Examining the Atlas Peak Appellation

I think it’s simple: A designated growing area, an appellation or, as they are called in the United States, American Viticultural Areas, are only useful if they are able to deliver expectation to the drinker.

If I can’t have a pretty good idea of what I’ll experience in the bottle if it says "Anderson Valley" or ‘Oakville" or "Russian River Valley" on the label, then what’s the point of putting the appellation on the bottle at all?

This is also the view, as far as I can tell, of the folks over at Appellation America who are on a mission to clarify the meaning of America’s AVAs by conducting a series of tastings that hopefully will put us on the road toward giving meaning to the wordsBoulderinground2
on the bottles.

What they are discovering, I think, is that in the United States, the cart has been put in front of the horse when it comes to carving out appellations. Lines and boundaries that describe our AVA’s are really political boundaries approved by the feds for the purposes of vintners’ marketing desires at worst and acknowledgments of geographically consistent areas at best. None of this speaks to the drinkers expectations for the character of the wines that are produced from an AVA’s grapes.

Today I’ll be attending a tasting of Atlas Peak appellation wines hosted by Appellation America. I have high hopes for this tasting and for it’s ability to find a similarity in style across the different Atlas Peak appellation wines we’ll be tasting. Why? Because this appellation nestled in the Vaca Mountain range int he Apjune05
southeast corner of Napa Valley is in fact relatively distinctive in its geology and climate, something that is not easy to say about most of California’s AVAs.

The Atlas Peak appellation is unique in a number of ways. When it was approved there was really only one operation on the mountain: Atlas Peak Winery. Up on on the mountain Atlas Peak Winery planted acres and acres of Sangiovese with the hope of capturing the market for that varietal. The money and the commitment was behind the effort. Unfortunately, the result was fairly mediocre, usually under-ripe Sangiovese that actually hurt the reputation of the appellation. Atlas Peak the appellation became associated with mediocre Sangiovese.

This has been a tough judgment to overcome for the now many more vineyard owners and wineries that toil in the thin soils of the appellation. Slowly however, the region is being recognized as an outstanding source of Cabernet Sauvignon. It happens that while not occupying any part of the valley floor, the Atlas Peak appellation is within the "Napa Valley" appellation. This means that any fruit one uses from Atlas Peak can be made into "Napa Valley" wine. That’s a VERY valuable two words to be able to put on your label.

The value and quality of Atlas Peak Cabernet as been a bit of an insiders secret. A large number of Napa Valley wineries buy Atlas Peak-grown fruit for their Cabernet programs, but few acknowledge that they get their grapes from Atlas Peak. This is different from the other mountain appellations that surround Napa Valley such as Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. These appellations are often placed on the bottled with pride. Yet, the older association of Atlas Peak with mediocre wines keeps Atlas Peak off the labels.

I’ve tasted a number of Atlas Peak Cabernets and will taste more today. At Wark Communications weApfallvista
work with Astrale e Terra Winery, an estate that farms Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc at about 1,250 up the mountain on Atlas Peak. I have a big interest in seeing Atlas Peak’s reputation change from a source of mediocre wine to a source of outstanding mountain grown cab. The best way I’ve found to demonstrate this transformation to the media and trade and consumers is by tasting the wine and by bringing them up the mountain. The wines are really terrific. Like most mountain grown wines they tend to be more big and ridged in their youth, but the fruit is very well established in these wines. Today the 2000 vintage of Cabernets are just  starting to drink really well. This is a different animal than so many of the Napa Valley Cabernets from the valley floor that are opulent and ripe and fleshy from the moment of release.

Sometimes it’s easy to see the future. In the case of the Atlas Peak appellation and its wines it’s clear that it’s reputation will grow over time and serious wine drinkers will eventually recognize its great wines and seek them out. Of this I have no doubt at all. I’ve tasted the wines and met a number of the winemakers and growers who know what they have. They simply need to get the word out.

Today’s Appellation America tasting will be only one step on that road, but a very good one I suspect. I’ll report back on the results.

2 Responses

  1. Mike Duffy - April 28, 2006

    As a recovering engineer, it seems to me that IF (big if) you planted the same grapes in a particular AVA, grew them, harvested them, and made them into wine with an absolute minimum of handling (which was probably more the norm when the original French appellations were created), then the AVA/appellation (and even terroir) might have some meaning. To the extent that the wines from a given AVA are produced that way, then the AVA is meaningful. I think Appellation America is going to demonstrate that we’re pretty far from the ideal, and the results will be interesting. I look forward to your continuing coverage.

  2. tom - April 28, 2006

    You’ve described the fundemental difficulty at getting at a terrestrial/climatological definition of “terroir”. I would only add that the smaller the appellation, the easier it is to define the impact of the terroir on the wines’ character.

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