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NM: 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. 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.