Hesperian Wines, owned by winemaker Philippe Langner focuses primarily on single vineyard, single variety, small lot wines (Cabernet Sauvignon). From an international point of view, Philippe is one of the Napa Valley’s most international vintners having lived on 5 continents over the years. His perspective of the globe is great; he had an envious childhood – born in El Salvador, he lived in Bangladesh and Columbia, but spent most of his formative years in Africa in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually he moved to Switzerland for school. Later, he studied at UC Davis and graduated with a double Masters in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics. After school he wanted to help NGO’s abroad, focusing on third world agricultural development. He moved to France and began searching for overseas employment while working for a bank in Paris.
At this time his sister Ariana recommended he try working in the wine industry at Château Clarke in the Listrac-Médoc AOC – named after Tobie Clarke who originally purchased this land in 1818. The chateau has been owned by a part of the Rothschild banking family since 1973. And his sister Ariane was married to Benjamin Rothschild (died in 2021).
Bordeaux was about as far from the middle of Africa as one could get but Philippe quickly learned all aspects of the industry from working in the vineyards to the actual wine making. Up until this time he had no prior experience in the wine industry. He worked at Château Clarke for 5 years and learned from some of the best winemakers in the industry including master blender Michel Rolland.
Coming to the Napa Valley to tour wine country on vacation, his friend recommended he visit Sullivan Rutherford Estate. Assuming he was going to the winery to taste the wine like any other wine loving tourist with an appointment, he soon found himself being grilled with questions by one of their winemaking team. After 15 minutes he was offered a job (this was just before the start of harvest) but he was actually heading back to France in 3 days. After a scramble for visa paperwork he stayed on to work the harvest and ultimately was promoted to viticulturist and winemaker and worked at Sullivan Rutherford Estate for 8 years.
Today Philippe focuses his energy on the Hesperian wines and a second label called Anatomy (about 3,000 cases per year of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). He chose the name Anatomy in reference to a number of wine descriptors referencing the anatomy of a body (IE, legs, backbone, nose, among others). He also continues to consult for several small labels.
Philippe owns a picturesque forty acre property piece of property on Atlas Peak he calls Kitoko (KEE toe ko), a word in the Bantu language used in parts of central Africa including the Democratic Republic of Congo – meaning “beautiful.” His first purchase was 20 acres and then in 2016 he added a neighboring 20 acre parcel. While minutes from the valley floor this part of the Napa Valley feels very isolated. The landscape across parts of Atlas Peak could almost be called a “rock-pile” and its no different at this vineyard site. During a visit after a torrential rain in which local creeks had turned into waterfalls, we were expecting to get muddy; this was not the case after walking around the vineyard for 30 minutes.
Due to the rocky and stressful nature of growing grapes here, yields are small – often slightly less then 2 tons per acre. In 2015, a particular challenging year on the site due to shatter Philippe harvested well under 1 ton per acre. Berry sizes are small with a high skin to juice ratio. Getting color out of the wines is never a problem – and Philippe has to be careful not to over extract the wines in the cellar. 14.2 aces of vines are planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon and include clones 7, 337 and 341. The original vines were planted in 2000 and in 2003. And while this is Hesperian’s flagship vineyard, Hesperian leases grapes and manages the vines from two other small vineyard sites: the 4 acre Eagles Nest vineyard in the southern part of the Napa Valley and the 2 acre Upstream vineyard in Coombsville.
The vineyard is generally above the frost line. On a clear day, views from parts of the vineyard are spectacular – even of San Francisco far in the distance.
As Philippe told us, “wine is a game of patience” – he crafts his wines for the long run, thinking 10 and 20 years out. Some of his wines are big and muscular upon release, built to age and develop over time – wines one would lay down for a number of years. He further ages the wines up to two years in bottle before their release so current release wines are typically about 5 years post vintage date. With that said, the Hesperian wines are not big in alcohol but rather showcase structure and depth. They are also food friendly wines, best appreciated and enjoyed with a meal. At the core of Hesperian’s wines are Philippe’s respect for terroir and varietal characteristics.
Philippe focuses on 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Referring to single varietal wines, he says, “the wine making really needs to take place in the vineyard as you have no chances to fill in the ‘holes’ later by blending in other varieties”.
2017 Atlas Peak Fire
In October 2017 a major fire tore through Atlas Peak – the stories of survival that we have heard first hand from speaking with a number of vintners directly effected in the path of this particular fire are remarkable. Unfortunately Philippe’s home, miscellaneous equipment, storage buildings and approximately 500 vines were destroyed.
Many residents escaped with only the clothes on their back and their vehicle – some were caught fleeing the fire down by the nearby Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park unable to exit Atlas Peak Road due to a tree that had fallen and completely blocked the road. With flames surrounding combined with horrific winds and smoke, we can only imagine the nightmare that was ensuing – fortunately the tree was finally cut, letting the line up of cars drive through the flames and thick smoke to safety at ‘the bottom of the hill’ near Silverado Trail.
Two prominent pieces of art remarkably survived from the fire – a giant wooden table and a tall hand carved wooden statue, both from Indonesia. And Philippe rebuilt his home – this time, the new house was constructed with a core of metal and exterior landscaping sprinklers.
These are wines that speak to a sense of place and purpose. A winemaker in the truest sense, Philippe lives every aspect of his chosen career – he lives on site, he carefully oversees the management of the vines and he crafts the wines himself. The depth of wisdom he has accumulated from years of international perspective is an integral part of his persona and operations.
