Napa's Majestic Eisele Vineyard
Just off the Silverado Trail, steeping its way northeast into the Vaca mountain range, sits one of California's most majestic and magical vineyards. Deep in the heart of Napa, in a region specifically known for its hearty and full-bodied reds, the cabernet sauvignon ripens just a bit differently here. The wines from Eisele Vineyard are always more finessed and elegant than their nearby Howell Mountain neighbors, and they have a long track record of being that way. The site is one of those rare cases in California where we have a bit of history to compare it by. Although difficult, it is possible to source an older vintage made from Eisele fruit. Those of you who have had the chance to enjoy one likely know that these are truly exceptional wines with incredible longevity. Ridge Vineyards bottled a cabernet from here in 1971, Conn Creek did the same in 1974, and Joseph Phelps made wine from Eisele between 1975-1991. The property was then purchased by Bart Araujo, who made wine here from 1991 to 2012. Many of the wines from those previous eras have become hot commodities. 2013 marked the latest turn of stewardship in the vineyard's history when it was purchased by the Pinault family—the folks behind Bordeaux's Château Latour. Run through their Artemis Domaines, they now manage the Eisele Vineyard along with Chateau-Grillet in the Rhone Valley, Chateau d’Eugenie in Burgundy, and of course Latour.
The longer and more detailed history of the Eisele vineyard site dates back to an 18,000 acre Mexican land grant originally awarded to General Mariano Vallejo in 1841, who grazed cattle there before a new generation of viticulturists planted vines in the early 1880s. While the fruit has long been cherished by winemakers, it wasn't until the Araujo years that wine was actually made on the estate. Bart Araujo not only built the property's first winery and cave, he also developed a a serious syrah program within the vineyard, adding sauvignon blanc as well to the property's eastern-facing slopes. I stopped by Eisele on a recent trip to Napa to check in with the Pinault transition group and taste some of the recent vintages. The first noticeable change, if you look closely, is the label. Araujo has been gently removed and the focus is now on the name “Eisele Vineyard." 2013 marks the first vintage where the new ownership controlled everything from harvest to bottling. As I noted before, Eisele fruit does not generally make a monster wine. Since 2000 the vineyard has been farmed biodynamically and the wines are known for their purity, elegance, and balance. The new ownership recognizes this historic character and is not out to revolutionize or redefine that tradition by looking to extract as much as they can out of the fruit. Their goal is to bottle the truest expression of the vineyard.
As part of my visit I had the chance to taste the 2012 and 2013 Eisele cabernets and the Altagrcias side-by-side, along with the syrah and sauvignon blanc wines, respectively. They were very impressive to say the least. We're currently stocking the 2013 releases at K&L. The 2013 Altagracia Napa Cabernet Sauvingon $119.99 is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec. The Altagracia is essentially a Bordeaux-style blend vinified in the same manner as the Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. The majority of the fruit comes from the eastern parcels of the vineyard. The new owners have cut back a bit on the heavy toasted barrels and have switched to a lighter toast. It's a fantastic wine! The fruit is dark, spicy and rich and maintains a round, velvety texture with hints of cedar and minerals. It finishes with great freshness and focus. The 2013 Eisele Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon $499.99 was a tad closed on the nose when we tasted it, but this wine is obviously still a baby and has a long life ahead of it. While remaining a subtle power and dense core, the wine shows amazing purity and freshness. Flavors of blackberries, black cherry, and plums are mixed in with hints of cedar and spice. This is serious wine that I would keep in my cellar and wouldn't conceive of opening for at least ten years. It should last for many more.
While the wines were impressive, the views from the property were equally so. I happened to hit it on a beautiful Fall afternoon with the shadows streaking their way through the vines and into the mountains behind them. It's clear that Eisele vineyard is a pretty special place. It's also nice to know that the Pinault team understands that potential fully and is continuing to make great wine from one of California's most historic properties.