do in Australia - but I am doing it more of a rosé or lambrusco style. It’s definitely a different take on Syrah. I’ve been doing a Chenin Blanc for a few years that I am always excited about. Chenin has a freshness to it that I like a lot.
I try to figure out how to make a lineup of wines that are all just very, very different. And so when you’re tasting through them, they just give you a ride — there’s a lot of variance because I’m not growing all the grapes myself.
I just love the idea of them being wildly different.
Brianna Plaza: When I met you at RAW WINE, one of the péts that you were tasting had a distinct smokey taste, which you said is from the fires. Can you talk about how the fires have affected the grapes that you use and how you see it changing the landscape?
Jay Anderson: California, Oregon, Washington have all had a lot of fires in the last three years. I don't really remember it happening like this in the last like 10 or 15 years, but the last two years I have had wines that have had smoke issues from different spots. One of the advantages of sourcing from a lot of different vineyards around the state is hopefully there's always going to be a few vineyards that don't get touched by smoke, but maybe it means that there's always going to be some that do.
I've definitely had harvests off a vineyard where it's just unusably smokey. And then there's other ones where it's subtle. In the pét-nat where you can taste it, it doesn't totally dominate, but you can taste it. And it's just like, well maybe some people can get behind it and say, "Okay, that's interesting because that is part of what's happening." I mean, if you think about it, a lot of wines have a nice smokey toasty character because it was in a barrel that was torched.
It's something I have to live with and figure out whether what the threshold is of, “is this totally spoiled or I can deal with this and it's interesting?”
Other things ~
This article is from last year, but still relevant as we head into another fire season. The New York Times looks at how wine makers are adapting to climate change.
The New York Times Style Magazine looks at the complicated relationship between Mexico and a grain that arrived with the Spanish Conquest: rice.