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Napa’s Next Grape of Destiny: The Noble Sangiovese

TIMES WINE WRITER

Atlas Peak, 2,700 feet above sea level, stands out like an ancient castle looking down from a rock-strewn hillside over a valley planted with vines, only a half-dozen or so miles east of the Silverado Trail. The area is technically within the limits of the Napa Valley, but it looks much different from the tamed land to the west.

Only a decade ago, this raw rock pit had just a handful of vines. Experts said it was impractical to plant here because roots couldn’t go down more than a few inches. And water was a problem. But now Atlas Peak is home to what some feel is Napa Valley’s next grape of destiny: Sangiovese, the grape of Chianti, of Brunello, and of the great Tuscan vini di tavola.

Of the 465 acres of vines on the 1200-acre ranch, 120 are Sangiovese--roughly four fifths of all Sangiovese plantings in the state. The project up here is called Atlas Peak Vineyards, and until this week, when the first wine was shipped to carefully selected markets, it had been the best-kept of secrets. The gray volcanic soils on one side of the vineyards and the Aiken red clay on the other give Atlas Peak Sangiovese some of its character, but the wine has the fingerprints of Chianti all over it.

That’s partly because the wine is a product of the best known Chianti producer of all, Piero Antinori, and his enologist, Giacomo Tachis, one of Italy’s greatest winemakers.

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Today the region has a man-made lake fed by winter runoff, and 35,000 square feet of caves dug into the rock-faced hillside. The project has already cost $26 million, and there is $2 to $3 million more ready to be spent.

“Our only goal is to make the best wine,” says Glenn Salva, general manager of the property.

Many growers covet Sangiovese cuttings from Atlas Peak, because they derive from vines in Antinori’s Chianti vineyards. All requests have been rejected.

“One of our vineyard workers was offered 50 bucks for a lunch box full of cuttings,” Salva says. “He reported the bribe to me instead.”

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The Atlas Peak project began in 1986, when British conglomerate Whitbread announced a joint venture with Antinori and Christian Bizot from France’s Champagne house J. Bollinger to make super-premium wine in the Napa Valley.

Whitbread mandated silence on the project. Winemaker Dr. Richard Peterson, formerly at Beaulieu and the Monterey Vineyard, was sworn to say nothing. Contractors were warned to button lips. Even Antinori, a 10% owner and one of the most respected and powerful men in the world of wine, referred reporters back to Whitbread when asked about Atlas Peak.

Then last year, Whitbread sold a number of its assets, including the Atlas Peak project, to Allied Lyons of Britain in a deal valued at $835 million. And before Allied Lyons placed the project under control of Allied Vintners, a division of its Hiram Walker, there was even talk about spinning off Atlas Peak yet again.

Antinori and Bizot retained their shares in the venture (Bizot has 5%), and then work geared up. In silence.

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Rumor had it that Allied Vintners, which also owns Clos du Bois in Sonoma and Callaway in Temecula, would never release the wine. Rumor had it that the main wines of Atlas Peak would be Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Salva says the silence from Atlas Peak was just caution at work.

“Piero Antinori said we would be judged by the first wine we put out,” he says, “and we wanted it to be exceptional.”

The first Atlas Peak wine made from the young Sangiovese plants, from the 1988 vintage, was stunning, though never released (just a few cases were made). The wine was a bit oaky.

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And the 1989 Sangiovese, the first actual release, is certainly impressive: a striking wine with fruit character of raspberries and clove, a cedary note, and a taste and texture that is pure silk. Few if any Chiantis are quite like this . . . the magnificent wine speaks as much of Napa as it does of Tuscany.

(A small percentage of the 1989 crop of Sangiovese was held back to be blended into a wine that will be 80% Cabernet and sold under a proprietary name yet to be decided.)

The Atlas Peak Sangiovese, to be seen at selected shops and restaurants mid-month, is to sell for $24 a bottle retail. About 1,000 cases of the wine were made.

Of course, Atlas Peak’s is far from the only Sangiovese in the state. The wine is rivaled by the 1989 Robert Pepi Sangiovese, a wine with a ripe, warm, berryish aroma and a lush, complex and mildly toasty finish, a pure delight to consume with Italian food.

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The Pepi wine, called Colline di Sassi (which means hill of stones), comes out October 12, Columbus Day, at $25 a bottle. Only 630 cases of the Pepi were produced. The Pepi wine, with one of the most striking label designs I have ever seen, may be hard to obtain.

Mosby Vineyards in Buellton makes a Sangiovese-based wine. It is called Brunello. The 1990 vintage will be released this fall at $15 a bottle. Seghesio Winery makes a wine called Chianti Station that is blended with Sangiovese. The wine is not widely available.

And according to Rich Kunde, owner of Sonoma Grapevines, the nation’s largest grapevine bench-graft firm, California wineries are showing growing interest in all Italian grape varieties: “Sales of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo (grafts) were only 2% of our orders, but that’s twice what it was over last year, and I know that I’m going to double it next year,” says Kunde, whose grafts convert existing grapevines to new varieties.

“I’ve been saying that people are going to get tired of Cabernet and Chardonnay. When you go into the supermarket, people are always asking what’s new. Americans thrive on new things, and if we’re going to maintain our consumer base, we’re going to have to offer some variety in the wines we make.”

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Wine of the Week

1988 Prunaio, Viticchio ($30)-- This wine is 100% Sangiovese and could have been called Chianti Classico Riserva if it had been blended with other, lesser varieties according to Italian law. But the producer since 1985 has made this special wine without blending, and it’s about as perfect a statement of Sangiovese as one can get.

The fruit character is more blackberry and cherry, but there is a light not of cloves or nutmeg. The taste is lush and rich, and it has a finish that lingers. A glorious experience, and a wine that will age for at least a decade, improving.


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