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Napa Trailblazer Continues to Reshape New Identity with Mountain Cabernets
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Atlas Peak Winery —
Throughout the 1990s, Atlas Peak Winery built and enjoyed renown in the marketplace for the Sangiovese varietal wine it produced from the elevation after which it was named. But with the new Millennium came broad changes to Napa's wine industry, not the least of which was an upsurge in the production of super-premium Cabernet Sauvignon. This, combined with the vision of new ownership that recognized the producer's untapped potential, led to the reevaluation and overhaul of its entire marketing thrust in an effort to shift the focus and increase the quality of its production. Nearly seven years since Atlas Peak's rebirth as a brand has seen the crafting of a portfolio featuring Cabernet grown in each of Napa Valley's elevated sub-appellations: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and of course, Atlas Peak itself. After having sampled his wines at the California Cabernet Society annual tasting event, I met with winemaker Darren Procsal, along with PR Director Tony Lombardi, to learn more of the winery's new mission "to create wines that showcase their lofty origins."
The new identity of Atlas Peak came into being not too long before its purchase by Constellation Brands, when Jim DeBonis, the Operations Chief under its prior owner, Beam Wine Estates, formed a small venture capital company to buy back the winery. The resulting group is now Ascentia Wine Estates, whose mission is to articulate and elevate the image of each of its member brands, which today includes Buena Vista Carneros, Geyser Peak, Gary Farrell and XYZin (in addition to Columbia, Covey Run, and Ste. Chapelle in the Pacific northwest). For Atlas Peak, this meant a complete overhaul of its production goals and relaunch of its marketing strategy, beginning with the 2003 vintage. Interestingly, it was a course that was set merely as the result of a casual idea pitched by the newly hired winemaker. Darren himself shared this story during an engaging conversation that segued into a discussion of his relationships with grape growers, values in winemaking, and vision for the future of the brand.
NM: Atlas Peak was at one time synonymous with Napa Valley Sangiovese. Now, it's nowhere in the portfolio! What happened?
DP: We sat back in the winter of 2002 and went through and tasted all the wines were making — Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Cabernet — because we really wanted to define ourselves, "Who is Atlas Peak? Who do we want to be?" And as we went through the wines, the ones that really stood out for me were the Cabernets. I think the Sangiovese was nice and we could have continued to make it, but I think that would have created a confusing message [in the marketplace]. Granted, whenever I start to talk about Atlas Peak wines, someone mentions the Sangiovese. In fact, at its heyday, I think we made over 35,000 cases of it — though sometimes it feels like we made a million cases, for the impact that it had on the memory of the brand! But over the last six years, we've been trying to change that image, so that now Atlas Peak is about mountain appellation Cabernet Sauvignon. And that's why we make Cabernet from Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Howell Mountain. Because the conversation had now become about "How good is Atlas Peak's Cabernet?" And to me, the only way to determine that was to source Cabernet from each of the mountain appellations that people associate the varietal with in Napa, and then bring that fruit back to the winery, make those wines side by side, and then allow people to evaluate them. It was actually Jim DeBonis and I who sat down that December, and I was just shooting my mouth off with the idea of sourcing fruit from all these appellations. I never dreamed it would happen! But he gave me his blessing to do exactly that — to go find the fruit from those three other mountain appellations and make wines from them. I mean, this is a winemaker's dream come true!