About Join Philippe in this fascinating journey. Each season is a chance for him to apply a lifetime of knowledge and continue his search for perfection.

Origin

The screen door slams, and in a cloud of early morning dust, he’s out the door and into the garden.

It’s 1973, in a town not far from the Congo river in Zaire, and a young boy falls to his knees, enrapt by the plants he has put in the ground with his mother. Each day, they grow a little. Every morning, as soon as his shoes are on, he races into the dewy field to see what has grown. A fixation has taken hold that will take young Philippe Langner all around the world.

Winemaker

Farming is in Philippe Langner’s blood. Thanks to his world-traveling German father and Parisian mother, Langner spent his childhood and young adulthood learning in the fields of his family’s farms in Colombia and Zaire. He knew from a very early age that agriculture was his destiny, one that would lead him to double UC Davis Master’s degrees in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics.

During  a  long  stint  at  Château  Clarke  in  Bordeaux’s  left  bank  town  of  Listrac,  he  would  come  to  know  the  full  cycles  of  the  vine  and  wines  intimately,  and  have  the  opportunity  to  work  with  luminaries  like  Jacques  Boissenot  and  Michel  Rolland  at  this  stellar  Rothschild  property.  Philippe’s  family  ties  to  the  Rothschilds  allowed  him  to  enter  the  rarefied  world  of  Bordeaux’  great  Châteaux,  which  helped  him  develop  benchmarks  of  excellence.

In  2000,  Philippe  further  expanded  his  experience  by  spending  a  season  of  wine  growing  and  harvesting  in  South  Africa.  But  the  California  sun  kept  beckoning  him  to  return.  In  2001,  Philippe  returned  to  California,  where  he  met  the  Sullivan  Family  in  Rutherford  in  the  Napa  Valley.  He  was  viticulturist  and  winemaker  at  Sullivan  Vineyards  for  8  years,  starting  in  2002.

Today  Philippe  has  chosen  to  make  his  home  and  his  life’s  work  in  one  place:  a  steep,  rocky,  14-acre  vineyard  named  Kitoko,  the  Congolese  Lingala  word  for  “beautiful.”  This  is  the  place  he  has  chosen  to  fulfill  his  vision,  combining  his  exacting  knowledge  of  viticulture  and  his  constant  quest  for  precision—indeed  perfection—in  winemaking.

California’s  persistent  call  is  an  inspiration  for  the  name  for  his  domaine.  Hesperian,  or  “One  of  The  West,”  is  a  name  that  invokes  the  mythical  garden  of  Hesperides,  a  blissful  twilight  orchard  in  the  west  where  Hercules  once  tricked  Atlas  into  helping  him  complete  his  eleventh  labor.

Philippe  lives  and  works  at  Kitoko  Vineyard  on  Atlas  Peak,  and  continues  to  consult  on  vitcultural  and  winemaking  matters  for  select  Napa  Valley  wineries.

Terroir

It’s dawn on an early spring day on Atlas Peak. The gentle hoot of the wind, the crackle of rocky soil underfoot.

Philippe  is  walking  the  slopes  of  Kitoko  alone,  checking  shoot  growth  and  tucking  willful  canes  into  their  trellising.  Later  in  September,  you’ll  be  able  to  spot  Philippe  walking  still,  tasting  every  individual  block  to  set  a  harvest  plan.  The  refractometer  and  plastic  bags  for  sampling  fruit  aren’t  necessary  here.  “Walk,  walk,  walk,”  says  Philippe  as  he  strides  vigorously,  chewing  the  sweet  black  grapes  and  spitting  their  pips.  “My  machine  is  between  my  ears.”

The Kitoko Vineyard

Kitoko  Vineyard,  named  for  the  Congolese  Lingala  word  for  “beautiful,”  is  a  14.2  acre  vineyard  high  on  Atlas  Peak,  planted  to  Cabernet  Sauvignon  in  2000  and  2003.  The  vines  are  today  entering  their  prime.

The  soils  here  are  extremely  rocky,  dry,  and  poor,  quite  similar  to  Pritchard  Hill  to  the  north,  studded  with  fractured  andesite  rock  and  boulders.  The  proximity  to  the  San  Pablo  Bay  brings  persistent  winds  which—along  with  the  heat  and  arid  soil,  cause  the  set  of  very  small  berries  and  loose  bunches,  and  consistently  delay  ripening  each  year.  Dry  farming  is  not  possible  here,  and  the  vines  are  watered  for  brief  stretches  to  optimize  ripening.  “It’s  a  pile  of  rocks,”  says  Philippe.  “The  vines  suffer.”

