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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Atlas Peak

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 CarnerosGeyser PeakGary 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.

Atlas Peak ClaretNM:  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!

Atlas Peak Mount Veeder CabernetNM:  When you decided to relaunch the Atlas Peak brand varietally and qualitatively, you could have focused on only a single mountain appellation, namely Atlas Peak itself.  But you chose to have the portfolio represent numerous mountain appellations, focusing the brand now on Napa Cabernet from the elevations.  What did you hope to achieve with that bold move?

DP:  We recognized that Atlas Peak was a vineyard site at a considerable elevation.  We asked ourselves if there was a flavor profile that we can quantitatively show exists there and how that profile compares to Mount Veeder or Spring Mountain or Howell Mountain.  That's what we really set out to do from the start.  But in my wildest dreams I hadn't thought that we'd be able to really define what that was.  Plus, I wasn't expecting what I saw come out of those three appellations.  And I also think that when you're on the valley floor, your perspective is going to be very different than when you're at a 1,400 foot elevation.  To me, that was the most interesting learning experience that I had.

TL:  From a marketing perspective, I thought it was a cool niche.  I remember the meetings we had around the genesis of this project.  I remember thinking that there were a couple of other producers doing the same thing, so what if we did this really well and created an identity for the brand Atlas Peak that it could share ownership of this 1,000+ foot expertise?  It's very simple: Cabernet, mountaintops, Napa Valley.  It's made in small lots, it's artisanal.  And there it is.  I think it's a pretty cool program.

NM:  I would have to agree.  I think it's exciting because you're articulating Napa Cabernet in a way that some producers are just now starting to cause a stir with in the marketplace.  There's a ramping up of these sub-appellations.  It's no longer just about 'Napa Cabernet' — a term that's beginning to lose meaning to increasing nuance.

"Above that fogline, there'll be a beautiful sunrise. And that is what makes mountain appellation fruit different."

DP:  That's kind of an interesting discussion, too, because one of the questions we always ask as a winery is, "Who's our competition?"  Even though every wine we make under Atlas Peak comes from a thousand-foot elevation, we're still competing with everybody else in Napa.  We are competing against any other Napa Valley Cabernet.  I would never say that our Cabernets are better than those coming off the valley floor — but they're definitely different!  I think they lend themselves to a lot of differences that had I not spent the last 6 years at a 1,400 foot elevation, I don't know if I would have learned.  You can't just read this in a book.  If you look at the soil studies and climatology, you won't get the whole picture.

TL:  The Atlas Peak logo, too, speaks to what's unique about mountain fruit.

DP:  Yes, the logo represents the sun rising over Atlas Peak.  See, the fog will come in over the San Pablo Bay and fill the Napa Valley early in the morning — but above that fogline, there'll be a beautiful sunrise.  And that is what makes mountain appellation fruit different.

NM:  So you've clearly succeeded in refashioning the brand by securing fruit sources from each of Napa's mountain appellations — a challenge in itself.  Another challenge, I imagine, is ensuring that the fruit's potential meets your vision for the finished wines in bottle.  How closely do you work with the growers in dictating what you want for them to do in the vineyards to order to meet those goals?

DP:  Very closely.  We've been with the same growers since 2003, adding a couple since then because we don't have access anymore to our original [Antinori] Atlas Peak fruit.  I've been making wine and buying grapes for a long time, so I have a philosophy.  My philosophy is that if I can drive up on the road, look into a [grower's] vineyard, and tell that the work's been done — leaves pulled, shoots thinned, whatever — then all's good; we're in business. But if I get there and feel the need to walk up and down the vineyard, take notes, return to my office and send an email to follow up, and then return the next week to do it all over again, then we're not doing business.  I think that in Napa, with what we're paying for the grapes, there should be an understanding and a relationship.  Atlas Peak Logo But to be honest, I've not run into anyone [problematic] like that in Napa.  Initially, we did need to have early discussions with some growers about timing of leaf-pulling or shoot-thinning, but these days it all happens like clockwork where it's almost like having our own estate fruit.  We've got four or five growers and vineyard managers, but they all know what needs to happen.

Atlas Peak Terraced VineyardDP: (con'd) And we developed good relationships with them early on.  In fact, we bring them all in here [to the winery] between January and April to taste them on the wines; so in a group-setting, we'll taste wine from the grapes of each grower.  Now, as a grower, consider: what do you want in a situation like that?— You want your wine, the wine from your grapes, to stand out and be the best wine on the table.  So, if I create that competitive situation where each grower wants his grapes to outperform the others, it creates a strong drive for them all to want to succeed!  And I think that we've been fortunate enough to create that environment and make it so that our people have a goal to grow the best possible grapes they can.  But aside from that, we also have relationships with other growers that are different — some people with whom it's just a handshake year to year without any contract, and every year they come back.

NM:  Speaking of Napa's mountain vineyards, what would you say is the common denominator in setting them apart from those of other appellations of the Napa Valley?  And how do those differences affect the decisions you make in the vineyards?

