2002 Astrale e Terra Syrah, Atlas Peak, Napa

There’s Napa and then there’s Napa. For a lot of wine consumers, this four letter word is just synonymous with high quality California wine. For the slightly better informed the word might conjure up images of the broad valley alongside of Highway 29. Those who truly know Napa, however, will tell you that unless you’re talking about the Town of Napa, Napa is not one place it is many different places.

This phenomenon is not uncommon amongst the world’s bigger appellations, and here in the US we’ve got some of the biggest. Napa is a name that is draped over dozens of distinctly different landscapes, each with their own geology and microclimate — some of which are wildly different from each other. These differences are the justification for the American Viticultural Areas — subdivisions of our larger appellations that are supposedly much more consistent in their geological and climactic identity.

Some of Napa’s AVAs are well known to consumers, because of their history, their correlation with actual towns who share the same name, and, of course, because of their wines. Oakville and Rutherford are perhaps the best known, followed by St. Helena and Spring Mountain. But there are many more AVAs in Napa, 14 to be exact, and many are well off the radar of even some of the most knowledgeable wine lovers.

One of these more obscure AVAs in Napa ironically is also one of its most visible. A mountain named Atlas Peak rises up on the east side of Napa Valley to a height of 2,683 feet, one of the highest points in the southern part of Napa Valley, and the home of an AVA that bears the same name. The Atlas Peak AVA is distinguished by its temperatures, which generally are 15 degrees cooler than the valley floor on any given day. Most of the vineyards are above the fog line, which means that the range of temperatures, known as the diurnal shift, can be quite large — sometimes thirty degrees or more. Coupled with very porous, infertile volcanic soil (mostly eroded Basalt), the climactic and geologic conditions are excellent for red varietals.

One of the reasons that Atlas Peak remains less well known than many other AVAs in Napa stems from the relative paucity of wineries in the area. Up until a few years ago there was only one: Atlas Peak Vineyards. In the past decade or so, they have been joined by only 12 others, one of which is a tiny little winery with the romantic name of Astrale e Terra. Heaven and Earth.

Astrale e Terra is a product of the dreams and collaboration of three families, led by Paul Johnson, an entrepreneur who always dreamed of owning a winery in Napa, but took a long road to get there. Joined by Jerry and Lorrie Vanoli and Steve Bagby and his family, this group of wine lovers purchased a piece of property on Atlas Peak in 1997 and began making small quantities of wine in 1999. The winery’s first commercial release was the 2000 vintage of a Bordeaux blend, and they have since begun making a small quantity of Syrah from their three acre planting, which may be the entirety of that variety’s planting in the Atlas Peak AVA.

Each of the families bring different skillsets to the partnership. The Johnsons provide business leadership and general management, the Vanolis handle sales and marketing, while Steve Bagby, who founded a branding agency in Chicago, is responsible for the design of the Astrale e Terra packaging and brand identity. When it comes to winemaking, the partnership has enlisted the help of winemaker Bill Ballentine and consultant Dennis Johns, along with vitaculturalist Doug Hill.

The winemaking regimen at Astrale e Terra is modest and straightforward, with the goal of showcasing the quality of their fruit. In particular, the estate has made a commitment to restraint when it comes to the use of new oak on their wines. This Syrah sees only 25% new oak during its 17 months in barrel. 110 cases are made.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in the glass this wine has a rich nose of sweet black cherry, tobacco, and hints of well oiled leather. In the mouth it is smooth and satiny with equally rich flavors of black cherry, plum, tobacco, and just the slightest hint of raisins as the wine moves through a solid finish. The tannins of the wine are very restrained, making this a drinking experience about lush fruit that thankfully never becomes jammy or cloying. It is a polished wine, rather than rustic, but one that stops short of feeling overwrought.

Food Pairing:
The rich fruit of this wine would be a nice accompaniment to a darker meatier sort of world, like the one evoked by boudin noir, or blood sausage.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $25

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.