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Atlas Peak wine event raises $170,000 to fight wildfires

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 13, 2021 series
  • Updated

A German high-tech camera shared the stage with 36 wines from 18 producers as stars of the 10th Annual Taste of Atlas Peak, held Oct. 30 at Napa’s Silverado Resort and Spa.

Of the wines, 22 were Cabernet Sauvignon — nine from the 2018 vintage — mostly made from grapes grown on Atlas Peak, a mountain appellation northeast of the city of Napa. The vintages ranged from 2004 (Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon) to 2020 (Jean Edwards Cellars’ Rose of Syrah.)

Greg Sweval, executive director of the Atlas Peak AVA, helped put the sold-out event together, adding there is a lot of pent-up demand for wine tastings. After showing COVID-19 vaccination cards to Ole Health personnel, including Ricky Hurtado, who was stationed at the entrance, 335 people turned back the clock and tasted wines, chatted with friends, and enjoyed culinary bites from five local restaurants without wearing facemasks.

As unusual as this event was since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more than just a wine tasting, with vintners, winemakers and consumers gathered on an outside porch and an adjoining indoor space.

The $170,000 raised at the event will be used to pay for efforts to help solve the problem of wildfires, a collaboration between the Atlas Peak AVA and the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation (NCFF), a nonprofit, all-volunteer county-wide organization that has been operating for the past 16 years.

Those efforts include fuel reduction, fire breaks, fire safety education, and the installation of an Illumination Technologies California IQ FireWatch camera on the top of Atlas Peak. As part of their efforts, members of the Atlas Peak AVA paid for a crew to cut the weeds on both sides of Atlas Peak Road for a distance of eight miles. It also donated $100,000 toward the estimated $130,000 to $150,000 cost of installing the German camera.

At one point, Sweval said, “A lot of people in Napa were saying, ‘Let’s put our heads in the sand and not talk about fires. Fires will go away and we don’t want to scare away the tourists. You know what, we’re beyond that, we’ve had fires for five years in a row. People who take the fire issue, address it, and help solve the problem are going to get the good press.” Besides running the Atlas Peak AVA, Sweval is also the Direct to Consumer manager for Hesperian Wines.

Peter Stoneberg, president of the Atlas Peak AVA board of directors, issued a clarion call during the event. “The greatest existential threat that we have today is wildfires. Across the West, we’ve seen tens of millions of acres burned just in the last five years and unless we proactively do something about it, there is no abatement in that trend. We are here to join together to proactively fight fires before they start and stop the spread of small fires before they get out of hand and become giga wildfires,” he said.

He added, “We live in the era and the region of technology and we believe that the application of advanced technology is a vitally important proactive approach as we fight these devastating wildfires. These efforts to proactively fight fires is very expensive, but to do nothing is costing us billions of dollars in losses and diminished property values.”

Showing off the German high-tech camera was Chris Eldridge, CEO of Illumination Technologies California based in Calistoga. The Atlas Peak camera is one of three installed in the county — the other two are on Diamond Mountain and at the Clover Flat landfill — and Eldridge said the company plans for a number of installations in Napa County.

“This is the cornerstone for the fire safety system here in Napa County. It can see only so far and it will be tied into multiple cameras across the county. They are going to give immediate, accurate detection for fires,” he said.

Calistoga test cameras

For the past 18 months, the two test cameras were installed near Calistoga and they recorded the earliest known detections of the destructive Glass Fire on Sept. 27, 2020, although they were not being monitored at that time.

In August, the Napa County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $63,000, both to help with the installation of the Atlas Peak camera and to pay for the 24/7 monitoring of all three cameras from September through mid-December.

Eldridge explained the process: Once the cameras are installed — at a cost of between $130,000 to $150,000 per camera — a professional monitoring service, based in Phoenix, Ariz. watches the images 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cameras feed images to computers with specific artificial intelligence software, which creates alerts based on smoke and the fire signature of these images.

“The technicians will look at the alerts to qualify if it actually looks like a fire or if it looks like steam off the Indian Springs Spa or smoke from Buster’s Barbecue,” Eldridge said.

If the initial technician cannot explain the smoke, his manager examines the image to see if it’s a false alarm. If the smoke and heat indicate there is a fire, a notification is sent to Napa County Fire Department, usually within minutes from the initial detection.

Without the cameras, during the day, a human can spot smoke or fire and it can be as quick as 15 minutes from its ignition to the time it is reported. At night, that time is much longer. “We can cut that 15 minutes by half,” he said because of the speed and accuracy of the cameras that were designed for fire detection.

An ITC proposal states that 12 IQ FireWatch cameras would be needed to cover more than 90 percent of Napa County.

Attending the event were many responsible for coordinating the efforts to deal with devastating wildfires, including California State Sen. Bill Dodd, Napa County Board of Supervisors chairman Alfredo Pedroza, Napa County Sheriff Oscar Ortiz, former Napa County Sheriff John Robertson, Napa Vice Mayor Liz Alessio, Napa District Attorney Allison Haley, and St. Helena City Council member Eric Hall.

