In some ways not much has changed on the 100-acre Silverado Trail property. It’s been owned by the Peterson family for more than a century. It’s still agricultural and surrounded by rugged terrain.
But instead of being a ranch with cows and chickens as it once was, it’s planted with 21 acres of vineyards growing grapes that produce bold wines, some steeped in family heritage.
Most of the vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but a two-acre block is mighty special to Kelly Peterson-Holmes of Switchback Ridge winery.
“That old block of Petite Sirah, and Petite Sirah in general, was really the inspiration for me wanting to start a family wine company,” Peterson-Holmes said.
When “Auntie” — Peterson-Holmes’s great aunt, Caroline, who was bedridden and blind at the time — got wind that Peterson-Holmes’ father John Peterson planned to change the vineyard, Auntie told him, “Don’t touch my pets,” Peterson-Holmes said.
The “pets” to which Auntie referred were not cats or dogs — the term was short for Petite Sirah. Auntie loved Petite Sirah.
“My dad remembers as a young boy having to dig the holes to plant this block,” Peterson-Holmes said, standing among the gnarly-trunked head-trained vines. They were planted sometime in the 1950s and are very low-yielding.
“This is our family heritage right here,” she said.
It doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to keep the nearly two-acre block, which has since been joined by another almost two-acre block of Petite Sirah. Cabernet Sauvignon would fetch a much higher price and produce a greater yield, Peterson-Holmes said, but this special little block is in honor of Auntie. Auntie’s block yields tiny fruit and is lucky to produce three tons some years, whereas if cab were planted there it could produce in the 10-ton range.
Auntie never married or had children, but she was like a second mother to Peterson-Holmes.
Petite Sirah wasn’t very popular at the time, and Peterson-Holmes said she heard stories that Auntie didn’t always get paid for the “pets” she so loved.
“She passes away in 1994 and next thing you know Petite Sirah becomes fashionable again,” Peterson-Holmes said.
“When I think of that block, I think of her,” she said. “These old blocks, when they’re gone they’re gone forever and you can’t replicate that. I just associate that block with my family heritage and my aunt in particular.”
Since the Peterson family purchased the land in 1914 there’s always been grapes on it, Peterson-Holmes learned when her sister uncovered the original purchase agreement that referenced the grapes in the sale.
But while she was growing up it was a prune orchard. The old “dipper” building is barely standing but is still there. Peterson-Holmes’s father, John, wants to tear it down, but Peterson-Holmes would love to renovate it and maybe turn it into a tasting room, or at least repurpose the wood, she said.
John Peterson is the one who tore out the plum trees and planted the grapes. He couldn’t have accomplished that were it not for two people. Walter Raymond, whom Peterson played sports against when Raymond was attending high school in St. Helena and Peterson was in Calistoga, was the one to loan Peterson the money he needed to make the change.
Raymond wanted the grapes, and they agreed with a handshake that Raymond would buy the grapes and Peterson would make payments, with a reasonable amount of interest, to Raymond.
Jess Madrigal, founder of Madrigal Family Winery and uncle to Peterson-Holmes, helped Peterson plant the vineyard. Madrigal also bought some of the grapes, but Peterson-Holmes asked her father not to make any long-term commitments to anyone for purchasing their grapes, because she had it in her head that she wanted to start a family winery.
Today they make about 2,500 to 3,000 cases of wine, made by the only winemaker they’ve ever had, Bob Foley, who buys about half of their grapes for his own winery.
Switchback Ridge, or Peterson Family Vineyard, is located at Dutch Henry Canyon – which was likely named after Peterson-Holmes’ great grandfather, Henry, whose family came from Denmark – and is protected on three sides by hills where Peterson hunted as a child. The soils there are gravelly, loamy and alluvial-based. The constant airflow helps with temperature control and prevents mildew, Peterson-Holmes said.
Naming the winery was a challenge, she said, because everything she came up with was already taken. She knew she wanted the name to reflect something about her dad. It was during a brainstorming session that her sister mentioned the switchback trails that their father hiked as a child. That was it, Peterson-Homes said.
She leases the property from Peterson and buys the grapes from him at a “fair price,” using the Napa Valley average plus 20 percent. Peterson is a soft-spoken man who remembers when he used to get paid $125 a ton. Cabernet Sauvignon prices average more than $7,000 per ton these days.
“I don’t care what she pays me, she’s always fair. As long as I get enough to go hunting a little bit, go fishing a little bit, get enough to eat, pay our bills, that’s all I need,” Peterson said. “We’re just lucky to be able to live here.”
These days instead of hunting deer on his property, they’ve become more like pets, he says laughing. He’ll take a glass of wine and head up to a cabin in the hills to take in the view and watch the fawns play.