Striving for Perfection on Atlas Peak.
Halfway up Atlas Peak, surrounded by scrub oaks, chaparral, and manzanitas, Philippe Langner of Hesperian Wines meticulously farms, mostly by hand, his hilly, rock-bestrewn Kitoko Vineyard. Hesperian’s owner, winemaker, and viticulturist, the cosmopolitan Langner reserves the majority of its grapes for his flagship 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Named for the 14-acre vineyard, elevation 1,350–1,450 feet, the collector-worthy wine is, like its creator, lyrical, intellectual, passionate, refined, and resolute. Born in El Salvador to a German father and French mother, Langner was raised mostly in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Kitoko means “beautiful” in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken there.) Plants fascinated the future winemaker from an early age—so much that he pursued dual master’s degrees in agronomy and agricultural economics at UC Davis. Upon graduating, though, he took a job—as a banker.
“It was terrible!” Langner recalled recently with a laugh. “I did M&As (mergers and acquisitions) for six months, and that was it.” Luckily for him, the bank-owned a Bordeaux winery. One of his bosses suggested Langner explore the wine business, and to his surprise, “I fell in love with all aspects of winemaking,” he said. “Particularly the many adjustments that occur in the vineyard to achieve the best possible fruit.”
Langner credits his four-year stint in France and subsequent nearly decade-long run at Sullivan Vineyards in Rutherford with helping him appreciate how vineyard and cellar decisions reverberate through- out a wine’s life. The challenges of Atlas Peak, whose craggy terrain begets vigorous tannins, required him to devise regimens to create wines suitable for aging yet supple enough to drink young. In addition to the Kitoko Cabernet, Langner produces a 100% Cabernet blend of grapes from Kitoko and a Coombsville vineyard.
Rather than make a splashy entrance, Langner’s soulful yet structured wines cast a slow, subtle, profoundly satisfying spell.
Private tastings, most conducted by the genial winemaker himself, begin with a drive to Kitoko, whose southernmost blocks afford San Francisco views on a clear day. The vineyard excursion complete, Langner escorts guests to the Kitchen Collective, a private restaurant in downtown Napa, where he pours the two current Cabernets and an older vintage that illustrates how gracefully the wines age.
Another way to sample Langner’s output is by attending the winemaker’s salon at the Kitchen Collective on the third Saturday of the month. “I bring wines of varying ages, and we taste them one by one with the wonderful food made here,” said Langner. “Sometimes we have a special guest speaking on a specific topic, but often the conversation about wine just goes where it goes.”
Many people who collect wine describe it as a personal journey reflecting their evolving palate, interests, and knowledge. Those who follow Langner’s career accompany the winemaker on a similar voyage as he strives to achieve his goal of “a perfect, honest expression of Kitoko”—and by extension, Atlas Peak—in the bottle.
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Article By: Daniel Mangin