La Pitchoune’s California dreaming

Peter Joachim Nielsen makes not-so-Californian wine at his Sonoma Coast winery and he’s bringing some home to Halifax

Peter Joachim Nielsen was introduced to the wine industry at a young age. Once a week, his mother would watch Falcon Crest, the primetime soap opera that was to grapes, what Dallas was to oil.

Nielsen is quick to point out that his winery, La Pitchoune, is nothing like Falcon Crest. Not only does the small Sonoma Coast winery lack familial power struggles and moustache-twirling schemes, the Nielsens are not grape growers; the winery uses grapes from several vineyard designates in Sonoma.

"It was never something that crossed my mind," Nielsen says. "I mean how outrageous is that: 'Let's just start a winery.' But you take one step at a time and before you know it you're there."

A graduate of Queen Elizabeth High's class of 1992, Neilsen got a commerce degree from Dalhousie, then bounced around the UK, Montreal and San Francisco, before returning to Nova Scotia in 2002 to work with Nova Scotia Business Inc., a business development agency. He left again for California in 2005.

Nielsen's wife, Tracy, had hoped to enter into the wine industry for awhile. "She had applied to jobs to sell barrels or glass or cork or anything, but kept on getting rejected," he says. With no experience in the field, she kept getting shot down. "One day during a walk along the waterfront in Sausalito, where we lived at the time, I just said 'Why don't we just start our own winery? How hard can it be?'"

He realizes now what a trivial comment that was—"it takes a lot of patience and pain and suffering and money"—but two weeks later the idea became real. "I ran into a fellow by the name of Andrew Berge, who is our winemaker. He had been the assistant winemaker for a well-known Pinot label in California called Chasseur Wines. He was looking to branch out and we got talking we got talking about the types of wines we wanted to make."

The first vintage they made is a 2012 Pinot Noir. "I love the nose on it," he says. It smells faintly of freshly picked raspberries. Light glances off of the wine in a glint of ruby. It's a lively wine, bright with acidity, but given depth with French oak. There is restraint as well, none of the fruit-forward boldness found in so many California Pinot Noirs. He is drawn to Burgundies, and it shows.

"My wife and I like to go against the grain," Nielsen says. "It's fun creating a California wine that is not a typical California wine."

There are only 279 cases of the 2012 Pinot Noir. Ten cases were earmarked for Bishop's Cellar and arrived this week. "Most of our wines for 2013 are already allocated or sold out," Nielsen says. "But it was a priority for me to bring the wine back to Nova Scotia. Outside of the US, there's nowhere else in the world you can go and get La Pitchoune."

Nielsen notes that every bottle sold in Nova Scotia is at a $15 loss. But it doesn't matter to him.

"Being specialized and being small is something we hold near and dear. We don't have aspirations of becoming a big, monster winery," he says. "We really want to focus on the craft of creating small batches and making them as good as possible."

Slang for "the little one," La Pitchoune speaks to the small production of the winery. The little house on the label is also a jab at the big chateaus and castles you see on so many wine bottles. "We don't have a big fancy chateau," Nielsen says, "But we have a small little barn where there's some specialized wine-making going on."

La Pitchoune's 2012 Pinot Noir is available at Bishop's Cellar, 1477 Lower Water Street

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