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Jess Jackson's New Napa Benchmark
By James Laube
Atalon, the newest Napa venture from Jess Jackson and company, is about to make a splash because of the excellent quality of its debut releases, which should be available around New Year. But prices for the Atalon wines, even though they're a step down from the most expensive Napa bottlings, are still steep, ranging from $40 to $100 a bottle.
The winery focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, from both valley-floor and hillside vineyards of topflight quality. These include sites owned by Andy Beckstoffer in Oakville; vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder; and Stagecoach Vineyards on Atlas Peak (see "Napa's New Frontier," page 95).
Atalon's winemaker, Thomas Peffer, 47, worked as an assistant to Beringer's Ed Sbragia from 1985 to 1997, so he knows Napa's turf and how to make rich, complex wines. He's also working hand in hand with two of Jackson's top winemakers: Charles Thomas, winemaker for Cardinale and for all of Kendall-Jackson's Artisan & Estates wines in Napa and Sonoma, and Marco DiGiulio, winemaker for Lokoya.
Ever since Jackson moved part of his company to Napa Valley in the 1990s, it's been a bit of a shell game in sorting out his different wineries and brands. But here's how it shakes out from top to bottom.
Cardinale, the company's flagship brand, is Thomas' baby, and he gets first pick of vineyard sources in Napa and Sonoma. Cardinale recently moved into the former Robert Pepi Winery in Oakville, which it shares with Lokoya. Pepi remains a brand without a winery.
Lokoya specializes in specific-appellation Cabernets, mostly from mountain peaks. The current Cabernet lineup from the 1997 vintage includes Mount Veeder (98 points, $100), Diamond Mountain (93, $120), Howell Mountain (91, $120) and Rutherford (92, $120). The present plan is for Lokoya to be moved into its own winery.
Finally, there is Atalon (a derivation of the French word for "benchmark"), with wines from the broader Napa Valley appellation. Atalon has moved into a big winery, in Oakville, which for years was referred to as Cardinale, even according to the sign on Highway 29. Atalon's Cabernets and Merlots will typically sell in the $40 to $70 range and are aimed at a market segment that Jess Jackson thinks is ripe for new, high-quality wines. But be advised that there are some specialty bottlings that will carry higher prices, including the 1997 Beckstoffer Vineyard (188 cases), which will sell for $100 and be sold only at the winery.
Atalon's Mountain Estate Cabernet (1,800 cases) and Merlot (1,000 cases) will sell for $70 and $60, respectively. The Mountain Estate Merlot is primarily from Howell Mountain grapes and is very dense, with a saturated purple-red color and rich chocolate, currant and toasty oak flavors.
The Mountain Estate Cabernet is 44 percent Howell Mountain and 30 percent Stagecoach Vineyards, along with grapes from Peter Michael and Mount Veeder Winery (from Veeder Peak Vineyard). It too is well-oaked, dark, rich and jam-packed with lush currant, black cherry and cedar flavors. The 1997 Beckstoffer is superrich and plush, with wild berry, cherry, cedar and currant character.
I thought all of Atalon's wines were outstanding, including the 1998s. But the thought that $40 to $70 is considered a new midrange for Napa Valley Cabernets and Merlots is a little unsettling.