As a kid growing up on an avocado and lemon orchard in Camarillo, John Wagner would rock climb with his brother in the nearby Sespe Wilderness. One day, when they’d rappelled out of majestic nature and back to civilization, a man pulled up in a truck and blurted out, in a thick New York accent, “New Hampshire is beautiful. This is ugly.”
Wagner was flabbergasted, immediately and for life — “I wanted to do anything to shut up that guy from New York,” he recalled — but the rude comment unwittingly launched him on a subconscious journey to find, embrace, and promote the beauty of his native California. That quest landed in Santa Barbara wine country almost 20 years ago and culminated earlier this year with the opening of Peake Ranch, the newest estate winery on Santa Rosa Road in the Sta. Rita Hills.
“It’s the epitome of what Central Coast beauty is: the mountains, the sunset, the fog in the morning,” said Wagner. “I thought this would be the perfect place.”
The son of a nurse and Moorpark College chemistry teacher, Wagner studied physics at UCLA, got a PhD, and then realized the lab environment wasn’t for him. He traded science for stocks and was one of the first to track the market by applying mathematical equations.
“Back in 1990, people were just starting to use math to figure that stuff out,” said Wagner, who founded his own hedge fund called Camden Asset Management in 1991 and has reaped the financial rewards of managing about $5.5 billion for 15 institutional accounts ever since. “That’s why there have been a whole bunch of Nobel Prizes awarded in economics in the last 20 years.”
His timing was even luckier upon entering the world of farming. While on the lookout for an avocado ranch, Wagner learned that vineyard land was selling cheap, so he purchased about 175 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay in the Santa Maria Valley’s Sierra Madre Vineyard as a “spreadsheet” investment in the early 2000s. “A month after the vineyard closed, the movie Sideways came out and pinot noir went through the roof,” said Wagner. “I immediately knew I was a genius in agricultural investing! It was absolutely dumb luck.” The sales of his first harvest almost covered the purchase price.
Soon, an Italian friend named Sebastian Sterpa — who was like an uncle to Wagner’s London-born wife, Gillian — suggested they plant grapes on his cattle ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills. When informed that would cost $50,000 an acre, Sterpa offered a 50-50 partnership to Wagner if the latter paid for planting 150 acres. In 2008, John Sebastiano Vineyard was born, quickly becoming a coveted source of pinot noir as well as syrah and grenache.
“It’s been a tough place to farm, but it’s created some really great wines,” said Wagner. “It’s been a pretty thrilling project, even though not particularly lucrative.”
By then, wine country real estate agents were showing Wagner properties as they hit the market. In 2012, he purchased a 107-acre property of converging canyons in the southeastern Sta. Rita Hills, with views from the Santa Ynez River to high into the Santa Rosa Hills. Previously owned by both the artist Channing Peake and the pioneering vintner Richard Sanford, it’s home to the historic adobe tasting room made famous in Sideways.
Christening the property and brand as Peake Ranch, the Wagners set about planting about 50 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, and grenache. They immediately began the permitting process for a winery, which they were warned might take a couple years. It took seven.
In the meantime, renowned vintner Paul Lato started making the wine — 2014 was the first vintage — and Wagner assembled a team of consultants, including Adam Lee of Siduri and viticulture expert Mike Anderson, who retired after 30 years at UC Davis’s Oakville Station to focus on this project. In 2018, Wynne Solomon joined the team as winemaker; she worked the first harvest with Lato to ensure a smooth transition, and she will be tackling the 2019 by herself, starting any day now.
In May, the Peake Ranch tasting room finally opened its doors, welcoming people into its sleek but warm environs, though most head straight for the mountain-shrouded patio. “This sounds so wine-wimpy, but we really want this to be about the beauty of the place,” said Wagner. “The design was meant to blend in with the surrounding valleys and just be part of it, not to dominate or be the focal point.”
So far, business is steady, with every weekend doing better than the last. “We’re selling wine,” said Wagner. “This may work out.”
Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thu.-Mon. 7290 Santa Rosa Rd, Buellton; (805) 688-7093; peakeranch.com
* A version of this chapter will be published in the forthcoming book Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County. See vinesandvisionsb.com to preorder your copy.