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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.

Photo by: David Duncan Livingston

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 Center.

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.

Idyllic Elan

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.

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