Fall 2006 / Winter 2007
On Top of the World
Soar above Wine Country for a perspective of the land that only
a helicopter can give. Then set down on a mountaintop vineyard
for a luncheon and wine tasting at a world-class boutique winery
to which few ever have access. This is the ultimate getaway.
You strap yourself into the creamy leather seat, the engine
whirs evenly, and the helicopter flutters gently upward. Within
seconds, you're getting an unfamiliar view of Napa Valley, appreciating—perhaps
for the first time—the way the valley narrows just north of St.
Helena, the interlocking triangles of Chappellet's winery roof,
and the oxbow curve of the Napa River.
Millions of visitors flock to Wine Country every year. Almost
all of them take away an impression that is limited to the center
of Napa Valley, with its ribbons of manicured vineyards marching
with geometrical precision away from Highway 29. If they notice
the mountains at all, they have little notion of the rough terrain,
the sloping, irregularly shaped patches of vineyards, the fine
houses hidden at the end of tortuously winding one-lane roads.
Wayne Lackey would like to change that, at least for those who
indulge in his custom-designed Wine Country Helicopters tours.
“My business is about half tourists, half business,” he says.
He often flies clients and real estate agents around Napa and
Sonoma counties to inspect properties, hovering low so they can
appraise the terrain, decide where to build, and get a preview
of the neighbors. Some vineyard owners have discovered that they
can see problems such as drainage issues and vines showing signs
of disease more clearly from the air.
Lackey's most enthusiastic about his private, custom-designed
tours of Wine Country, however. Thanks to years of carefully
cultivated contacts with local winemakers, he's able to offer
both the view from above and a close-up glimpse of properties
that are difficult to find and rarely open to the public.
Up, Up, and Away
It's a bright summer morning, and Lackey is taking three people
up to the highly acclaimed and very private Elan Vineyards, perched
2,000 feet up the slope of Atlas Peak, on the east side of Napa
Valley. To the joy of the guests gaping from the Bell Jet Ranger,
he takes a circuitous route from the Napa airport, heading west
to point out Domaine Carneros's French-style headquarters, artwork
placed on the hillsides at the di Rosa Preserve, and the Spanish
architecture of the Christian Brothers Retreat and Conference
As the helicopter circles northeast, Lackey's visitors become
aware of the contrast between the flat valley center and the
sharp cliffs and brush-covered slopes to the east and west. Every
so often, a patch of vineyard appears, without a house or a road
within sight, prompting one to wonder how someone had selected
that particular bit of unpromising-looking land to plant grapes.
Although hillside grapes, their flavor concentrated by their
struggle to survive, command premium prices, it seems impossible
that anyone can farm there.
And then, below, appears Elan, a lovely vista of peach-colored
buildings, lush vineyards, and the welcoming sight of a lake.
Owners Patrick and Linda Elliott-Smith and daughter, Monique,
wave from the lawn as the helicopter sets down on a 12-foot-wide
berm between the lake and rows of vines (the temperature's closing
in on 100, so son, Nicolas, is
hiding out in the air-conditioned guest house). The leaves and unripe grapes
shake in the wake of the turning blades, but Lackey quickly notes, “It's not
harming them—I assure you. Patrick would not let me land here if it did.”
Patrick escorts the visitors to nearby rows of cabernet sauvignon
vines and tells of the vineyard's history. He and his brother,
Dennis, born in the United States and raised in France by a French
mother and American father, bought a nearby property in 1975.
“We were both philosophy majors with no experience in farming,”
Patrick recalls. Nevertheless, they cleared some land to raise
organic vegetables, herbs, sheep, and goats. The brothers eventually
sold that property and Patrick bought Elan's property, in 1979.
“There was no driveway or electricity,” he says, “but there was
a spring.” He erected a tepee and lived there for a year while
building his home. Meanwhile, he also got busy digging out a
lake for irrigation—and swimming—and planted vineyards. He produced
a grand total of 150 cases the first year he had enough mature
fruit; today Elan has 13 acres in vines, and production of the
winery's Cabernet is up to 1,000 cases annually. Elan wines are
sold primarily to restaurants, boutique wine shops, and members
of Elan's wine club.
After describing some of Elan's hand-pruning and sustainable
practices, Patrick and Linda lead the small group up to the family's
Provençale-style home, built entirely of rammed earth, a construction
method that compacts earth—in this case, decomposed granite from
Sonoma—into two-foot-thick walls. The home's open layout includes
a spacious living room to the left, whose wall of doors open
to a pool area, landscaped garden, olive trees, lavender, and
then the valley below. In fact, from almost every room in the
house views extend eastward, beyond the Vaca Mountains all the
way to the foothills of the Sierras.
An expansive kitchen is the heart of the home, with a large
center island and a comfy seating area to the right (which Linda
explains she is trying to redecorate, but the remodel is at a
standstill while she and Patrick argue about what style of couch
they should buy—he wants leather; she French country–style.)
The kitchen opens up onto a spacious terrace that offers another
seating area and a bubbling fountain, as well as unimpeded views.
A circular staircase descends to the underground cellar—and Elan's
current store of Cabernet Sauvignon.
While Patrick and Linda generally host their luncheons or wine
tastings outdoors on the terrace, the recent heat wave makes
the kitchen the preferred tasting venue. Patrick starts to open
a couple bottles of wine as Linda heads to the refrigerator to
prepare some specialty cheeses—Cantal, Piave, Humboldt Fog, and
Petit Basque. One of the vintages is a rare late harvest, which
is sweet, tasting more along the lines of a port; a perfect dessert
wine. Another tasting is of Elan's 2002 vintage—95 percent Cabernet
Sauvignon, 5 percent Merlot, and a tiny bit of Cabernet Franc
and Petit Verdot.
Too soon, it's time to get back into the Jet Ranger, make a
final turn over the property, and flit back to the airport. For
valley veterans and newcomers alike, it has been an unforgettable
peek at a very private aspect of Wine Country.
Wine Country Helicopters
Wine Country Helicopters is located at the Napa
Airport. Learn more about tours at (707) 226-8470 or
Elan is not open to the public, but Linda and Patrick Elliott-Smith
periodically welcome small groups to their home. Find out where
to buy their wines and learn more about Elan at www.elanvineyards.com.