Atlas Peak wines

In a brochure handed out at the event, Henrik Poulsen, former winemaker at Alpha Omega, Acumen and Newton, characterizes Atlas Peak as “very remote and extremely difficult and expensive to plant and farm due to its steep slopes and rocky soils.

"Legendary winegrowers like Jan Krupp (Stagecoach) have long known what a remarkable region it is for growing grapes," Poulsen said. "With its high elevation, relatively cool climate and volcanic soils, it is a place where the grapes can ripen perfectly while retaining the complex structure and tannins that define our wines. We believe that Atlas Peak is Napa Valley’s next frontier for great mountain-grown wines.”

That was the main reason the event sold out and attendees were excited to be gathering to taste the wines. “Atlas Peak is an amazing terroir,” Sweval said, adding there aren’t any standalone tasting rooms on Atlas Peak since Napa County requires tasting rooms to be connected to wineries in the unincorporated areas.

“There are only two or three small wineries up there, so it’s hard to get to taste Atlas Peak wines," Sweval said. "This is a venue where people can come and get all the winemakers and wines from Atlas Peak and taste all the wines at one time.”

During the tasting, 18 wineries from Acumen, Alpha Omega, and Antica Napa Valley to Sill Family Vineyards, Vin Roc, and Williamson Wines, poured 36 wines, most of them aged Cabernet Sauvignons.

Winery, library wines lost

Annmarie Roberts, brand ambassador for Burgess Cellars, was pouring two wines, a 2015 Hillside Vineyards’ Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2017 Burnside Road Vineyard Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley.

“Within the last year, we lost our winery and production facility up on Howell Mountain in the Glass Fire,” Roberts said.

Additionally, they lost a lot of the winery’s older library wines in the fire, although half of Burgess’ library wines were stored offsite at a warehouse.

In June, Burgess’ owner, the Gaylon Lawrence Jr. family, bought the Luna winery on the Silverado Trail in Napa and opened in September. Winemaker Meghan Zobeck and George Lobjanidze, estate director, are converting the new property to regenerative farming and they process wines for Stony Hill and Ink Grade, as well as Burgess.

The family is also rebuilding the Burgess facility and Roberts said within five to eight years, “we hope to have guests up on Howell Mountain.”

The Burgess family sold their winery to Lawrence in early September, just weeks before the start of the Glass Fire on Sept. 27, 2020. The Glass Fire devastated the Napa Valley, burned more than 67,000 acres, and destroyed some 1,500 structures.

The impact of the August 2020 LNU Lightning Fire and the Glass Fire is estimated to be more than $2 billion, according to noted industry analyst Jon Moramarco of BW166.

The direct losses include winery buildings, structures, and homes; wine inventory; vineyard acreage; equipment and barrels; wine sales lost from both destroyed vineyards and grapes not harvested in 2020; and lost tasting room revenues.

Optimism despite losses

Igor Sill, proprietor and winemaker of his eponymous Sill Family Vineyards at 1,650 feet on Atlas Peak, knows something about wildfires’ devastation. After growing his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2020 — going through the entire farming process — he decided not to harvest them.

“Unfortunately the Glass Fire added too much smoke taint in the air and we were uncomfortable with producing it,” Sill said. But he has the optimism of a farmer because he is thrilled with the fermenting juice from 2021 because he thinks 2021 is a better year than 2020.

Sill owns a 25-acre parcel of land at 1,650 feet on Atlas Peak and 14.5 acres are planted. As far as the 2021 harvest, crews picked 20 tons.

“We should have gotten 31 or 32 tons, because we do an excessive amount of fruit drop, to ensure that only the very finest grapes remain,” Sill said. Of the 20 tons, he uses 15.5 tons for his wines and sells the rest to Shafer Vineyards, who “love our grapes and we’re very happy to have that.”

Sill’s first tres Cabernet Sauvignon was produced in 2015, which was named the 2018 CWSA USA Wine of the Year for Cabernet Sauvignons, out of 4,169 entrants. It was also awarded a Double Gold from the same competition.

At the Atlas Peak tasting, he brought only one bottle for small sips. His current release is the 2017 tres Cabernet Sauvignon, made from grapes picked just hours before the October 2017 Atlas Fire.

During that event, the fire burned Sill’s winery and several buildings, including the cellar where his 2016 was aging, so scratch that vintage as well. “We’ve had three Atlas Peak vintages from our vineyard at 1,650 feet. The rest we’ve been doing is Rose and Chardonnay and we’ve never had a problem because the grapes are coming out of Sonoma County,” Sill said.

Still, going forward, it’s all good for the winemaker. “We’re hoping in three-and-a-half years from now, we’ll be introducing the 2021 to the same level of success we had with the 2015.”

The event’s major sponsors include Circle R Ranch, Peter Read; E&J Gallo Winery and Stagecoach Vineyards, Trini Amador; PG&E; Marc and Lynne Benioff Foundation, and Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management.

You can taste wine and smell it. But can you hear it, too? A sound studio in Lyon, France has been working on capturing the unique timbre of any wine.

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David Stoneberg is a retired journalist and former editor of the St. Helena Star. His brother is Peter Stoneberg, who is board president of the Atlas Peak AVA and proprietor of Milliken Canyon Vineyards, a rocky hillside vineyard on Atlas Peak.

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