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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
There is more careful craft than science in a Hesperian wine
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.
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 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.