Food & Wine // 5 min Read

From the Lowcountry to the Wine Country

Written by Barry Kaufman

Oct 8, 2021

Even if you’re not a wine person, you’re at least familiar with the concept of terroir. At the risk of radically oversimplifying it, terroir is the distinctive notes of both flavor and bouquet that inform a wine’s overall experience, derived from the conditions in which the grapes were cultivated. To experienced wine people, terroir is everything. In each sip, they can discern the difference between loamy and sandy soil, sampling the subtle impact that topography, climate and rainfall have on the resulting vintage.

It’s the same with people, sometimes.

You can talk with someone and almost hear the place where they first took root in the timber of their voice, the patterns of their speech and the outlines of their personal philosophy.

As an example, it doesn’t take long to discern that, while he embodies indelible notes of Napa Valley in his passion for wine, Josh Peeples’ terroir is pure Lowcountry. The son of Hilton Head Island power couple Tom and Marry Ann Peeples, his upbringing on Hilton Head Island informs everything he does. The first and most obvious notes of his South Carolina origins come in the unapologetically casual approach he takes to life.

After all, we are no strangers to elegance here, but pretentiousness is usually in short supply.

“People make fun of me, but I think Bud Light is the greatest beverage ever made,” he said with a laugh. “I’m trying to take wine off its pedestal. Let’s just start with a thumbs up or a thumbs down… Our culture at the winery is, just because it’s the most expensive wine, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. And don’t feel bad if it’s not.”

If you haven’t developed your palate to the intricacies of the Lowcountry, you may take his comment as one of irreverence, but the truth is more nuanced. Peeples has a deep respect for wine and the industry that has grown around it. But with Elyse Vineyards, the mission is to disrupt the old model.

“The old guard of Napa who were here in the 1980s, they’ve stuck to their guns in terms of how business is done,” he said. “We’ve found some creative loopholes in how we market wine. It took me 15 years to crack that nut, but we’ve finally got it.”

While Elyse is a vineyard like so many others dotting Napa Valley, the key difference is the way they’ve flipped the script. In addition to producing wine under the Elyse label, Peeples and his partner Russell Bevan produce smaller labels wines including Standard Deviation, Addax and Institution and open up their facility to other wineries, serving as an incubator of sorts for the next generation of great wine and giving new producers the advantages he never had.

“Robert Mondavi instilled in Napa back in the ’60s this philosophy that we all have to make better wines. If there are only one or two really good wineries, no one’s going to come,” he said. “We all learned from that mentality. A rising tide lifts us all.”

As such, Elyse not only gives smaller labels access to their equipment, they happily share resources when it comes to navigating the byzantine laws surrounding wine. “One of the crazy things about being in the industry as long as I have, there’s a lot of hyper acute rules you learn. Every state has different rules,” he said. “We can leverage that knowledge for smaller brands and we can extend that back office knowledge and that guidance.”

And while he’s trained his sights on the old Napa Valley business model, he still holds the traditions of the area in the highest regard. “I’m hyper protective of not changing the look and feel of Napa Valley. Growing up in Hilton Head Island you learn to respect that,” he said.

Just the same, the wine world has taken notice. That disruptive mentality traveled with Peeples from Hilton Head Island to San Francisco in the late 90s, drawing him toward the pre-bubble dot com era.

“After graduation from College of Charleston, I was supposed to be on Hilton Head just for the summer before heading back to law school. I decided to skip law school and explore the startup world of San Francisco instead,” he said. “My father had great advice when I told him I was thinking about not going to school. He said, ‘Law school has been there for 200 years, I’m sure it will be there for a few more.’”

After a few years as a “weekend warrior,” heading out to Napa in between workweeks in the suit-and-tie startup space, Peeples found himself lured by the business of soil, water and grapes.


“A big draw for me is that wine is fundamentally a quirky business … I get to be CEO, COO and director of marketing all at one time. There’s never a boring day,” he said. “And I’m not really a cubicle guy.”

And what could be more Lowcountry than that?

Well, I’ll tell you - fostering a true sense of Southern hospitality.

“During the fires of 2020, we had just installed a very large generator, so we let a dozen wineries process at our place for free because no one had power. That’s just something you do because one day it could be us,” he said. “Hilton Head has that same mentality. Whether it’s a hurricane or fire, people come together to help each other out.”

That philanthropy, such a distinctive note of those raised on the Lowcountry’s sandy soil, is a prominent note in Peeple’s profile. “I learned it from my father. You need to be there. You need to do more than just write checks,” he said. “Like when you go to the Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival and you see (event founder) Andrew Carmines still running the show. I grew up with that being the norm … We can raise tens of thousands of dollars just by showing up for a dinner. You feel like a jerk if you don’t.”

Nearly 2,900 miles separate Hilton Head Island and Napa Valley, but that charitable spirit unites them. But that approachable charm Peeples has made a vital part of Elyse Winery? That’s as Lowcountry as a cool Bud Light on a hot summer day.

Read the original story in the Fall / Winter 2021 edition of the bluff.

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