A Fresh Take on the Legacy of Winemaking
Atlas Vineyard Management
From soil and the lands to the climate, the grape, the viticulturist, the farming approach and the winemaker, many hands and factors influence the production of the best grapes and wines. Atlas Vineyard Management is a farm management company that manages and develops first-rate vineyards for some of the best wines in the world. The company integrates traditional farming practices with new, innovative ideas.
Atlas Vineyard Management is a full-service company that offers complete vineyard development and viticulture services from site analysis and permitting to clearing, grading, irrigation, selecting varieties and clones, trellis design and installation, and planting. It provides the necessary equipment and labor and can coordinate all aspects of managing high-end vineyards through harvest. Atlas markets the grapes, will deliver, and more.
Its most important activity is relationship building with its clients, as these relationships have laid the foundation for Atlas Vineyard Management’s glowing reputation. CEO and Co-Founder Barry Belli explained: “You build a reputation around these amazing properties with exceptional quality standards, and then you sell to the most talented winemakers, producing some of the best fruit for some of the best wines in the world.”
“You are going to gain a really good reputation in the industry, and through that, we have gained new clients. So, it has really been a three-tiered piece where we’ve managed the vineyards really well; we’ve focused on the quality, and as the properties sold, we’ve tried to maintain and grow relationships.”
Atlas Vineyard Management grew out of the relationship between CalPERS and Premier Pacific Vineyards (PPV). PPV was known for locating great vineyard lands and CalPERS was PPV’s biggest investor. CalPERS is the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. This agency ‘manages pension and health benefits for more than 1.6 million California public employees, retirees and their families.’ For quite some time, it invested in vineyards and property around the state.
As the target dates approached for PPV to begin the CalPERS exit strategy and sell the first of its funds, the economic downturn of 2008 to 2009 was in full force, making it a very bad time. PPV held onto the vineyards and waited on CalPERS for a new exit strategy direction.
Belli explained: “Development money stopped, and they held the properties for a longer term than anticipated. In doing that, PPV turned from being an investment vehicle into a farming company, because at that point in time the properties were producing. They were not set up to be a typical farming company, as their staff structure was primarily established for investment.”
Both Belli and his partner, Co-Founder and President Mike Cybulski, worked for PPV, Belli in finance and accounting and Cybulski in operations. Upon receiving notice from PPV that CalPERS was reorganizing their management and canceling the PPV contract, both men saw an opportunity to enter the market. “We went to lunch, and we said, ‘We have great employees; we have great properties that have a lot of great winemakers tied into these properties’,” recounted Belli.
“We knew that whoever CalPERS redirected the management of their vineyard portfolio to, they are going to need people in place to continue running operations, and they are going to need people in place who know the history and have relationships with the customers that are buying fruit off of those properties. When we discovered who the new manager was, we put in a bid to farm the properties, and we ended up getting the farming contract.”
CalPERS originally accounted for ninety-five percent of its business, though today, no CalPERS properties remain. The company has diversified, and its acreage has grown over the last five years. With this expansion in acreage, its reputation has also grown, and it is known for producing grapes of the highest quality.
“When you think about farming a vineyard, there are a group of maybe twenty specific activities that occur, and the detail around each activity depends on the quality potential of the property and wines the fruit will be going into.” Belli says that PPV did an amazing job selecting properties, developing beautiful vineyards on those sites.
Building on the foundation PPV laid, Atlas quickly established itself as a leading vineyard farmer, developer and grape sales and marketing specialist. Belli explained, “We attract very good, high-end winemakers and develop a relationship with them; we then nurture a relationship between the winemakers and the vineyards that we manage. It is the combination of the winemakers themselves and the marketability of our vineyards for their vineyard designate wines that grow their brand.”
This is so much more than a farming company; there is a definite passion for premium grapes and wines. However, although emotion can motivate a desire to produce grapes and wine, passion alone will not result in a profitable venture.
“A lot of people get into the wine industry because it’s passionate, and it’s almost emotional at times and of course for the lifestyle, and all of that is great, but that doesn’t make you money,” Belli noted. “We do a very good job of modeling the financials and presenting a financial package to an investor and to our partners that they can actually share with a financial institution or other investor.”
Atlas supports the entire process to improve the value of its clients’ assets in any way possible. These services are a real source of pride for the company.
Boutique Californian winery Kosta Browne makes wines from grapes grown by Atlas Vineyard Management. Michael Browne, one of the founders of Kosta Browne, identified three things that are imperative in producing a wine of outstanding quality. The first is site selection and the recognition that not every piece of land is created equally. Well-drained, rocky soils on a slope, at the ideal elevation, can make all the difference in grapes and the resulting wine.
