A Fiery Tale from Atlas Peak
www.jancisrobinson.com 28, November 2017
Jancis Robinson is a British wine critic, journalist and wine writer. She currently writes a weekly column for the Financial Times, and writes for her website JancisRobinson.com, updated daily. She also provides advice for the wine cellar of Queen Elizabeth II. As a wine writer, Jancis has become one of the world’s leading writers on wine and was described by Decanter magazine as ‘the most respected wine critic and journalist in the world’. The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Robinson, is widely considered to be the most comprehensive wine encyclopedia in the world. The following appears on her website.
Unlike his winery, Igor Sill of Sill Family Vineyards survived the Napa fires and continues to farm his mountain vineyard on Atlas Peak Mountain. He’s a member of the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group and has judged in the International Wine Challenge in London. Our fundraising wine tasting for the worst-hit victims of the fires takes place in London this Saturday evening. Check out ticket availability here.
For those in Napa affected by the recent fires there lies a very long road ahead for recovery. The Napa fires ignited a life-changing and forever memorable event for all of us in the wine industry. Like many other viticulturists we had just finished our late-season harvest and were focused on crafting our 2017 wines when the fires hit. That following morning, a reddish orange sun squinted through the smoke-filled skies as the fire raged on.
For our Atlas Peak Mountain Winery, the raging firestorm fuelled by howling winds claimed our winery, wines ageing in barrels, winery equipment, guest house and all out-buildings, but our Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vineyards emerged unscathed. The fire came up to the very edge of the vineyard and stopped. The vineyards, which hold moisture, acted as a natural firebreak and were an absolute godsend.
Though we lost much, we are truly grateful to the heroic efforts of firefighters and first responders from all over the country who helped protect our lives, homes, wineries, vineyards and businesses. I was completely amazed seeing the stark contrast between our scorched winery and the very much alive, green vineyards that remained untouched once the smoke cleared. I’m absolutely convinced that the vineyards slowed the fire and saved lives.
Even following the fire’s devastation, Napa remains a truly beautiful and magical place, peopled by a very supportive community. While we have been through a heartbreaking event and witnessed so much loss, the outpouring of support from everyone has been amazing.
As my vintner neighbour conveyed, ‘the harsher the fire, the more prosperous the rebuild’ (Chinese proverb), and with 2017 harvest behind us, neither the vineyards, the vintage nor our intense devotion have diminished. Napans will continue to craft exquisite, premium wines each and every day.
Napa is well known around the world for its exceptional wines, and the appellation which, I believe, surpasses all others is Napa’s famed Atlas Peak mountain region – now Napa’s hottest wine region, so to speak. Apart from its volcanic roots, it’s the high-elevation terroir and ultra-high-quality grapes that lend these boutique vineyards and wineries their magic and mystique.
Most of us are familiar with the famous Napa Valley floor wineries such as Mondavi, Beringer, V Sattui, Opus One and Inglenook, but lesser known are the small vintners and wine creators high above in Napa’s Atlas Peak volcanic region. Even though it’s just minutes from the hustle and bustle of tourist-rich Napa, it remains a completely different world.
These mountain vineyards survived the fire and remain home to generations of winemakers whose passion to craft the world’s truly exquisite wines remains their sole pursuit.
Only 3% of the wine grapes grown in California are grown at elevations above 1,000 feet (300 m). It is widely known that the most costly and exceptional wines tend to come from these high-elevation mountain vineyards, where the terroir provides a mystical and divine setting.
The mountains are more exposed to prevailing winds, adding 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 variation 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 more intense aromas, flavours, colours and tannins, evolving more slowly and ageing much more gracefully.
Mountain wines tend to be produced in small quantities, hence the reason that many of Napa’s expensive ‘cult’ wines are from high elevations. Making things difficult for the vine, by withholding fertilisers, making nutrients scarce, pruning it hard and crowding it with competing vine neighbours can take the wine to another level.
Renowned Bordeaux-based oenologist Michel Rolland said, ‘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.
Wine is born of passion, evolving over time, offering a truly beautiful thing that speaks to us through heightened sensory emotions that can sometimes reflect wonderful universal mysteries in a surprising fashion, evoking one of life’s many unforgettable pleasures. I think the people who plant vineyards at higher elevations possess a different sort of inner motivation and optimism, perhaps more in harmony with Ernest Hemingway’s view that ‘wine is one of the most civilised and natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection’. It is good to know that luscious healthy pleasures can be derived from the mountain vines that survived Napa’s fires.
