Established in the 1880’s, Eisele Vineyards, nestled in a special corner of Napa Valley is only 38 acres in size. This small size, along with a prestigious history of producing some of the highest quality wines in the valley over many years and multiple owners, has propelled it to the top echelon of Napa Valley vineyards, and is rightly referred to as a “Grand Cru” vineyard by some professionals.
I had a chance to visit this “sacred vineyard” for the first time in August 2020, under strict COVID safety procedures, and meet with Estate Director, Antoine Donnedieu de Vabres. This was a special visit, as the estate is closed to tourists, and only trade professionals and customers on the allocated wine list are allowed an appointment.
Arriving at Eisele Vineyards
It was a bright summer day and I enjoyed driving along the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, until I came to the small turnoff onto Pickett Road heading East towards the Vaca Range. It is an easy turn to miss, because the only sign point is a large tree at the cross-section. This is a more remote part of Napa Valley, covered in vineyards with small houses hidden in the hills. The entrance to Eisele is also easy to miss, because like many luxury wine estates, there is no sign. However, stopping at the simple wooden gate flanked by rock walls on both sides, I finally spotted a very discrete sign etched into a stone, stating “Eisele Vineyard.”
After pressing the button on the code box, the gate slowly swung open and I drove along a gravel road that was lined by pale green olive trees. Off to the left I saw glimpses of the vineyard, and then shortly thereafter, came to a group of buildings that included several large wooden barns and a beautiful white wooden manor house with white pillars lining a large wrap around porch. I was impressed to see that they had three flags flapping in the breeze to celebrate the heritage of the estate – the American, Mexican, and French flags.
As soon as I parked under a shady tree, I saw Antoine descend the stairs from the manor house. He is a tall slim Frenchman with a warm personality and impeccable manners. He welcomed me and my companions to the estate, explained the COVID safety regulations, and invited us inside the house where a glass of chilled Eisele Vineyard 2018 Sauvignon Blanc was waiting for us. Once seated comfortably in a large living room with a view of the vineyards, he regaled us with a brief history of the estate and an explanation of the vineyard terroir.
A Brief History of Eisele Vineyards
Originally planted to Zinfandel and Riesling grape vines in the 1880’s, the vineyard was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1964 and renamed Eisele Vineyard when Milton and Barbara Eisele purchased it in 1969 as a retirement property. Through hard work and excellent marketing skills they sold the Eisele grapes to famous winemakers such as Paul Draper and Joseph Phelps, who crafted the harvest into award winning wines. Then in 1990, another retirement couple, Bart and Daphne Araujo, purchased the property and eventually replanted the vineyard according to organic and biodynamic farming principles. Maintaining the name Eisele Vineyard, they set up a winery in the old barn and named their wine brand “Arauajo Estate.” Then ensued three decades of exceptional winemaking that propelled both the name Eisele and Araujo to first, cult, and then luxury wine status.
Fast forward to 2012 when Artemis Domains, a French based firm that focuses on developing a portfolio of luxury wineries, purchased the estate and changed the name from Araujo to Eisele, in honor of the famous vineyard. Thus, Eisele in Napa Valley, became the first American winery to join Artemis’s portfolio of such rare name as Chateau Latour and Chateau Siaurac in Bordeaux, Clos de Tart and Domaine de Eugenie in Burgundy and Chateau Grillet in the Rhone.
Terroir and Grapes of Eisele Vineyard
Before inviting us to don sun hats and follow him to the vineyard, Antoine first showed us a large map of the vineyard blocks. Each had been renamed from the traditional American names, such as Block A and Block B, to poetic names, such as Jardin, Olivos Viejos and Paloma. He pointed to the small streams that run through the blocks, flowing down from the mountains that flank both sides of the vineyard, providing the deep river bed soil.
“The deepest soil is in the heart of the streams,” explained Antoine. “The soil is volcanic with two alluvial fans, as well as some clay.”
He explained that the vineyard is divided into two zones, with the west side blocks on the left side of Simmons Creek providing the highest quality grapes, or “grand cru” blocks, and the east side blocks lining the smaller creek as the “premier cru” blocks. The estate Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the “grand cru” blocks, and the second wine, called Altagarcia, comes primarily from the “premier cru” blocks.
