Elan Vineyards is run by the husband wife team of Patrick and Linda Elliot-Smith. Patrick is one of the modern day pioneers of the Atlas Peak Appellation in Napa and in fact was one of the original founders of this AVA. He first moved to Atlas Peak in 1975 and then 4 years later acquired a piece of land that he developed from scratch. Parts of Atlas Peak are extremely rocky and shallow and his parcel is no different. While living in a Teepee for the first year without electricity he remembers moving rocks easily the size of cars. Atlas Peak is a mountain appellation generally characterized by very rocky volcanic soil. Incidentally, it is also one of the few places where from select viewpoints on a very clear day you can see the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east.
Patrick is a philosophy major turned vintner who is completely self taught. What is fairly rare in the valley today is someone who is both their own vineyard manager and winemaker such as Patrick. He ran a successful vineyard management company for many years and helped developed prime vineyard land in the valley for several Napa notables such as Beaulieu Vineyards, Dominus & Hess Collection. Today he no longer has his vineyard management company but still manages all his own vineyards himself.
In 1979 he cleared and planted Elan’s first vineyards and has since planted a number of additional acres all growing the primary Bordeaux varietals. The property sits at about 2000 feet above sea level and well above the Napa Valley floor. Yes they do typically see snow at the vineyard several times each winter. The top of Atlas Peak (2,663 feet) is nearby and can be easily seen from the property. This is a very temperate growing climate as they are entirely above the fog line and during summer heat spikes, temperatures up here are usually more moderate than up valley. As a result hang time is rather long; the grapes tend to ripen slower.
For several years the original vineyard block on the property produced fruit for Caymus Winery. However after tasting a number of their wines with his Atlas Peak grown fruit, Patrick decided to hold back the grapes and make his own wine. Elan’s first vintage was from 1992.
The winery is almost entirely self contained – which certainly helps based on its somewhat remote location and the fact that Atlas Peak Road becomes very narrow and windy towards the end. The only outside help for their production is a mobile bottling truck and there are only 1 or 2 mobile bottling companies in Napa that will make this drive.
At face value Elan’s wines speak for themselves but just tasting the wine doesn’t tell the story of 30 years of hard work developing the vineyards and learning the nuances of the various locations on the property. Patrick is a veteran of Atlas Peak having helped to develop many of the vineyards located within this appellation as well as beyond.
His vineyards are farmed organically and at the time of this review was in year 3 of the CCOF organic certification. Elan is a big believer in dropping fruit and does so several times at strategic points after blossom up until right before harvest. With very rocky hill side soils they already have low yields, but by removing all but the highest quality fruit their yields are even lower. Elan’s vineyards are very much hand managed by Patrick. He employs the Jules Guyot method of trellising which is uncommon in the valley but common in Bordeaux. This type of trellising is very labor intensive and more complicated than conventional trellising but helps keeps the fruit production low.
Tasting Elan’s wine’s can be an eye opener if you have a pre-conceived notion that the hillside rocky volcanic soils of Atlas Peak only produce big chewy tannic wines. Initially, in fact Patrick even planted more Merlot vines with the thought of using these for increased blending – to help soften the Cabernet Sauvignon. Their terroir makes this a moot point. Elan’s wines are amazingly elegant, soft, focused and balanced. These are the type of Napa wines we love to drink.
The 2006 Proprietary blend incorporates only three of their finest barrels from each vintage (based on blind tasting) and as a result is available in very limited production only to wine club members. After bottling, this wine always ages for at least another year before being released. We tried the ’06 vintage while still in barrel. It was already an elegant wine with a very balanced palate for still being approximately 18 months away from release.
The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is smooth and seamless from start to finish and is an elegant wine that shows extremely well even without food. In fact this is one of the nicer without food Napa Cabernet Sauvignons we’ve tried. The perfume filling bouquet holds just a hint of vanilla followed by a palate containing concentrated flavors including notes of raspberry and blackberry. The finish is lively and features broad sweet tannins. Elan’s wines tend to age very well and once a year they showcase their older vintages for wine club members only.
Every so often a vintage is perfect for letting some of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes hang on the vine until later in November – and during these select years (only 2 years to date), Elan makes a Cabernet Sauvignon Late Harvest wine. We are aware of only 1 other vintner in the Napa Valley who makes this type of wine every year and another producer who has only made it within the past few years. Needless to say it is a very rare wine in Napa. The 2006 is inky dark with a pleasing very aromatic nose. This wine is sweet but not cloyingly so; it shows very ripe dark fruit (blackberry, blueberry), but is not prune like in nature. It is a sweet wine that finds a good balance between sweetness and alcohol. The finish shows good structure and is slightly smoky. This wine is only available to club members.
Patrick’s brother is an artist and his work appears on the label of their Cabernet Sauvignon every year.
Elan maintains a mailing list and a wine club with several tiers. As of press time there is still availability in their wine club. For the limited production and high quality of wines, Elan keeps their prices quite reasonable by area standards. They do not have any retail outlets and sell direct to consumer. As a result they are not distributed although you can find their wines locally in select Napa Valley restaurants including Ubuntu in Napa, Etoile at Domain Chandon in Yountville, Go Fish in St. Helena and also at the Auberge du Soleil Resort also in St. Helena. A typical vintage sees a production of around 700 cases. Visit: www.elanvineyards.com