WINE EDITOR REVIEWS, AWARDS
Sill Family Vineyard’s très wines have received numerous awards and rave reviews from Master Sommeliers, Wine Editors, Wine Critics, Wine Aficionados, Chefs and wine lovers, noting comments such as “a true revelation,” “absolutely exceptional,” “discernibly distinctive” “a Chardonnay that is unmatched by mass-produced alternatives.” “lovely”
August 30, 2017: SILL FAMILY VINEYARDS EARNS GOLD MEDAL FOR 2016 très Rosé de Chardonnay. Sill Family Vineyards’ latest vintage release, a 2016 Chardonnay-based Rosé, très Rosé de Chardonnay, received gold medal recognition at the 2017 CWSA Hong Kong International Wine Competition.
The annual event showcases the finest domestic and international vintages and is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious wine competitions in the world, with 100 judges blind tasting wines. This year, 4,302 wines were received from over 900 producers in 55 wine-producing countries, making it one of the most influential wine awards in the world.
Sill Family Vineyards won the gold medal for its Chardonnay-based 2016 très Rosé. The crafting, processing and production is handled by winemaker, Igor Sill.
Sill Family Vineyards’ 2016 très Rosé de Chardonnay blends the very best of both wine worlds with the elegance, purity of fruit, harmony of an exceptional Burgundian Chardonnay along with the richness, complexity and depth of a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon. The resulting très Rosé de Chardonnay is an absolute first in the wine industry: blending exceptional Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Gold Medal award winning Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Napa’s famed Georges de Latour Rutherford bench vineyards.
Sill uses the traditional Provençal and Bordeaux method, then ages the wine in French white oak barrels from Tonnellerie Jean-Louis BOSSUET and Tonnellerie REMOND. The wood barrel staves are chosen from the finest forests in the center of France. These are fully grown white oak trees, 150 to 200 years old from the Allier, Nevers and Tronçais Haute Futaie forests. These three forests have tighter grains and are some of the most sought after woods for the production of fine, more aromatically delicate wines.
“It’s the only Chardonnay-based Rosé blended with Rutherford bench Cabernet Sauvignon that we know of on the planet!” “This is the first bottling of tres Rosé for us, its very rare, pricey and in very limited supply,” Sill said.
March 1, 2017: CWSA awards the Gold Medal to Sill Family Vineyards’ 2014 très Cabernet Sauvignon G3. China Wine & Spirits Awards (CWSA) is long renowned internationally as the biggest and most prestigious wine and spirits competition in all of China. Winning the gold Medal is the highest standard of global acclaim for wine producers, with CWSA Judges carefully selected for buying a staggering 90 million bottles per year. “In the 1950s and 1960s the world economy was transformed by the emergence of the American consumer. Now China is the wine consumption superpower and it has only just begun,” according to The Economist.
October 2016: Noted Wine expert, Deborah Parker Wong, Editor of The Somm Journal and TastingPanel “I enjoyed très Chardonnay, it’s a restrained style with a very limpid, fuller body, very carefully handled fruit with balanced and mineral-driven flavors, and shows just a touch of alcohol as it comes up in temperature a few degrees. Overall, I was charmed by the wine style and expression.”
September 2016: WINE ENTHUSIAST “Made in small quantities, this wine opens in a decadence of gingerbread and graham cracker aromas before a medium-bodied texture supports a supple ripeness of green apple, melon and pear.” excellent
August 2016: Sill Family Vineyards trés Chardonnay Sonoma County, Napa Valley Register
It’s a play of six degrees of separation when it comes to the wines of the Sill Family. Their St. Helena vineyard was planted by vineyard manager Michael Nunez. He learned his mad skills from Justin Meyer (of Silver Oak Cellars fame), who learned a thing or two working with the beloved Brother Timothy. Today, owner and winemaker Igor Sill works with winemaker Eric Hansen to create this mineral-driven chardonnay ($65). While oak barrels are used, the wine is not dominated by oak flavors, but given a rich, creamy texture that carries flavors of guava, pear and the slightest hint of spice in a silky wave across the palate. Much of the fruit is from the Russian River valley. You’ll find this wine on the list at Calistoga’s Solbar among other places, and more information at sillfamilyvineyards.com.
