Jason Tinacci

The renowned Italian winemaker Piero Antinori has mastered the mountains above Napa. 

Jonathan Cristaldi
September 26, 2017

If Piero Antinori, 79, cuts his finger on a foil, he bleeds wine. Antinori, a pillar of Tuscan and Umbrian wines from Italy, first came to Napa in 1966—deliberately to the mountains—to make great Cabernet Sauvignon. The lessons he'd learned over the years producing Super Tuscan heavyweights Tignanello and Solaia taught him that in order to make great wine, you had to plant vines in ancient soils on mountain hillsides. By 1993, he had done that, purchasing 600 acres and establishing one of Napa's great, if somewhat hidden estates—Antica (3700 Soda Canyon Rd, Napa, CA).

The only way to visit is by making an appointment. From Napa, it's a 25-minute drive along Silverado Trail, up Soda Canyon road to the regal gates of Antinori's Antica Estate. Perched at 1,800 feet on the eastern slopes of the Vaca Mountains in the Atlas Peak area, the estate boasts an impressive network of caves, a winery, and tasting room. Three wines produced are available outside the winery and are all estate-grown: a stunning Chardonnay, powerful and elegant Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and their newest single-vineyard bottling, the beautifully structured "Townsend" Cabernet. A few other boutique offerings are available only through the winery.

Above the elegant Tuscan-style tasting room sits Antinori's house. The family visits a few times each year, hosting guests and taking in one of the most impressive views in all of Napa. Looking west from the house you can see the Oak Knoll District, the city of Napa, Carneros, and the financial district of San Francisco. Looking northeast, you can see all of Napa—from Stag's Leap to Calistoga, and across the valley to Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain. The land was mostly an old cattle ranch before they cleared away shrub brush and boulders to plant Antica's stunning estate, which calls to mind the rolling hills of Tuscany in an amphitheater-like setting.

Courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle

In the shadow of the 2,700-foot summit of Atlas Peak, Antinori's vineyards are rooted between 1,500-1,800 feet in elevation. "What makes us unique is that we're situated in a small valley up here," says Glenn Salva, the Estate Manager. "Foss Valley begins 1,500 feet above sea level and at those elevations, we've planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because cooler air sinks into these lower 'valley floor' pockets," he explains. From this valley, the soils change from younger alluvial deposits to older volcanic soils higher up near the winery and tasting room—and that's where the estate's hallowed Cabernet Sauvignon is planted.

Of all the varieties planted, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up roughly half, followed by Chardonnay, and then a smattering of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. "People think Carneros is the coolest spot in Napa for Chardonnay," says Salva, "but we harvest ours even later than Carneros because the valley provides this sink of cold air—too cold for Cabernet." That cold air allows Antica's Chardonnay to ripen slowly while retaining bright acids. Amazingly, they pick Cabernet grapes even earlier than they pick Chardonnay.

Courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle

Beginning with the 2013 vintage, an ambitious replanting inspired by a project in Chianti, started in 2009 and culminated in the first "new generation" wines from young vines. "I have realized that in Napa Valley, like in the great wine regions of the Old World, we can find great differences between the various sub-regions," says Piero Antinori. Always seeking improvements, Antinori applied all he'd learned in Chianti to Antica, planting multiple clones on new rootstocks at different vine densities. "We've seen great results," says Salva. So much so, that in 2008 they decided to offer a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from their Townsend block—a first for Antica.

Antica's wines are imbued with certain hallmark traits, courtesy of the extreme altitude and elements that vines are exposed to on Atlas Peak. Ancient mineral deposits deliver chocolaty tannins and the wild Manzanitas and sagebrush really give the wine character and a true sense of place.

Antica produces a number of wines, some available nationally, others at the winery, but here are three standout offerings:

2015 Antica Chardonnay, Napa Valley, Atlas Peak, $35

Lemon gold in color, giving way to mouthwatering citrus aromas tinged with baking spice notes. Creamy and decadent, with ripe melon, apricots, lemon curd, Marcona almond notes and juicy acidity. A long mineral finish demands Antinori's favorite pairing of spaghetti with clams.

2014 Antica Pinot Noir, Napa Valley, Atlas Peak $35 (Winery Only)

Beautiful deep ruby in color redolent of deep red cherry fruit, wild dried sagebrush, and perfectly integrated cedar spice. Velvety smooth, with deep berry fruit, but terrifically light on its feet with a bright, clean acid streak—a truly unique Napa Pinot.

2013 Antica Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, $60

This 100 percent Cabernet is dark and brooding in the glass, bursting with rich black mountain fruit, mocha spice, and espresso notes. All power and grace, boasting black cherry, mountain blueberry, crushed violets and chocolaty tannins, bolstered by mouthwatering acidity and finishing with that unmistakable mountain garrigue note of sagebrush and mocha. Antinori loves this wine with roast venison.