Napa Valley AVA
It would be correct to say that fate and heredity machinated together to assure Patrick Elliott-Smith’s destiny would be fulfilled in the wine business. Born of a French mother and an Irish-American father, Patrick’s teenage remembrances were of his grandfather Rene’s extensive wine cellar in Paris that included a large number of pre WWII Bordeaux chateaux.
While born in the United States, Elliott-Smith was sent to high school in France where his summers included visits and work in vineyards in Provence, the southernmost growing region in France. When he returned to this country to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Elliott-Smith hardly realized his fate lay within the confines of the wine industry.
After receiving a degree in Philosophy, Elliott-Smith orchestrated a trip to Napa Valley. Once there, similarities to the French wine country prompted him to undertake a rather remarkable course of action. He enlisted his brother Dennis and together the pair set out to follow the 1960’s dream of making a living on the land. They bought some acreage on the western slope of the Vaca Range in an area called Atlas Peak. The soil there was extremely rocky and difficult to farm so, for the next four years, the brothers raised a number of varied crops including herbs and vegetables in addition to goats, horses and sheep.
In 1979, Patrick Elliott-Smith found an extremely attractive parcel of land at the end of Atlas Peak Road and Elan Vineyards was born. The property was at the 1750-foot elevation level, a good 1300-1500 feet higher than most Napa Valley vineyards. This microclimate assured some unique growing advantages including a refuge from daytime summer heat and only slight morning fog influences.
The name Elan was chosen for its connotation to style and panache. It was also Patrick Elliott-Smith’s intention to craft his wines in the French manner, where subtlety and finesse were paramount. It was his dream to create his fledgling vineyard into a true French Connection. The land was initially cleared but it wasn’t until 1986 that the first vineyards were planted at Elan.
“At first,” Patrick Elliott-Smith recalled, “I was content to just be a grower. Our first fruit was sold to Caymus who really liked the fruit and its connection to our volcanic soil. I started making a little wine with the help of friends like Frank Altamura (Altamura Vineyards) and Chris Conley (Monticello Vineyards). Everyone seemed to like what I was doing so I decided to release a small amount (150 cases) of our 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon under the Elan Vineyards label.”
The resulting scenario was something that could easily be described as a fairytale ending to Patrick Elliott-Smith’s earlier dream.
The Wine Spectator chose to include Elan’s first release in their “Undiscovered Dozen, new names to try before they are too hot, ” in their 1997 collection, thereby creating an ongoing demand for the wine and the winery.
Not much has changed at Elan in the ensuing five years. Patrick Elliott-Smith is now 50, and content to keep his operation small, in fact, very, very small. Elan will produce about 1,000 cases of true estate wine in 2002, and will slowly increase its production until it achieves its permit limitation of 5,000 cases sometime in the distant future.
Elliott-Smith is himself the penultimate grower and winemaker, preferring to let his wife Linda care for the business side of Elan Vineyards. He feels that his smallness gives him great advantage over larger growers and vintners and is always willing to offer a comparison to wines grown on small chateaux in France. He savors his hands on approach and fervently eschews the fact that truly great wines are made in the vineyard.
He is happy with Atlas Peak’s newly designated appellation and the attention it has created for his wines and those of his neighbors. He points with pride to the fact that Jason Pahlmeyer has recently acquired vineyard land in Atlas Peak along with Silver Oak and Michael Mondavi, who also bought a parcel in his own interest.
Now matter how much success Elan Vineyards enjoys, we can be assured that Patrick Elliott-Smith will remain focused on his most important goal, that of producing a truly great French style Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. His grandfather would have been very proud of his accomplishments, a most important consideration in the life and career of Patrick Elliott-Smith.