2014 très Chardonnay from Sill Family Vineyards in Sonoma – if you can ever get your paws on a bottle or 20, get them immediately, this is a spectacular chardonnay, SPECTACULAR! and, I’m not a big fan of California Chards. Here’s a review I wrote recently:
“…I was lucky enough to have a bottle of the 2014 très Chardonnay and it was, in a word, spectacular. The tropical fruits were delicious, the acidity perfect, the nose enticing and the viscosity unctuous. I served it with a roasted sablefish rubbed with a cumin, coriander, cayenne, turmeric, ground cardamom paste and topped with a roasted stone fruit salsa of pluots and plums. To quote Frank Sinatra, it went together like love and marriage, like a horse and carriage. The tropical fruits complemented the roasted stone fruits and accented the spiciness of the rub so seamlessly, you’d have thought the wine was made for that dish. With a long finish, this wine is elegant and silky and balanced and leaves you wanting more. I know I do…!”
PRESS RELEASES, ANNOUNCEMENTS
October 10, 2016 SANTA BARBARA, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)
Montecito’s Lucky’s Selects Premier Cru très Chardonnay from Sill Family Vineyard
Lucky’s is probably Montecito’s most-beloved, prized and famed dinner spot. This happening place is where to go for catching up with friends, making new ones and mingling with local, as well as Hollywood weekend celebrities. The social atmosphere is amazing, ensuring that diners are privy to the best meals paired with exceptional wines and served in an upscale Hollywood décor as part of its 1930s retro allure. Lucky’s wine list is extensive, exclusive and selective on hard to find, rare bottlings.
Montecito resident and Napa winemaker, Igor Sill, was recently selected as the newest addition with his 2014 très Chardonnay into the exclusive wine menu, adding an elegant pairing to Lucky’s fresh seafood offerings. Lucky’s is famed for its fresh, seasonal abalone dishes, served pan-fried with a luscious Chardonnay-butter sauce.
“We’re excited to share the très Chardonnay experience with Lucky’s patrons. We hope that this ‘taste of Premier Cru Chardonnay’ will be paired with Lucky’s exceptional Dover Sole Meunière with maitre d’ butter, or their delicious grilled king salmon. To quote Frank Sinatra, it goes together like love and marriage, like a horse and carriage.”
Sill Family Vineyard’s très Chardonnay has received rave reviews from Wine Editors, Sommeliers, Chefs and wine lovers, noting comments such as “a true revelation,” “absolutely exceptional,” “a discernibly distinctive Chardonnay that is unmatched by mass-produced alternatives.” “When grown in the cool, clayish volcanic chalk soils around the sleepy Sonoma town of Sebastopol, our très Chardonnay is transformed into one of the world’s most celebrated and distinctive Burgundian-styled Premier Cru Chablis wines. The result provides a crisp citrus character, floral lift with seductive aromas, brioche and subtle and retains a fresh minerality,” said Winemaker, Igor Sill. “Striving for finesse rather than overflowing power, this Chardonnay exudes a silky delicate texture and finishes with a longing desire for a second glass.” You’ll find this wine on the menu at Lucky’s on Coast Village Road in Montecito, CA and numerous other exclusive dining establishments.
Some wines are worth remembering, a rare few are unforgettable
October 17, 2016 ST. HELENA, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)
SILL FAMILY ACQUIRES ATLAS PEAK’S ARDENTE ESTATE WINERY
St. Helena, California-based Sill Family Vineyards has completed the purchase of the Ardente Estate Winery, an Atlas Peak AVA, Napa winery whose high-ranking Cabernet Sauvignon have achieved notable accolades and top awards among California’s finest premier Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The property consists of 24.4 acres of natural splendor set within the fabled Atlas Peak Appellation.
“The complex influences that result in our wine’s unique characteristics are embodied in the concept of “terroir,” a term that aptly captures the elements of soil, slopes, climate, placement of vines, environmental and cultural influences in producing wine. We are thrilled to have secured this truly magical vineyard. It’s the domain of some incredibly great Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards.” said Igor Sill, vintner and winemaker at Sill Family Vineyards.
“These mountain vineyards are much more difficult to farm, harder to establish and they provide lower grape yield. These hillsides are steeper, rockier with better water drainage than those on the valley floor. Mountain vineyards tend to produce smaller grapes with relatively less juice, but with far greater skin tannins. A wine’s color, its tannin and flavors comes from the skin, so mountain vineyards tend to produce more intense, deeply colored and more complex, balanced wines.” Sill said.
“Our growing season tends to be considerably longer than Valley floor vineyards. Though the mountains are slightly cooler during the day, we receive more early sun because we’re above the fog. In the afternoon, the Valley floor heat begins to drift up the hillsides. We get more structure, more notes, more balance, more depth and complexity that you taste from these mountain grapes. There’s intensity to the fruit as they mature more slowly and age much more gracefully than valley floor wines.”
“Our purchase of Ardente Estate Winery, with its great mountain wines and incredible history, will provide our customers with old world style, exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux style wines.” Sill said.