Just 30 miles long and five miles wide on average, Napa Valley is home to 700 grape growers and some 475 physical wineries producing more than 1,000 brands. Does it need a new one?
Shannon O’Shaughnessy should have a bead on that. Having played a material role in developing her family’s O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery—a producer whose wines, especially those from Howell Mountain, have been sought after by collectors for decades—she moved on to distribution, sales, brand consulting … Still, she always harbored the dream of her own winery, her own land. And in 2014, on the hunt for a house, she settled on one that came with a one-acre “organic gem of a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard,” as O’Shaughnessy calls it. Not exactly a vast estate, but even a few dry-farmed vines, planted by acclaimed winemaker Andy Erickson (Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle …) and his viticulturist wife, Annie Favia, in the up-and-coming and very cool Coombsville AVA was an awfully interesting place to start. She called her new venture Aileron Estates.
To that Sauvignon Blanc, O’Shaughnessy added a Cabernet Sauvignon from her family’s Howell Mountain plantings. But, she says, “I knew that if I started something, I wanted it to be unique, and I wanted to own the land. I wanted a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, a mountain vineyard.” In 2019, she found what she was looking for on Atlas Peak, not far from famed Stagecoach Vineyard. Dubbed Altimeter, the remote 10 acres will anchor O’Shaughnessy’s estate going forward. “I liked that Atlas Peak was still somewhat uncharted territory in Napa,” she says, “and that it was also somewhere my family didn’t grow grapes. I would be able to form my own identity there.”
It’s safe to say that O’Shaughnessy isn’t risk averse. The Minnesota native, who grew up surrounded by agriculture, is a skier, a scuba diver, a mountain biker and a pilot. Ironically, a brush with death a decade ago dampened none of that. It made doing what she loved—following the proverbial dream—even more compelling for the adventurer. Only to this adventure, she attached a safety catch: An aileron is the hinged panel on the back edge of an airplane wing that offers balance as the craft maneuvers.
O’Shaughnessy has also hedged her bet on Aileron Estates by bringing in the now-legendary winemaking team of Philippe Melka and Maayan Koschitzky. It would be easy to think that tapping a team with a winemaking portfolio as large as Atelier Melka’s would nudge Aileron wines toward a Napa Valley style full of sameness. O’Shaughnessy sees it differently, though. “It sounds cliché, but I want to make the best wines possible that are characteristic of their place and of the vintage,” she says. “I also see Altimeter as a vineyard I can put on the map, and I knew when I hired Philippe and Maayan, they didn’t have any clients on Atlas Peak. The three of us loved this new challenge.”
The Aileron Estates 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon ($160), still from Howell Mountain fruit, takes no cookie-cutter approach. It’s tied to the site with muscular tannins, brooding forest floor on the nose, mountain herb notes and concentrated red fruit—its complexity and impressive structure managed with finesse. The Aileron 2019 Sauvignon Blanc from O’Shaughnessy’s stamp-sized Coombsville vineyard ($80) offers a beautiful interplay between quarried-rock minerality and fresh citrus, stone fruit and tropicals; between brightness and a little weight from some oak influence.
With the new Altimeter estate vineyard Cabernet coming online from uncharted Atlas Peak, and with this small but exquisite taste of lesser-known Coombsville on offer, is Aileron adding something compelling to the familiar Napa Valley lexicon? Yes. No question.