Volcanic Magic of Atlas Peak

October 18, 2019

“Wine is one of the most civilized and natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, offering a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

In 1992 Napa’s Atlas Peak became one of the sub-Appellation Viticultural Areas (AVA) that reaches a peak elevation of 2,663 feet. The volcanic soils in this mountainous region are thin and sparse with temperatures slightly cooler than Napa’s valley floor vineyards. Volcanic soils, such as Atlas Peak’s, account for a mere 1% of the world’s surface, but contribute a much larger percentage of the world’s truly great vineyards.

The wines grown and produced in this volcanic region are considerably different from those produced from Napa’s valley floor fruit. Whereas the wines of the valley receive greater hydration given the valley’s ample water table, Atlas Peak’s wines are often “dry”farmed, hang longer on the vine before being harvested, are bolder with greater red-fruit characteristics and can take a bit more time to age before they reveal their true complexity and depth.

When one speaks of Atlas Peak, they tend to talk about the concept of terroir—a French term used to describe a wine’s “sense of place,” essentially the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, climate, winds, wild indigenous yeast, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat.

And, if any terroir is going to be interesting, it’s the minerality-rich volcanic soil some wines come from—particularly the cabernets, which are complex, complicated, balanced, elegant, and much less tannic. Atlas Peak’s soil composition is a direct result of volcanic eruptions, which determines how much igneous, lava gravel rock the soil contains, providing this specific site with the mysteries that unfold in this AVA’s exceptional terroir. Volcanic soils impart unbelievable mineral sensations that include volcanic crushed gravely lava rock, infusing complexity and depth to its wines. These wines are brilliantly expressive, pure and aromatic as a result of the different climatic rhythm, cleaner air, natural yeast and nutrient content in the soil.

These soils and topography are closer to the sun’s nurturing rays. The cleansing breezes off of San Francisco Bay’s wind flow keep pests away naturally, and the purity of wild indigenous yeast binds fully to these grape skins.

Eminent and highly influential Master Sommelier, wine critic and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of Volcanic wines, John Szabo, says of Atlas Peak’s volcanic mountain wines: “Genuine mountain wines are born from stony, low-fertility, free-draining hillsides. They’re denser, darker, quite often more tannic, yet more evenly ripe at lower alcohol, and they age magnificently. The vines themselves grow more slowly, they struggle and naturally yield less fruit per hectare. For a vine it’s probably hell. For a winemaker, and wine drinkers, it’s much closer to heaven. And some of the highest and most rugged Napa vineyards are planted in the ‘Atlas Peak AVA, at up to over 2600 feet. Here, red-tinged basalt soils nurture less than a third of a per cent of total acreage in the Napa Valley. But reputation is disproportionate to size”.

Renowned and influential Bordeaux-based oenologist Michel Rolland said, “Growing these mountain grapes are far more difficult to farm and the growing season tends to be considerably longer. It’s much more difficult to plant, more difficult to establish the vines and they produce far lower yields. However, the end result is a grape expressing intensity of stellar quality as difficult growing conditions often lead to extraordinary wines.” Rolland maintains hundreds of vineyard clients across 13 countries around the globe.

Atlas Peak is difficult to farm, but to a grape vine—it’s an immense struggle, that results in an exquisite wine that is absolutely divine. Respecting this unique terroir is a new generation of committed and quality focused winemakers nestled in Atlas Peak. Their celebrated success is partially based on their collective leveraging of their experience, training and knowledge as members of Atlas Peak’s Appellation Association. Volcanic wines tend to be produced in small quantities, hence the reason that many of Napa’s expensive “cult” wines are from high elevation volcanic vineyards.

