It was around eleven AM on Tuesday morning when I pulled into Wheeler Farms off Zinfandel Road, the site of the new winery and custom crush facility in St. Helena where the Araujos are now making wine. I'd already spotted Bart and Daphne Araujo looking out over the property in the distance from my car. I think they were expecting me to enter from the main entrance, but I managed to sneak in through the service gate with an incoming delivery. I parked, grabbed my camera bag, and set out across the lot to say hello. I had never met the famed husband and wife duo (I'd talked with Bart on the phone), but I've seen them in pictures over the years, so I recognized them immediately. We shook hands and commenced with introductions, an acquaintance I've been eager to make since I first visited their previous estate last year—the Eisele Vineyard, now a part of François Pinault's Château Latour empire. The couple sold the iconic estate to the French portfolio back in 2013 after twenty-three years of stewardship over one of California's most heralded and historic properties—a move that signaled a sign of the times in Napa. "We've had a lot of offers over the years, but selling wasn't ever on our mind," Bart told me; "However, when this offer came we knew Pinault's group would respect the vineyard and its integrity. For almost a quarter of a century we worked at one of the great single vineyard properties in Napa—a first growth. We were only stewards, however. We always saw ourselves as just passing through. We had a responsibility to find the right fit even if we weren't quite ready."
Bart went on to explain that he had always considered making wine after selling Araujo, but building a brand new, state-of-the-art winery in order to do so was never a part of that original post-Eisele plan. The Wheeler Farms project, however, was a fascinating proposal, especially as it had already been granted the permits for a new winery on site. After careful thought and speculation, the Araujos erected a modern, green, technologically-advanced super lab that was built on the experience and the wisdom of more than two decades of winemaking. "We got the chance to go back and change some things based on what we learned previously," Bart continued; "We've built one of the great winemaking facilities in all of California. I don't think we knew what we were missing at Araujo until we saw what was possible here." While our tour began with a walk through the site and an explanation of its abilities, I had to backtrack a bit with my questioning, beginning with what had inspired the Araujos to make such an investment at this point in time. I saw Bart's eyes light up at the inquiry.
"I went back to my formative experiences with California cabernet—the great Inglenooks of the sixties and the Mondavi Reserves from the late sixties and early seventies. I thought: wouldn't it be great to try and replicate those wines?" he said.
I had to admit; I didn't fully understand the distinction. Weren't the Araujo wines from Eisele Vineyard already considered the benchmark for the region? Bart explained further: "The Eisele wines were great, but they were all from a single vineyard, whereas the wines that inspired me initially were blends. They were blends of multiple sites. I wanted to know: could we make a wine that's the equivalent? Could we achieve that?" This was an unprecedented development, especially considering that the industry is moving in the exact opposite direction. Everything in California's modern food and wine scene right now is focusing on terroir, locality, and the pureness of single expression wines. The current fashion of all drinks is rooted in singularity. What Bart was proposing was no different than a famous single malt distillery proclaiming a return to blended Scotch! On top of that, here were the Araujos speaking romantically about California's glorious past, yet touting the achievements of their modern facility with all the accoutrements of the Napa's future. I was intrigued and simultaneously puzzled. However, to understand the Araujos' quest to recreate Napa's former glories, you have to start in the winery.
"We had previously purchased fruit from a number of vineyards as part of our Altagracia label at Araujo," Bart explained as we entered the building. The Araujos were interested in exploring the same regions of Napa from which the legendary Inglenook and Mondavi wines had sourced their cabernet grapes. "We had friends who owned properties in Rutherford and Oakville and were able to sell us some cabernet; each site had its own unique personality," Daphne added. We were joined in the winery by Sarah Donley, the production manager at the Wheeler Farms facility. She was excited to showcase the many bells and whistles of the new complex. "It's a winemaker's dream," she said with a beaming smile. To start, the new Araujo center has a cold storage room to keep the grapes cool once they've been harvested and picked. "Cold fruit de-stems easier, whereas hot fruit tends to get beat up," Sarah added. There's a cutting-edge cluster sorting table that can automatically scan each individual berry with a camera, as well as stainless steel fermentation vessels that can control the temperatures in various parts of the tank via an iPad.
