From Wildfire To Pandemic, How One Napa Winemaker Keeps Going

September 4th, 2020

Philippe Langner, owner and winemaker of Hesperian Wines, started his winemaking career in Bordeaux, but his life experiences have taken him across the globe from El Salvador to Zaire. Now, he can add pandemic and wildfires to his experience file. Indeed, just these past few weeks Langner, who lost nearly everything three years ago in the Atlas Peak fire, has been preparing for yet another wave of wildfires. “I can't believe that I once again face the threat of fire,” says Langner. But, he is a master of detail and patience, and this time he is ready, “When I rebuilt I only used concrete, steel, and glass. In addition, I installed a 4-inch water line around the perimeter and equipped it with vineyard sprinklers capable of soaking everything within a 27 ft radius. Hopefully this time my loss will be minimal.”

That same forward-thinking applies to his winemaking. Unlike many other winemakers, he insists on letting his wines hold in the bottle one to two years longer to be sure that upon release the tannins have softened just enough. That patience has been nicely rewarded with critical praise and a passionate consumer fan base. He recently shared his take on the Pandemic, surviving the Atlas Peak fires and why he works harder in the vineyard than in the cellar.

While working at Sullivan Vineyards, I discovered a small vineyard that produced exquisite fruit. It had this depth, with an earthiness at same time and the vineyard was a growers vineyard, planted on slope, in poor volcanic soils; it had everything to produce really good grapes. So I checked the bank account and bought the plot, and from that beginning Hesperian evolved.

Who are your wine mentors? I would not say I have any, I don’t do well with authority, and I learn from mistakes.

What do you want people to feel when they drink your wine? I want them to have a nice aesthetic experience but also a thoughtful one, I think my wines are nice and tasty, but they are a bit intellectual in a way.

I do like plant character in wine. I like herbaceousness, not tomato leaf or bell pepper, but a plant edge with mintiness. My vineyard up there allows me to pursue that. It has some steep slopes, all sorts of aspects and varying exposures. There are some rows I will pick three times—I have a month’s difference between the top and bottom for picking. We pick little sections here and there as they are ripe, so it’s labor intensive and consuming, but that’s what you do.

How did the 2017 Atlas Peak Fire affect you? Thankfully my winery was not built at the time of that fire, we were custom crushing, but I did lose the house, equipment, and some of the irrigation system. The edges of the vineyard got burnt, but not the vineyard—I lucked out, that was the saving grace.

COVID-19 has impacted me in some ways. In a way, we can work in vineyard and be safe, but from the business standpoint I was extremely worried. I hosted a big sale of older vintages and got nice results from that, but you can only bother your mailing list so much. I am happy now as I recently received an order from my distributor for Anatomy to be sold in Costco.

I work harder in the vineyard than in the cellar. The fruit in these vineyards is extremely tannic and I have had to re-learn winemaking to soften the edges. The tannins are strong because the fruit struggles. It’s amazing –sometimes you wonder how they grow because it’s a pile of rocks, but these vines are living on the edge. You have to suffer a bit to be interesting. 

2015 is my current release. I wait longer than other wineries (most Napa current releases are 2016 or 2017) because I need to wait for the wines to start showing finesse, and that’s the price I have to pay. Fruit bombs are good for cash flow, but I love complexity in wine and the transformation in the cellar is really fascinating.

I make Anatomy to reach people who want a nice Napa wine but can’t afford the high prices. People should be able to have good wine at decent price, I used to work to sell Anatomy, and now buyers come to me.

Current Releases:

Hesperian Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015: The current release on this sultry, deeply nuanced Cabernet is 2015—which means it waited five years before making its debut. It shows densely woven red-black fruit over a bit of spice and earth. I love this wine as much for what it is and what it is not—it is not cloying, over-ripe or extracted. It is dynamic, layered and rich but with a balanced core. $100

Hesperian Kitoko Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, 2015: This is the Hesperian flagship bottling. Like the Napa Valley Cabernet, this release also waited five years before release. Abundant with black cherry, spice and mint, it shows the polish, succulent texture and finesse of a world-class wine.

Anatomy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015: This affordable wine is a blend of vineyards, with a juicy plum nose and layers of cherry, eucalyptus and cassis on the palate. Bold and structured but ready to drink now.

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