Though Acumen, Alpha Omega, Antica, Black Stallion, Chapellett, Duckhorn, Stagecoach (recently acquired by Gallo) produce and source significant volumes of Atlas Peak grapes, there are a few boutique, small production, limited availability Atlas Peak wines crafted by the following family owned vintners:

Circle R Ranch provides Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from their Atlas Peak vineyards to outstanding vintners including Alpha Omega, Chappellet, Coup de Foudre, Hall, Porter Family and Staglin. Circle R Ranch has 53 acres of vineyards planted across its magnificent 1600 acre ranch with a variety of hillside exposures and soil types all farmed meticulously by Mike Wolf. In addition to the beautiful vineyards the Ranch has been painstakingly restored like it was in the mid 1800’s including a wildlife preserve with bears, bobcats and bald eagles roaming the range and preserving the natural grandeur of rural Napa Valley for generations to come.

Dos Lagos Vineyards is comprised of 22 acres, 2 small lakes (hence “dos lagos”), and 5 acres of premium Cabernet Sauvignon growing in white volcanic ash. Most of the Atlas Peak AVA is made up of a red volcanic soil structure, while Dos Lagos Vineyards is primarily white ash, which is quite unique.

Elan Vineyards is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Patrick and Linda Elliott-Smith. Patrick is one of the modern day pioneers of the Atlas Peak Appellation. In 1979 he cleared and planted the primary Bordeaux varieties on the steep and rocky slopes. Today he farms approximately 13 acres on the 40+ acre property, which sits at about 2100 feet above sea level. This is one of the finer mountain estate wineries in the Napa Valley. Elan is not open to the public and sells only directly to its wine club and mailing list.

Hesperian Wines, owned by winemaker Philippe Langer focuses primarily on single vineyard, single variety, small lot wines (Cabernet Sauvignon). He worked in the wine industry at Chateau Clarke in Bordeaux (part of the Rothschild holdings) before acquiringhis picturesque 14-acre piece of property on Atlas Peak which he calls Kitoko– meaning “beautiful.”Due to the rocky and stressful nature of growing grapes here, yields are small– often slightly less then 2 tons per acre. As Philippe says, “wine is a game of patience” –he crafts his wines for the long run, thinking 10 and 20 years out.

Lobo Wines is the creation of the husband wife team, Randy & Krys Wulff. They own and farm 4 planted acres in Atlas Peak, as well as other vineyards. Their winemaker, Victoria Coleman makes their Cabernet Sauvignon and began her winemaking journey at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars as production assistant. Victoria was exposed to classic, Old World winemaking in 2008 when she worked alongside Erick Tourbier at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux, France.Sheis one of Napa’s exciting new winemakers.Victoria’s portfolio at Lobo Wines includes the Napa Valley and Atlas Peak CabernetSauvignon as well as a Proprietary Blend of Cabernet and Syrah, “Howl”.

Prime Solum: Vineyard developer William (Bill) Hill has long understood the wine quality potential of Atlas Peak, leading him to develop what became the Antinori Estate and the Circle R Ranch. When Bill created Prime Solum in 2006 to produce single vineyardCabernet naturally he included Atlas Peak as a source. In 2018 Prime Solum opened a tasting room at 1021 Atlas Peak Road where you can taste these Atlas Peak wines.

Operating as one of Napa’s smallest, hand-crafted ultra-premium volcanic cult vineyards, Sill Family Vineyards is dedicated to crafting limited production (160 cases) wines on Atlas Peak. As a Court of Master Sommelier, Winemaker, Igor Sill became passionate about Bordeaux and creates Cabernet Sauvignon wines with the graceful sophistication of old world Grand cru Bordeaux methods. Robert Parker extended a 97 points rating to his vineyard’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage and Wine Spectator rated it 98 points. Their2015 Cabernet Sauvignon received the coveted CWSA 2018 Wine of the Year award, theDouble Gold Medal and is available at The French Laundry restaurant, Solage Resort, San Ysidro Ranch and many other fine establishments.

VinRoc derives its name from their rock strewn mountain vineyard, where the elevation provides the perfect climate; and their rock hewn wine cave, where the consistent temperature & humidity is ideal for storing and aging VinRoc’s Cabernet Sauvignon wines.