Former islander's career plans corked for winemaking

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Josh Peeples, left, recently purchased the Elyse Winery from Ray Coursen, right, who founded the winery with his wife, Nancy, in 1987. COURTESY ELYSE WINERY

After graduating from college in 1999, Josh Peeples left Hilton Head Island to spend a summer in California.

Nineteen years later, he is still there and likely to stay. He recently purchased a winery in the Napa Valley.

If his name sounds familiar, it should. Peeples grew up on Hilton Head Island and is the son of local builder and former mayor Tom Peeples and his wife Mary Ann.

Peeples, a graduate of Hilton Head Preparatory School and the College of Charleston, said he intended to start law school after spending that summer in California, but fate sent him on a different path.

Although he had spent his college years studying political science and English, interning for a federal magistrate, and working for McNair Law Firm, the dot-com boom of the 1990s came calling instead.

"I stumbled into a startup and that kept me in Northern California long enough to start dabbling in the wine world," he said.

Peeples got his start in the wine business working part-time at Chateau Boswell in St. Helena, Calif. In 2002, he introduced his first label, Jacquelynn, and produced it until 2013, when he and a friend launched a new brand, Addax.

"We made Addax more of a business than a hobby," he said, "and that's been the brand we've grown over the past five years into a legitimate wine brand."

Along the way, Peeples met Cheryl Foil, a rising star in the tech venture capital world. When the opportunity came along to purchase Elyse Winery in Napa Valley, he turned to her to raise capital and structure a deal.

Now partners in the business, they took over the reigns in late October.

Peeples will oversee winemaking and production operations as well as sales and distribution, while Foil will take charge of the company's online marketing and finances.

Elyse Winery was founded in 1987 by Ray Coursen and his wife, Nancy, and Peeples intends to continue the tradition of the Elyse label while developing and growing his own brands.

"This will be my 36th harvest, almost half my life, and now the time has come to slow our lives down," said Coursen. "Josh is well respected and will continue to build on the brand's legacy."

The purchase will also enable Peeples to create a permanent home for the Addax brand, as well as a new one that he launched this harvest called Institution.

"We are excited for the opportunity to carry on the Elyse brand and build on the foundation that has been laid over three decades," he said.

In addition to his family, Peeples enjoys many other connections with his Hilton Head roots. He learned from his South Carolina distributor that a number of island restaurants and retailers have been supporters of Elyse wines over the years.

Peeples believes that growing up on the island helped prepare him for life - and for doing business in Napa Valley, as both places have highly seasonal, tourism-driven economies with similar challenges.

Plus, while his father served as mayor, the younger Peeples was able to gain an understanding of the relationships between local governments and the business community.

That insight is helpful to him now as a businessman in his new home. "It's interesting to talk to our local mayor and city council members here in Yountville about strategies to try and solve those challenges, and the best way to have controlled growth in the Valley," he said.

Peeples also attributes his dad with another lesson that should serve him well: Put talented people in the right place to do what they do well. To that end, he plans to retain the winemaker who has been working for him since the beginning and he and Foil will remain focused on their roles.

"I've learned a lot about winemaking during almost 20 years in California, but I also know what I don't know," he said. "So I'll leave that to the people who have been doing it for a lifetime."

Frank Dunne Jr. is a long-time island resident and freelance writer.

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