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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Atlas Peak Fruit SortingNM:  You've mentioned a lot of changes to production from the relaunch in 2003, that were situational or environmental.  What measures did you intentionally implement in terms of changes to equipment or procedure?

DP:  Instead of harvesting in the 2-ton gondolas, we went completely to 1/2 ton boxes.  Instead of the grapes going into a big hopper, we went to all hand-sorted fruit.  The harvest wasn't really pretty in 2003, really chaotic, but it was effective.  We also borrowed equipment from our sister winery.  Mumm was part of that at the time; they had some belts and we set things up so that we could hand-sort all the Atlas Peak fruit on these belts.  Later in 2003, we were actually able to go out and buy all the equipment we needed to do things right.  For one, we were now able to double hand-sort.  We also spent money on retrofitting every single fermentation tank in the winery, so not only could we cool them (which is pretty universal in winemaking) but we could now also warm those tanks.  And that was pretty important — I remember during prior winters, trying to get things through malolactic was a challenge because it's cold up there [on Atlas Peak].  Being able to warm the tanks made for an evolution in winemaking style because after a cold soak (around 48º-52ºF), once you start the fermentation, you want to make sure it gets to 85º F.  If you have the ability to warm the fermentation tank, you can really boost that process.  Otherwise, even the best fermentation is going to struggle to get its temperature up there, which means you're not going to get the extraction you're looking for.  So, getting jackets that could warm the tanks really changed things for us.  In fact, I would say we actually spend more time with the jackets warming our tanks than we do cooling them — it's a very, very different approach to winemaking.

NM:  On the subject of your winemaking itself, are there any ideals that you strive for or any absolutes that refuse to compromise on?

"Here, we're very patient when we pick the fruit and our winemaking is very extractive. Then we focus on really shaping those wines throughout the barrel-racking process"

DP:  My biggest winemaking influence came from a glass of '78 Bouchet from Freemark Abbey that I had probably around '87, '88.  There was a really nice velvety texture to that wine and it was really beautifully aged — I've always wanted to go after that, to emulate that.  But you need to have the right tannin balance in order to get these wines to evolve to that point.  So, here, we're very patient when we pick the fruit and our winemaking is very extractive.  Then we focus on really shaping those wines throughout the barrel-racking process.  Everything we do at Atlas Peak is barrel-to-barrel racked (it's not going into a tank and then coming back).  During the racking, we set a row of full barrels down next to a row of empty neutral barrels; each barrel of wine is racked into a neutral barrel and then washed; and finally the wine goes back into the original (now clean) barrel for further aging. The Napa Valley blend gets racked like that three or four times, and then all the mountain appellation wines are unfined and unfiltered as well.

In 2002, though, we fined our Napa Valley Cabernet — and I should have been fined for doing that!  {laughter} I mean, it is literally the worst thing I ever did!  It made the wine drinkable early on, but that wine hasn't and will never hold out.  Our 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet, on the other hand, is starting to get the silky, velvety characteristic that I was really shooting for.  All this is to say that I feel you should want to manipulate Napa Cabernet with your rackings; if you think their tannins are fairly aggressive, then do a good aerative racking. But try to stay away from any sort of fining agents — no egg whites, no gelatins.  Atlas Peak Winemaker Darren Procsal With fining, you're taking the protein from the egg whites or gelatin and complexing that with the tannins to drop them out of the wine.  But I believe that you can achieve that effect over time.  In fact, we know it — that's why some of the great Bordeaux were 20, 30 years along and absolutely phenomenal.  And why is that?— Because the tannins were so massive that it took 20 years of aging to soften them.  So, if you can add a bit of air along the way during the winemaking process, you can help soften those tannins early on.  And that's our goal.

NM:   So, overall, it sounds like you learned a great deal in the first five years with the newly launched brand.  Then another turning point came in 2008 when you moved production to the Buena Vista Carneros facility.  That's a huge shift!  First off, it meant that Atlas Peak (the brand) was no longer making wine up on Atlas Peak (the mountain).   Tell me about that and how it changed winemaking.



 

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