On the Trail

Altagracia Showcases Eisele's Finesse

David Driscoll

Just east of Calistoga, off the Silverado Trail, at the base of the Palisades Mountains sits one of Napa's most exemplary vineyards—a site known for its legendary expressions during the seventies from Ridge, Conn Creek, and Joseph Phelps, and one that was stewarded for more than twenty years by the Araujo family until it was purchased in 2013 by François Pinault's portfolio. Today, Eisele Vineyard is being given the same care and attention that the Artemis group has bestowed upon its other prize possession: Bordeaux's Château Latour. Continuing to farm the precious plot organically and bio-dynamically, the winemaking team managed to take its debut vintage—the illustrious 2013—into the hallowed ranks of its other success stories: the perfect 100 point score from Robert Parker that cements any wine's status into the pantheon of legends. What the new owners also continued to do was to blend the vineyard's eastern parcels with cabernet sourced from other choice sites in Napa, creating the side label Altagracia originally named after Bart Araujo's grandmother. First bottled in 1999, the wine has continuously stood side-by-side the Eisele Vineyard expression as a second wine of the highest order, acquiring its own set of accolades and a unique personality all its own. 

Having visited the property recently with the French ownership group, we tasted the new 2014 release from Altagracia and left once again impressed by the elegance the new team has managed to coax from the vintage. 2014 was a warm drought year in California with rainfall that was half the normal amount, but Eisele received a good soaking in March right before the growing season began. The final blend was composed of 81% cabernet, 13% cabernet franc, and 6% petit verdot and the ripeness bestowed upon the fruit by the late season heat is apparent on the first sip. At 14.8% ABV, the wine is plenty ripe with black fruits that are balanced entirely by dusty tannins and hints of anise and earthy spice. It's the mouthfeel, however, that captures you immediately. The same lithe elegance that coats the palate in the much-pricier Eisele Vineyard expression is apparent here. While the Altagracia contains only a portion of the vineyard's cabernet fruit, it maintains the same delicacy and style of its bigger brother. Considering it's about a fifth of the price, that's no small accomplishment. 

As you stand in the vineyard and look at the nearby mountains, the clouds passing over the peaks and leaving small trails of mist behind them, you get a small sense of what makes this place so special. There's a volcanic soil from the mountains that runs under the vines, leading to better drainage and roots that dig deep into the earth in search of nutrients. As a result, the vines here create tiny berries of immense concentration with thick skins and intense flavor. The mountains help to protect the vineyard from extreme elements, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly for supreme ripeness. As a Bordeaux drinker, I've long advocated for the merit of second wines when I felt our customers could get a great wine for more approachable price tag from some of the Médoc's pricier properties. The Altagracia is like Eisele's version of Les Forts de Latour—a top wine that stands completely on its own merit, but for a reduced cost, while maintaining the core tenants of the house style. At $120 a bottle, it's no small investment, but for drinkers like myself it's far more within reach than the standard Eisele at $500. Those looking for a glimpse of Eisele Vineyard's greatness will find it in the 2014 Altagracia, a wine that continues in its quality right where the Araujos left off.

-David Driscoll