"There's an old saying in the wine business that 10% of the job is winemaking and the other 90% is cleaning," Sarah continued to explain, "but here it's 90% winemaking. You can actually focus on the job at hand." Attention to detail has never been more important to the Araujos because of the fact they're now working with various component wines rather than single vineyard entities. In order to understand the ingredients of the blend, they need to make sure the wines represent each vineyard's character to the fullest potential. "The winemaking system here allows us to keep the single vineyard integrity intact," Bart added. "We're doing it out of respect for history—we're chasing it. It's exciting and it's challenging." You could say the Araujos have their eye on the past by maximizing the efficiencies of the future. Everything at Wheeler Farms is centered around gentle production methods.
While great winemaking in the lab requires clean and controlled conditions, many folks—including the Araujos—believe that every great wine begins in the vineyard. It's for that reason that Bart and Daphne's new wine label—Accendo Cellars—continues their commitment to organic and bio-dynamic practices in their own vineyards, as was the case at Eisele. A number of the vineyards they're sourcing from are farmed sustainably. "We're working with a half-dozen vineyards right now," Bart pointed out, "and we've planted a new site in Oakville that will come online this year." Managing a cabernet vineyard is old hat for the Araujos at this point, but the blending of various wines is an entirely new art for the winemakers. It's for that reason they retained the services of one of the industry's best consultants: Michel Rolland, the well-known and influential Bordeaux oenologist who has decades of experience with that very task. "Michel began working with us back in 2000 and he wanted to continue on with Accendo," Daphne explained; "He's keen on having multiple vineyards to work with because you can blend the best parcels from the vintage." Accendo Cellars launched its first cabernet sauvignon release with the 2013 vintage, an advantageous year to begin as it's widely considered one of the best harvests in California in over a decade. "It was a good one to start with," Bart said with a laugh; "Mother Nature did all the work." We exited the winery and walked across the patio towards the new hospitality room where a tasting of the recent Accendo releases was awaiting us. I was excited to finally sit down with a glass of the wine after a morning's worth of build-up.
The first thing that grabs you about the 2013 Accendo Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is how un-Napa it comes across—at least in what we think of as standard Napa character today. There's no heavy-handed oak or overbearing ripeness to coat your palate like cough syrup. It's been replaced by restraint and grace with layered fruit and finely-tuned tannins. "Texture is important to us," Bart said as I swirled and contemplated my glass a bit more; "We want to make a wine where you want to finish the bottle. We want to make wines you want to drink." I smiled and nodded, a wave of appreciation moving through my body in that moment. As someone who has grown tired of the aficionado's game that is alcohol appreciation, I'm well beyond having someone lecture to me about a wine's complexity or its vast and detailed tasting notes. I drink wine because I like to drink, not because I'm studying for a test or cataloging my experiences. In the Araujos, I had found a fellow pair of kindred spirits. There was no pretense in that room that morning. Bart and Daphne talked about their wines with both humility and respect. "It's somewhere in the middle of California and Bordeaux," Daphne added as I remarked upon its lithe character and elegant balance. Is this what the great wines of Napa used to taste like? Not having the experience with my home state's classic vintages, I asked Bart how he thought the wine held up against his beloved Inglenooks. "I don't know if we can make a wine that good," he stated honestly looking down at the floor with some trepidation; "They're some of the best wines I've ever tasted. They're perfection. All we can do is give it our best shot."
As I left Wheeler Farms and headed back down the Silverado Trail, I drove pensively thinking about the dichotomy that makes up our world of wine and spirits—the Burgundian idea of the single climat versus the Bordeaux mindset of a cuvée, or the uncut single barrel of whisky versus the carefully-crafted blend. In my ten years of experience in this industry, I've found that my curiosities were stimulated early on by the idea of place and of singular expression, but as I've grown older I've gravitated more towards harmony of flavor. There's a part of us that's easily excited about the potential for greatness as designated by terroir and the idiosyncrasies of a unique locale. Yet, the more we learn about these individual characteristics, the more we're interested in harnessing their potential for further complexities. I'd liken it to the difference between having a fascinating discussion with someone one-on-one versus engaging in a more dynamic conversation as a group. Sometimes the combination of additional voices adds more depth and intrigue to the exchange, much like a string quartet adds nuance to the solo violin performance. After more than twenty years of a brilliant virtuoso, the Araujos want to see what it's like to conduct the full symphony.