Philippe,  a  master  viticulturist,  works  this  hill  with  the  help  of  one  vineyard  worker,  meticulously  training  the  vines.  Green  harvesting  is  not  necessary,  because  the  vineyard’s  natural  parsimony  yields  only  2  tons  per  acre  (30  hl/ha)  in  a  good  year.  Yields  this  low  make  truly  memorable  wine  possible.  

Methodology

"By understanding the vineyard as a system you are able to affect the quality of wine. I work harder in the vineyard to get really good grapes so that my winemaking can be as simple as possible which allows the wine to speak in its true and own voice, as much as possible."

In  his  time  at  Château  Clarke,  Philippe  learned  the  importance  of  small  but  critical  enhancements  in  the  vineyard.  Optimum  quality  is  achieved  using  a  series  of  small  operations  that  build  upon  one  another,  all  working  towards  vineyard  health  and  completely  ripe  fruit.

Philippe  believes  that  understanding  a  vineyard  is  an  ongoing  process,  a  closed  feedback  loop  that  takes  years  to  understand.  Each  year,  he  learns  something  new  that  he  can  use  to  achieve  a  better  result  the  following  vintage.  “This  will  go  on  for  years  until  I  get  the  best  out  of  this  specific  vineyard,”  he  says. 

Langner’s  perfectionism  is  seldom  more  apparent  than  at  harvest  time,  when  individual  rows  are  picked  incrementally,  at  the  point  of  optimum  ripeness,  then  fermented  in  separate  lots.   

The Wine

Kitoko  offers  up  a  mountain  wine  through  and  through,  brimming  with  beautiful  red  and  black  fruit  aromas  such  as  huckleberry  and  black  cherry,  a  deep  ruby  color  thanks  to  plentiful  small    berries,  and  a  forceful  structure  that  promises  a  long  life  in  the  cellar.

The Cellar

There is more careful craft than science in a Hesperian wine

A Vision

The creative moment is the intersection of an intellectual vision and physical reality.

Using his memory of previous harvests, Philippe Langner has a fair idea of the type of flavors, aromas and structure the grapes coming from different parcels will produce.  He says, “At the beginning of the season I visualize an ideal wine for this vineyard, correcting for the shortcomings I sense in previous work. I then farm the vineyard accordingly.” 

Thus each year is an opportunity to improve, to better realize a goal.

The Vineyard First

Langner’s winemaking experience is extensive, and always informed by his profound foundation in viticulture, on three continents. While it was rare a generation ago in the Napa Valley, the viticulturalist-winemaker—a true vigneron—is still a rarity here today. Philippe has an uncommon advantage.

Philippe begins his work by taking a series of additive steps in the vineyard that optimize ripening, hang time, and encourage softer tannins in the grapes. Variable treatments of different blocks create greater diversity in flavors and structures. 

At harvest, picking small lots and careful triage of the berries are a kind of mise en place. Picking small batches allows Philippe to choose varying levels of ripeness, each imparting different dimensions: some will bring silkiness, others structure (backbone), others acidity, others red fruit or blue or black fruit. Some will announce themselves in the entry of the wine, others the finish, others form the satisfying richness in the midpalate. With this palette in hand, the winemaking process unfolds. 

Winemaking

Fermentations are typically somewhat cool to preserve esters and aromatics. New oak is employed judiciously at Hesperian, with rarely more than 50% new French oak employed in the élévage of the wines. The wines are racked according to their need, but seldom more than twice in their upbringing. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. 

The Goal

The experience of wine is fundamentally sensuous, and subjective. So it is only natural that as a winemaker, Philippe relies heavily on his senses. “When people start rattling off numbers,” he says, “I always remind them that you can’t taste numbers.” There is more careful craft than science in a Hesperian wine.

Langner is possessed by perfectionism and a desire to continually improve. Philippe’s tastes and goals have evolved over time; early in his career, tannin, acidity, and even a sauvage element were hallmarks of his wines—today, finesse, purity, and precision are the ultimate goals. Mountain fruit is treated with a gentler hand than valley floor fruit. The wines remain vins de garde that will evolve and improve in bottle, but are still effortless to drink young.

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