DP:  Typically, on the mountain, you'll be two, three, or as much as four weeks behind on budbreak.  You'll go through the growing season at around 5º F cooler because of the elevation, which allows you to get through the summer heat spikes.  And I used to think that was the only major difference.  But I think another big difference is the fact that your vines are two or three weeks younger, which enables them to tolerate the heat a bit better.  And so, during the heat spikes those vines have a little more youth on their side, and I think that helps to make the vintages balance out more.  People were saying, for example, how hot a vintage 2003 was, when a lot of fruit got burned — but I don't remember seeing any of that happening in the mountains!  So while a lot of people would like to write off that vintage, we actually had a phenomenal mountain appellation vintage in 2003.

"The key is that mountain fruit isn't ripening at overly warm temperatures."

Another advantage to the mountain appellations is that at the end of the growing season, when we finally get into late September through early October, what happens is that the fog rolls in and pushes the warm air aloft.  And that's important because often when I talk about ripening, I'm talking about going to 26, 27, 28 brix, which a lot of people would say gets into raisining and carmelization.  And I would argue that no, it's not — not on the elevations!  It may be dehydration, but it's not raisining; your grapes may shrivel a bit, but they're not carmelizing, because the high will have been 74º, not 94º F.  With the vine at the tail end of its cycle, I look at the vineyard to see if there are leaves on the vines so that they can continue to conduct photosynthesis and thereby further develop flavors in the fruit away from those green, herbal characteristics and towards those ripe qualities I'm looking for — blueberry, blackberry, ripe plum, ripe cherry flavors.  If there are, then I don't care if it's 26.5 brix; if we're not there yet, let [the fruit] hang!  And I think the key is that the fruit isn't ripening at overly warm temperatures.  Another way to see it is with a comparison I always make to white bread: you put one slice into the toaster, another you leave on the counter; the one in the toaster will turn brown from the carmelization of amino acids and sugars in the bread, whereas the one laying on the counter dehydrates but doesn't turn brown and won't taste like toast.

NM:  So, it sounds like you really have to take into the consideration the environment in which the grapes have been ripening and their sugar levels climbing, and that the elevations seem to offer some unique advantages in that regard.  Are there any other advantages to working with mountain fruit, perhaps in the winemaking process itself?

Thick Fog Rolling through the Napa ValleyDP:   From a barrel-aging perspective, one of the advantages I had at Atlas Peak, which I'd never had in my career up until that point, was a scenario of 55º F and 95% humidity.  With those conditions, you could take a wine of 16% alcohol and with 20 months in the cellar and drive that alcohol to below 14%.  That's one of the things that drives me crazy in winemaking: in a high-humidity environment, there isn't much water that will evaporate — but the alcohol will!  I think the Mount Veeder [Cabernet] in 2003 was 13.7%, 18 months after it went to barrel at 15.7%.  As a winemaker, I was used to only monitoring levels of the VA and SO2, not the alcohol.  But even with the lowered alcohol, our wines have a tremendous amount of legs; you swirl them in the glass, and they'll weep and weep and weep.  So, though I don't know that it changes the overall proportion of the higher alcohols (like glycerol) to ethanol, I do know it allows me to have the confidence that if I need to pick at 28 brix, then I can do it.

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.

Atlas Peak Napa Valley Cabernet, Mountain BlendDP:  The Atlas Peak winery was originally in the Napa Valley, in the Atlas Peak appellation.  The Antinoris had been leasing the vineyard and the facility to us for the last 20 years.  Then in 2008, that lease expired and we needed to come find a new home, bringing us here [to the Buena Vista Carneros winery].  Starting in 2009, we'll no longer be getting grapes from the Antinori property, but instead buying our Atlas Peak appellation fruit from the Stagecoach Vineyard (plus another vineyard adjacent to it).  Honestly, it was a bittersweet thing for me to leave that property after nearly seven years!  But from a winemaker's perspective, our goal is still the same; you've got to separate place from what you're trying to make and deliver to the consumer.  And though I learned a tremendous about winemaking while we were up there [on Atlas Peak], I believe I can bring all that here and apply it even further.  As we go forward I think the wines continue to improve.  Since I came in 2002, with every vintage I've had, things have gotten better.  Part of that is that I've personally gotten better, as have the people who work for me; we've all learned how to do things more efficiently.  Plus, moving down here [to the Buena Vista Carneros winery] was really an upgrade because the facility is a real jump in terms of quality.  For one, the [fermentation] tanks at this facility are much smaller, which itself is a monumental step because it allows me to experiment in a way that I couldn't have before.  Specifically, I can now look at different yeast strains and do some native ferments.  Now, the current releases [2007] are all made using one [innoculated] yeast strain, because at that point the focus was to prove to myself what the differences are among the Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Howell Mountain appellations.  Plus, during those first few vintages [since the brand relaunch in 2003], we were still trying to find out who we were.  But what I've been wanting is for these wines to be unfined and unfiltered, which to me means that we've got to have a complete fermentation with no residual sugar left, and that requires a good strong, reliable fermenter [yeast].  In 2008, we got to a point where we moved beyond that and started to explore other things; having the smaller tanks at this facility let us do that.

