Wine and Grapes Offer Great Health Benefits
Atlas Peak Wine Grower Says Grapes in Wine Are Naturally Healthy Magic
By Igor Sill, Winegrape Grower and Vintner
Napa Valley is well known around the world for its fine wines, and the wine region that surpasses all others is Napa’s famed Atlas Peak mountain region – the most sought after wine region. Apart from its volcanic roots, the high elevation terroir, handcrafted production process and ultra-quality wines lend these boutique vineyards and wineries their unrivaled, naturally healthy magic.
Most of us are familiar with the many tourist rich Napa Valley floor wineries. Lesser known are the small vintners and artisan winemakers high above the valley on Napa’s Atlas Peak volcanic region. Set just a few minutes north of downtown Napa on the eastern mountain ridge, an escape to Atlas Peak inspires exploration, curiosity, bold adventures while ensuring an unrivaled wine country experience. The curvy, windy road that leads up to Atlas Peak remains lined with burnt oak trees and blackened rocks courtesy of the 2017 Napa fires. In between the trees are modest looking estates and pristine vineyards saved from the fire’s devastation. Even though it’s just minutes from the hustle and bustle of tourist-rich Napa, it remains a quiet oasis, wine country’s hidden beauty.
Atlas Peak is the highest point in Napa at 2263′ above sea level. Its main artery, Atlas Peak Road, takes you to new heights with its purity of air, serenity and diverse wildlife that offers breathtaking vistas and heartfelt experiences that transport you back in time. You will discover local artisan winemakers and ruggedly elegant vineyard estates offering handcrafted award winning mountain wines expressing an authentic sense of place. Along the drive up, biking enthusiasts cycling zip up and down the mountain through endless acres of scenic countryside with stately old oaks guarding the road that shades them.
These mountain vineyards survived the 2017 fire remaining home to generations of winemakers whose passion to craft the world’s exquisite wines remains their sole pursuit. The majority of Atlas Peak’s vintners farm organically, which better supports the grape vine’s health, and may have saved much of Atlas Peak’s vineyards from the fires devastation. Farming these soils is immensely challenging, but well worth the effort to respect Mother Nature and allows Atlas Peak to produce exceptionally fine wines as they have been since 1870.
The purity of fresh mountain rain explains why some high elevation vineyards become award winning year after year. Valley floor vineyards absorb their water from rivers, lakes, runoff and in some cases from municipal water sources. No two water sources are alike, nor do they carry the same levels of purity and nutrients. I doubt anyone would prefer to drink raw river or lake water versus water from a Fiji bottle (known for “bringing Earth’s Finest Water to the World”!). Most Atlas Peak vineyards are dry farmed due to its volcanic soil’s ability to retain fresh rain water and maintain moisture for months. Thus, they don’t irrigate much, relying on the purity of direct rainfall from the sky to nurture vines for much of the growing season.
Dr. Miranda Hart from the University of British Columbia Okanagan studies soil biodiversity, to better understand soil microbial communities. “Soil biodiversity may be an important part of terroir, which is everything to a grape grower,” she said.
“Vineyard soil microbes stimulate plant defense mechanisms,” adds Dr. Hart, explaining that this is particularly important for wine grape vines, because the “flavor elements that people are excited about – the flavonoids and antioxidants – are secondary metabolites,” produced when plants experience stress. “Plants have a very elaborate immune system and they’re either deterring herbivores or creating antimicrobial agents, and the chemistry of that is very important to the grape’s sensory profile.”
In the afternoon, the heat from the valley floor begins to drift up the mountain sides as the grapes absorb the sun. When night falls, the grapes close down, halting photosynthesis, sugar formation and acidity, locking in their structure and backbone. They warm up the next day, begin their photosynthesis and the cycle continues. From nature’s rhythm and diurnal shifts the grapes have more balance, structure and complexity.
