Wine has plenty of overnight sensations, with wineries that hit a grand slam, or at least a homer, with their first at bat.
Then there’s Antica, short for Antinori of California, a case study on how difficult the road to success in wine can be.
It began amid great hopes in 1986 as Atlas Peak Vineyard. Yet it never really took off. Their visions of being the leader with Sangiovese—along with lines of Brunello di Montalcino or a super Tuscan—were never fulfilled. Along the way, the big money behind it—Whitbread and Bollinger—grew weary of it, and it changed hands and ended up in Allied Domecq’s portfolio of wineries. All the while, Piero Antinori’s family owned a 5 percent interest. He had visited Napa in the 1960s and dreamed of one day having a property there.
“We thought [Atlas Peak] could be great,” Antinori, 70, recalled last week when I visited his property, which sits at a 1,500- to 2,000-foot elevation east of Napa Valley. “But there were lots of unknowns.”
The biggest question, how Sangiovese would fare in this area, proved to be a major obstacle. The grape never fulfilled its promise. Atlas Peak made good wines, but nothing along the lines of what the owners hoped for.
In 1986 Atlas Peak was largely unplanted. The original vineyard spanned several hundred acres, including 120 acres of vines, and it has since grown to 600 acres in size. Surrounding properties include Stagecoach, an excellent source of grapes for many wineries. Now most of the narrow, once-barren plateau is planted wall to wall with vines.
With time, Antinori gained greater control of the property, but Allied Domecq leased the vineyard and sold the grapes. It wasn’t until recently that that lease expired, giving Antinori full control.
“After 25 years, we realized we were too optimistic [with Sangiovese],” said Antinori. The original founders “wanted to do something unique, to be a leader [with Sangiovese].” But the wine never rose above good to very good, even when blended with other grapes such as Cabernet. “It’s hard to explain why it didn’t succeed,” admitted Antinori. Factors such as soil and daylight hours were perhaps factors, he said. But there is no single cause except the taste of the wine. The property now has 20 acres of Sangiovese and larger blocks of Cabernet, Chardonnay and Syrah.
“There are lots of similarities [between Atlas Peak and Tuscany],” Antinori said, “but the practical result was the [Atlas Peak] wines were not very interesting.”
“Everyone wants to know, ‘What are you doing with Sangiovese?’” Antinori laughed when asked if he was frustrated by the lack of progress. “I am not a miracle worker.”
Truth is Sangiovese doesn’t fare well outside of Tuscany, although it’s been planted in many countries. Having failed with Sangiovese, the Atlas Peak property needed to be replanted. In effect, “We were starting from scratch,” said Antinori.
“We think and we have the feeling that [the property] has great potential,” Antinori said. “The wines so far are very intense, aromatic and pure. The only area where they lack [something] is in the finish. The wines have been too dry. We want a sweeter finish, the lushness that comes from riper grapes.”
Last year, for example, Antica picked 10 days ahead of the grapes harvested at Stagecoach.
Patience is key. “I really want this to be a success,” said Antinori. Of the three Cabernets we tried—2006, 2007 and 2008—the latter trumps the earlier vintages and is the most concentrated, plush and complex.
“This may be my last project,” he laughed. “We will do whatever we can to make this a success.”
John Shuey — Carrollton, TX — March 7, 2009 9:28am ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — March 7, 2009 9:13pm ET
Steven Mirassou — Livermore Valley, CA — March 9, 2009 12:48am ET
Dave Reuther — Deerfield, Illinois — March 9, 2009 12:48pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — March 9, 2009 2:45pm ET
Jay Herd — Fort Worth, Texas — June 2, 2009 7:00pm ET
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