LYLE NORTON: San Francisco Examiner
Philippe Langner is a true vigneron. He is the owner, sole viticulturist and winemaker for Hesperian Wines, controlling all aspects in the production of his highly reviewed cabernet sauvignon releases, from bud break to bottle. The primary source of his fruit comes from the picturesque 14-acre Kitoko Vineyard spread across slopes outside the large windows in his new home. Philippe has chosen this remote, serene place high up on Atlas Peak to live and follow his life’s quest.
Born in El Salvador, raised in Colombia and the former Zaire in Africa, Philippe has a passion for plants and soil that began at an early age. Pursuit of a career in agriculture led him to University of California, Davis where he was introduced to the Napa Valley. After college, he spent five years working at a Bordeaux chateau in France before opportunities and the warm climate pulled him back to Napa.
While working as viticulturist and winemaker at historic Sullivan Vineyards in Rutherford, Philippe took a risk, secured some cabernet sauvignon grapes from a Coombsville vineyard and initiated the Hesperian brand. Within a short time, he committed to the mountain property and his calling to create the model Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.
The 14.2 acres of steep, neglected vines, once known as the Second Chance Vineyard, is what attracted Philippe to the parcel. He envisioned something different. Renaming it Kitoko, the Congolese Lingala word for beautiful, he skillfully transformed it to one that produces consistent low yield, high quality fruit.
Philippe also demonstrated some culinary skills as he prepared a gourmet lunch at his home. It was during lunch that I first understood his passion and resiliency as a true vigneron.
Philippe lost his original home during the 2017 Tubbs fire that ravished the valley and parts of Sonoma County. Shortly after his new home was completed, the recent Glass Fire left the vineyard intact but exposed the grapes to smoke taint. After some trepidation, he decided to drop all the tainted fruit and forego a 2020 vintage.
After months of meticulous work and care in the vineyard, it must have been devastating for him to drop the fruits of his labor. However, I didn’t see or hear that in his attitude. During an afternoon walk in the vineyard, Philippe spoke enthusiastically about the next vintage, the qualities of the individual blocks and of improvements that would result in more perfect fruit.
The Hesperian name relates to the West, but this story is about one man’s passion for perfection and a desire to influence each phase of the process in setting a standard for Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. I was more than willing to taste his new vintage 2016 releases.
The unique location of the Kitoko Vineyard enables grapes to ripen at different times, something described as “shatter.” As a result, the wine in 285 cases of the flagship 2016 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Kitoko Vineyard Atlas Creek ($150) is made from low-yield vines. Captivating aromas precede a luscious mouthfeel with dark fruit flavors and spice notes throughout he finish. This Kitoko Vineyard release is the only in Philippe’s collection with an alcohol level above 14%.
Early ripening grapes in the Kitoko Vineyard are combined with fruit from the Upstream Vineyard in the Coombsville appellation, southeast of Napa, to produce the rich, full-bodied 2016 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon “Witha” Napa Valley ($100). Aged 20 months in 31% new French oak, the flavors are more fruit-driven with herbal hints throughout.
Fewer than 200 cases of the 2016 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon “Pawa” Napa Valley ($100) were produced, combining grapes from the Kitoko Vineyard with the best barrels of nearby Eagle’s Nest Vineyard. Aged 20 months in 25% new French oak with more time in the bottle before release, this wine has an excellent flavor profile and is an expression of terroir.
Determined to create a more affordable cabernet sauvignon, Philippe launched the Anatomy No. 1 brand in 2006. Medium-bodied and produced in the Bordeaux-style, the 2016 Anatomy No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($45) is sourced from multiple vineyards and expresses ripened dark fruit flavors with smoky spice notes.