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Black Bart and the Premium Grapes of Atlas Peak

When most people think of Napa, the towns in the valley come to mind—Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, Oakville, Calistoga, and others. But the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains are an important part of the Napa area. Of the 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in Napa, 5 of them are mountainous. Atlas Peak is one of them.

Napa’s wine industry requires three broad groups of people—grape growers, wine producers, and wine drinkers. I’m in the last category. In many cases, the grower and producer are the same. This is true for wineries that make estate wine. The grapes must be from the winery’s vineyards. But there are many more examples of producers who purchase grapes. There is where Atlas Peak comes in. Among its 1,500 acres of vineyards are several grape growers. The most notable is Stagecoach. (Image from their website.)

Back in the 1800’s, Stagecoach was home to Black Bart (aka Charles Earl Boles, the gentleman bandit). Mr. Boles had the habit of robbing the daily stagecoach that traveled between St. Helena and Monticello. Later, early settlers from Germany started growing grapes, a mineral spa was opened, and then the Stagecoach area became a destination for San Franciscans and other travelers. (Photo courtesy of Wiki.)

Perhaps because of the increased food source (i.e., grapes), the deer population increased. The hungry deer ruined the grapevines in the early 20th century. Then Prohibition put a nail in the coffin of viticulture, not only here, but elsewhere in Napa.

The land sat until 1991 when Dr. Jan Krupp purchased the property despite the lack of water. He eventually located water (400 feet deep) and then cleared about one billion pounds of volcanic rock. Today, Stagecoach boasts “extreme terroir.” The extreme refers to the steep, rugged mountain terrain as well as the extreme attention give to growing fruit.

The vineyard ranges from 1,200 to 1,750 feet elevation and consists of 204 vineyard blocks that host 16 varietals. More than 80 wineries use Stagecoach fruit to produce wine. Of those, 30 label Stagecoach as the source of the fruit. Many wineries make “vineyard designate wines” which is to say that Stagecoach allocates a vineyard for a specific winery. That winery collaborates with Stagecoach on how their particular fruit is grown.

Krupp no longer owns Stagecoach. In 2017, Gallo bought it. I assume the purchase is to expand their holdings in the high-end wine market, as I don’t expect Gallo to start using premium fruit in their low-end wines.

Gallo makes wine for every budget—Boone’s Farm, Thunderbird, Barefoot, Turning Leaf, Alamos, Mac Murray Ranch, and Clarendon Hills, and many, many other brands. They have two brands that use Stagecoach fruit—Louis Martini and Orin Swift. Thunderbird wine costs about $7.00 per bottle whereas the Orin Swift 2017 Bordeaux blend will set you back $70.

Atlas Peak has other growers on the mountain and a few wineries that allow visitors. Antica, Black Stallion Winery, and Prime Solum are a few that might be worth exploring. I haven’t tasted any of these wines nor have I traveled the hills of Atlas Peak. Given that Black Bart and his days of robbing are long gone, now might be a great time to check out the Atlas Peak AVA.

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