"I'm a big believer that you should evaluate wine with food."

NM:  Having tasted through the 2005 vintage, what strikes me about the Atlas Peak wines overall is their very prominent savory elements that balance out their berry-fruit flavors, all framed by some very bright acidity.  These are, without a doubt, food wines!

DP:  Sometimes I think that when we taste these wines without food, it's a shame.  Sure, you always have to have some level of clinical analysis to see where the wines are, but that's not how these wines were intended to be consumed!  I will never write a wine note in a setting like that, in some clinical situation; ultimately, I always sit down and have a steak.  I want to know how that wine tastes when I'm having a meal, because that's how I want you to have that wine!  How does the wine taste when you bring it home and you're sitting down and reading the evaluation, and then you're having something to eat with it; how do those two pieces come together?  I'm a big believer that you should evaluate wine with food.  Because I might open a bottle here at the winery, sit down, and write notes; then I would bring the other half of the bottle and have it with dinner that night — only to ask myself, "Is this the same wine?!"  So, in the end, which is the sort of experience that the person who's reading my wine notes having?  Which one do I want them to have?  There are not many consumers who will sit there with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon like this, all by itself.

Atlas Peak Howell Mountain CabernetNM:  And what is your general sense about how these wines are being received by consumers?

DP:  I was in Miami once, doing a tasting of these wines.  I got one person saying, "OMG, the Mount Veeder is the best wine I've ever had; I can't believe you waste your time making anything else!"  Then later, the next person: "Howell Mountain!  OMG, that is the best wine I've ever had; why do you waste your time with anything else?!"  {laughter} I knew at that point we were doing something right.  Everyone's got a favorite, and that's the cool thing about what we're doing.

What's interesting about these wines is that they're all Cabernets, but what I like is the difference in their textures.  And because we use the same yeast and the same malolactic bacteria for all these wines, all about 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, you're truly seeing the differences in the appellations.  Winemakingwise, the only thing that's really different in these wines — other than their appellations — is the oak profile.  But the care, the love, the meticulous attention to detail is all the same.  The Napa Valley Cabernet represents about 75% of what we do.  The other 25% is represented by the mountain appellation wines, which are all roughly about 500 cases each, and they'll stay at that level even as the Napa Cabernet production grows.

Sunrise on Atlas PeakNM:  Bringing it full circle, what have you taken away with you in your experience of making wines for Atlas Peak?

DP:  I think that, from an Atlas Peak perspective, these wines have basically been made by four people up on a mountain.  I sat down with our folks many years ago when I realized how fortunate I was to be making wine up there.  I always wanted to remind our people how lucky we were that it was just the four of us [in the winemaking team] and not a lot of other people intervening, allowing us to just focus in on what we do best.  That's how we started all this; it's why we got away from Sangiovese and why we do only Cabernet today — because we want to focus on doing one thing.  As far as the relaunch of the brand, once consumers taste the wines and hear a little bit about the story, they understand that Atlas Peak is now a different winery.  We could have changed the name of the winery, but the reality is then that everyone would think that our name is the only thing we changed.  I think that by keeping the original name, we really took things head-on.

Taking things head-on, in fact, seems to have been the overall theme to the reshaping of Atlas Peak's identity.  Future plans for the brand, beginning with the 2007 vintage release, include a venture to bottle small amounts of varietal Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec: "a huge reach for us because our focus has been only on Cabernet."  Exciting things await as the brand continues to showcase the best of Napa's elevations, making it in more ways than one, a 'peak performer.'  To learn more about Atlas Peak Winery and its portfolio of wines, visit Atlas Peak online.  Photo Credits: Atlas Peak Winery. v


Tasting Notes on the Atlas Peak Cabernets
  • 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet (Mountain Blend): Aromas of purple flower and dry, Mediterranean herbs that follow through on the palate with generous black berry fruit, black currant, vanilla and a hint of green olive, all balanced with good acidity; grippy but very ripe tannins and a long finish.  Source: Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain. Winemaker Comments
  • 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet: Aromas of ripe, black fruit that follow through on the palate with a juicy blueberry midpalate; very firm, mouth-coating tannins and a long, spicy finish. Winemaker Comments
  • 2005 Mount Veeder Cabernet: Lush, deep, dark berry aromas that come through on the palate along with flavors of black currant, warm spices, and pronounced ripe black olive flavors; sandy tannins, bright acidity, and a lingering fruit-laden finish. Winemaker Comments
  • 2005 Spring Mountain Cabernet: Aromas of ripe black cherry and dried herbs coming through on the palate along with pronounced dill, and vanilla on the finish; very fine, satiny tannins. Winemaker Comments
  • 2005 Atlas Peak Claret (Cabernet-dominant Blend): A generous purple floral nose and pronounced savory and juicy blackberry flavors; firm, grippy tannins and a long, luxurious finish.