The first vintage of Hesperian was from 2004 (his earlier vintages were crafted while he was still working at Sullivan Vineyards). In 2016 Philippe began what he calls the ‘ripeness trials’ – harvesting over a period of about a month and fermenting various picks separately from one another. Pawa means ‘one’ in Wappo Indian language – referencing how numerous components from the land come together to create a single wine. The 2016 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Pawa offers hints of cedar, black olive and wood spices on the bouquet. A moderate grip of tannins shows on the finish – but are not course in their feel. Lingers with a red fruit brightness, red licorice and a noticeable freshness – the lively acidity is an important component of this wine. This wine was from his middle ripe picks from the Kitoko Vineyard and Eagles Nest Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District.
The 2016 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Witha (means west in Wappo Indian language) is composed of 50% fruit from the Kitoko Vineyard and 50% fruit from the Upstream Vineyard in Coombsville. This wine offers darker aromatics including blackberry complemented by some cedar and toasted oak. As the wine breathes reveals a hint of mocha. Philippe calls this wine “more old style, old Bordeaux”. Mouth watering finish with a brightness of red fruits including red cherry and currant. A slight dusty note lingers with rounded and finer grained tannins. Very approachable in its youth. This wine was made from early picks from both the Kitoko Vineyard and the Upstream Vineyard in Coombsville.
The 2016 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Kitoko Vineyard is dark ruby in color – the fruit aromatics dominate with ripe blackberry and blueberry. A very pretty more fruit-forward bouquet. The texture is an immediately appealing characteristic of this wine with rounded, slightly chalky and fine grained tannins. Some darker spices show on the finish (think plum skin) along with a hint of mocha. There are no rough edges with this wine – its already nicely balanced. And stylistically a noticeable contrast from the 2017 vintage. This wine was crafted from the best fruit of the late harvests.
The vintage variation between the 2016 Hesperian wines and the 2017 vintage is easily noticed. 2016 was a cooler vintage and produced Hesperian wines more approachable in their youth while the 2017 wines show as well extracted, deeply colored and robust in texture and richness of flavor. And 2017 was marked by the Atlas Peak Fire; Philippe was able to pick before the fire but then had to wait several weeks after, picking in late October.
The 2017 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Pawa is dark ruby in color with intriguing notes of mocha and espresso on the bouquet along with hints of old cedar box and ripe black cherry. The bouquet offers a riper expression then the 2016 Pawa which makes sense as grapes for this wine were harvested later than in 2016. Bright acidity lingers with a little astringency of drier tannins. Not course in their feel but certainly noticeable and long lasting.
The 2017 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Witha shows aromas of red cherry, currant and blackberry – plenty of berry fruits. An herbal note shows both on the bouquet and the palate – a very nice aromatic balance between fruit and oak influence. Features a rich palate, with hints of dried tobacco leaf on the finish. Juicy, and long lasting with some herbal hints on the finish. Anchored by rich and plentiful tannins.
The 2017 Hesperian Cabernet Sauvignon Kitoko Vineyard is a big wine in all aspects. Dark ruby in the glass with generous aromatics including ripe blackberry, boysenberry and plum along with dessert spices (mocha) and dark chocolate. Richly flavored across the palate – lingers with a persistent grip of substantial, still tightly woven and very long lasting tannins. This wine has all the stuffing and density to go many more years and is arguably the most age worthy of the wines we tried.
The 2007 Hesperian Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon is from grapes grown on the coveted bench land on the west side of the valley. The nose is somewhat earthy – the mid palate is balanced with dark fruit flavors. The wine has power, flavor and good acidity. The fruit is “big enough” to take a fair amount of oak during aging and 100% new French oak was used.
The 2007 Hesperian Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon has a deep dark inviting nose showing plenty of black fruit – black cherry and blackberry. We’ve met a number of winemakers in the valley who source from “sweet spots” and Coombsville is one of these spots for Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine again shows a weighty structure, not from alcohol (13.9%) but from tannins and a beautiful range of layered flavors on the palate.
The 2007 Hesperian Muscatine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from lower Soda Canyon (near Atlas Peak)- a pleasant dustiness shows on the bouquet with some notes of cocoa powder. The entry is surprisingly soft but builds in complexity, layers and structure rather quickly. This wine was barrel fermented. It is a rich wine with big black fruit flavors. Hints of cedar show on the finish.
The 2007 Hesperian Spring Mountain shows elegant fruit on the bouquet, notes of red and black cherry and nuances of vanilla underlying. This is a big wine from start to finish – showing great strength upon entry, big bold flavors, California ripeness hillside wine…mountain fruit. Rich lingering flavors complete the well structured finish.
The name Hesperian is tied into Greek mythology; the Garden of the Hesperides was located in the west, on the Iberian peninsula (Spain & Portugal). Hesperian means “of the west” or relating to the west in Greek. Philippe chose this name for a variety of reasons – because of Napa’s location in the western-most part of the mainland USA and Greek and Latin are the roots of the English language. He chose a name that is reflective of location, rather than his own name as he wanted to convey that wine making is about the terroir.
Total production of the Hesperian wines is about 1000 cases per year with select distribution in New York, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and California. Locally you can find the wine at Backroom Wines in Napa and V Wine Cellars in Yountville and Hesperian Wines participates in several consumer tastings including the Taste of Atlas Peak held every year in September at Black Stallion Winery (just north of the city of Napa).
Philippe also produces a second label called Anatomy – with a much higher production, usually around 6,000 to 7,000 cases per year.
Philippe has been permitted to build an entirely underground winery (14,000 square feet) into one of the hills on his property. We will keep an eye on the progress of this and will update this review accordingly once the cave is completed. At that time, tastings will be available for serious wine enthusiasts on the property – by appointment only. For more information or to purchase wine, visit: www.hesperianwines.com