The second is having the right winemaker as not all winemakers are created equally either. The final element is to enlist the right vineyard management company. The company fulfills that role ensuring properties, processes and partnerships are nourished and grown for optimal results.
“When you drive by one of our vineyards, you know it’s one of our vineyards just by how it looks. Everything is pristine, and the quality is very apparent,” Belli explained.
Atlas Vineyard Management is known for its highly efficient operations team and perhaps most importantly its viticulturist, Francisco Araujo. Belli credits Araujo with being one of the best viticulturists in the world. Araujo achieves balance and uniformity across each of the company’s properties through the highest standard of care.
“The most important things we have are the people that work for us. They are the biggest asset we have,” acknowledged Belli. “We get a lot of satisfaction out of our clients receiving great wine scores and feel very proud that we are a part of making their product. We’ve created amazing partnerships. We’ve purchased properties with partners. We sell fruit to great partners.”
Work culture is everything here. “We want to build a team that enjoys coming to work, and that feels the success of the wins of the company and that feels the heartbreak of the hard times of the company, one that is able to stand together and work hard together.”
The company has come a long way. Currently in its fifth harvest year, it is very pleased with its progress and has mapped a solid trajectory for the future. Atlas boasts over 1,800 acres of managed vineyards along the California coast and into the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Atlas Vineyard Management manages properties in Napa Valley, Mendocino, the Sonoma Coast and the Central Coast in California and in Oregon.
“Walala is a seventeen-acre gem of a vineyard that is about five miles off the Sonoma Coast – the true Sonoma Coast. It’s about 1200 feet in elevation; it’s in the middle of a 19,000-acre redwood forest, and it was part of what was called Preservation Ranch,” Belli described.
The property was sold by CalPERS to an environmental non-profit entity The Conservation Fund. The group focuses on protecting forests. “We continued farming for The Conservation Fund and started talking to them about purchasing the property, and eventually we were able to purchase the property with Price Family as a partner,” Belli added. That property is very special because it produces amazing wines and no other development will happen in the area.
The company has a number of important properties. Kosta Browne’s Sonoma Coast 2009 Pinot Noir was selected as the number one ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2011 and was a blend that came from three of Atlas’ managed vineyards, including Walala.
Gap’s Crown is another Price Family Vineyards’ property that the company farms. “We also own two properties in Oregon. These properties were part of the PPV managed portfolio as well but were owned by a different investor from the east coast,” noted Belli. These properties were foreclosed on as this investor was hit hard in 2009, and Atlas purchased them from the bank three years ago, partnering with Argyle on one of them. Argyle is a great Oregon brand that has long term strategic growth goals that align with the Atlas partnership on the new property.
Another venture that has been undertaken by Atlas Vineyard Management is Atlas Wine Company. Atlas Wine Company offers three unique craft brands of wine Agnitio, Oro Bello and Omen. In 2014, Alexandre Remy was brought on board as winemaker, a natural fit for his background in food science and his experience making wine on three continents.
“Atlas Wine Company was kind of a fun idea that has evolved over the past couple years. We farm some amazing vineyards; we have access to this amazing fruit that very limited people have access to. We decided to make an employee wine that would showcase everyone’s hard work,” shared Belli.
Not wanting to adopt the direct to consumer model, which requires significant investment in infrastructure and resources to support that market, the company opted for a distribution approach. This way, the employee wine program could still be supported while producing an extraordinary craft wine at an affordable price.
The distribution market offers great potential. “The sky is the limit for Atlas Wine Company,” Belli explained. “We’re taking a whole different exciting approach to wine than you see other wineries taking. We’re making wine for a new generation of wine drinkers. They are a group that cares more about how we treat the vineyards and our staff rather than how the vineyards themselves affect the wine. They want authenticity; they want a reasonable price, and they want shared experiences with their friends.”
“We’re at 3,500 cases right now, and our goal is to grow and share our great wines with this new generation of wine drinkers through our craft wines at affordable pricing” Belli said. “From the vineyard management side, we don’t need to be the dominating 10,000-acre vineyard management company. We’re very happy to have great clients and give them first class service, we are proud to be part of their success.”
Atlas Vineyard Management remains dedicated to farming and vineyard management services to grow grapes of the highest quality. “We’ve done very well, and we’ve weathered the transition from having one client as ninety-five percent of our customer base and now having diversified with several great clients and partners,” reflected Belli.