The mountains are more exposed to prevailing breezes, which adds more stress to the vines. Essentially, higher elevation mountain vineyards benefit in several ways over valley floor vines. They receive more concentrated sunlight, greater temperature changes, and far better drainage which creates a natural stress to the vines as they struggle to develop greater pigment concentration. As a result, they produce fewer grapes, but ones with more intense aromas, flavors, colors and tannins. The grape’s elements evolve more slowly and age much more gracefully. This high elevation stress directly correlates to higher quality wine grapes.
It is easy to see that there are certain places on our planet that are more ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. As they say, “great wine is made in the vineyard, not in the laboratory. Location, location, location is everything.”
Every year, a flurry of headlines announce the health benefits of mountain farmed red wine, as if ripe berry flavors along with perfect structure weren’t reasons enough to seek out high elevation wines. Evidence continues to support that red wines grown at higher elevations possess greater levels of healthy antioxidant properties, gaining a reputation as an elixir of life. This mounting evidence suggests that drinking red wine in moderation can reduce the oxidative damage responsible for the aging process and for many degenerative diseases.
“Red wine has been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on preventing heart disease. The mechanism of this benefit isn’t known yet, but we have been drinking wine for many centuries and, in addition to the joy it provides, scientists are working with vintners to better understand its health effects,” said Dr. David Agus, professor of Medicine & Engineering, University of Southern California. He is also an author of several books, including “The End of Illness,” “A Short Guide to a Long Life” and “The Lucky Years: How to thrive in the brave new world of health.”
For decades, Dr. Chris Cates had been working as an interventional cardiologist, recommending to heart patients that they keep their heart healthy by enjoying a glass of red wine each day. “Since we learned that wine was beneficial in a group of studies called ‘The French Paradox’ ….. it really showed that French people live longer than Americans” Cates said. “The thing that really shook out from all of that is the importance related to red wine and the polyphenols and antioxidants in wine.”
Basically, plants synthesize the antioxidant resveratrol as a response to natural UV sunlight. Resveratrol is a naturally occurring polyphenol antioxidant that is found in some plants, such as grapes. These phenolic acids provide some of the most important elements in the quality of the wine and are, very possibly, responsible for the beneficial health properties of red wine.
From Harvard Medical School, online guide: Foods That Fight Inflammation: “Grapes. These succulent fruits are bursting with fiber, vitamins C and K, and powerful phytochemicals, especially the resveratrol found in red grapes. It’s no wonder that moderate imbibing of red wine has been associated with heart health. Results from a multi-ethnic seven-year study of 3,300 middle-aged women linked moderate wine consumption with significantly lower levels of inflammation, compared with women who drank no or less wine. Some more recent studies, however, have called some of these benefits into question. It’s important to note, however, that even moderate consumption of alcohol (including wine) has been associated with higher cancer risk. The best advice: if you already enjoy wine, drink it in moderation (a maximum of one drink per day for women, two drinks for men), but don’t start drinking for supposed health benefits.”
So, I contend some of the finest and healthiest wines produced are high elevation, mountain wines. Pour a few ounces of red wine grown in volcanic tufa in a large wine glass, swirl it, put your nose in the glass and take a deep inhale to fully absorb its aromas and flavors. You’ll be greeted with a grand bouquet of floral sensations, followed by notes of berry, spice and earth dancing in your nose. These wines are much more expressive, pure and aromatic as a result of the higher elevation, cleaner air, volcanic soil, and natural nutrient content in the soil,” explains Atlas Peak winemaker, Igor Sill. “These vines are healthier, fresher and, despite their stress, happier-and- potentially healthy for you.”
Igor Sill is living his dream pursuing his passion for perfection farming a mountain vineyard on Atlas Peak Mountain in Napa. He’s a naturalist, wine lover, winemaker, vintner, writer, Court of Master Sommeliers, attended UC Davis’ winemaking program, member of the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group, Judge for the International Wine Challenge, London; and holds his master’s from Oxford University. Many thanks to Dr. David Agus, Dr. Miranda Hart, artHartDr. Chris Cates, Harvard Medical School and the genius of Laura Pauli for their much appreciated assistance, insights and contributions to this article