The grapes are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, but they also grow Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and a small amount of Syrah. For the white wine, they grow Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc Musque grapes. When they create the “grand vin,” they harvest and ferment 40 different wine lots from different parts of the vineyard, and then decide which lots should go into the final blend.
A Walk Through the Vineyard and Caves
Antoine led us through French sliding doors, past a swimming pool, and into the vineyard. On the way we passed some workers cleaning picking bins to get ready for an early harvest. Antoine said they kept the original crew of employees, and pay them as year-round full-time workers. They also promoted Victor Hernandez, one of the most senior workers, to Vineyard Manager.
“The employees are crucial to the high quality of this vineyard,” explained Antoine. “They know every vine intimately and farm them like a bonsai tree. The only changes we made when we arrived was to ask them to harvest slower and to use scissors instead of a knife. My wife, the winemaker here, speaks five languages fluently and therefore can easily speak to the workers in Spanish.”
As we approached the vineyard, we could see how perfectly it was manicured, with each vine appearing balanced and healthy – most likely due to biodynamic farming methods. The spacing is 7×4 feet, and the soil beneath the vines is filled with small river rocks, allowing for excellent drainage. Antoine explained that the Cabernet Sauvignon was primarily the “Eisele clone,” which had developed here over the years. Interestingly each row was wrapped with canvas along the fruiting zone to protect the grapes from sunburn.
“Despite the warm sunny day,” Antoine stated, “we always get a nice breeze in the afternoon. In this part of the valley, it also gets quite cold in the evenings, and we are known to have some coolest temperatures in all of Napa Valley at night time.”
Next we peeked into a long cool cave going deep into a hillside. Antoine explained that first year barrels lined the right side of the wall, and second year barrels were on the left side. Given that Eisele only produces around 5,000 cases each year, there was plenty of barrel room in the long cave. The wines are aged a total of 20 months before bottling.
Antoine then pointed to the large wooden barn buildings, explaining that that was where the wine was made, but that we were not allowed to enter due to COVID regulations.
A Vertical Tasting of Five Years of Eisele Wines
Back in the air-conditioned manor house, a long dining room table was organized with three place settings, six-feet apart. Each setting held 5 elegant wine glasses, filled with glowing red wine. In the middle of the table, taking pride of center, were five bottles of Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a vertical of 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, with an average price of around $500 per bottle. These were the five wines produced by the Artemis Group since purchasing the estate in 2012.
We felt very honored and spoiled to be allowed to taste these wines. Antoine relaxed back and his seat and encouraged us to taste through the flight, answering questions about each wine. It was a very special experience. Following are my brief tasting notes:
- Eisele Vineyard 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon – 100% Cabernet. Dark glowing ruby color, nose of forest floor and cassis, following through on palate with notes of dark chocolate, tar and spice. Structured fine-grained tannins and very long finish. An imposing wine. 96 points
- Eisele Vineyard 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – 90% cab and 10% Petit Verdot, opulent ripe raspberry and red plum, spice, cocoa, elegant fruit purity with velvety texture and long decadent finish. Not as complex as 2013, but highly approachable and a huge crowd pleaser. 94 points
- Eisele Vineyard 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon 100% cab. Earthy nose with black licorice, black plum, tar and dark chocolate. Massive structured tannins, tightly wound now. From last vintage in 3-year drought, and showing highly concentrated fruit. 95 points
- Eisele Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon 100% cab. An exquisite wine with perfect balance and harmony of raspberry and boysenberry fruit with well-integrated toasty oak, fine grained velvety tannins with very long finish. Hints of rhubarb, cocoa, cedar and forest floor. Magnificent and explosive on the pallet. Everything that is best about Napa Valley. 100 points
- Eisele Vineyard 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon 100% cab. Tightly wound with notes of black plum, earth, white pepper and pencil lead. Firm structured tannins with long complex finish. Very young at this point, but with good potential for aging. 95 points.
Antoine explained that the winemaking regime for all of the cabs included fermentation in both stainless steel and cement vessels. He said the cement provided a rounder mouthfeel to the wines. After around 20 days of total fermentation, with gentle pumpovers, they transfer to barrel for 20 months, only racking one time. They prefer to conduct ML in tank, rather than barrel. They blend in February, analyzing which of around 40 lots should go into the final blend.
Eisele Vineyard 2018 Sauvignon Blanc – Intriguing floral and mineral nose with explosive citrus and grassy notes on palate with some wet stone. Mouthwatering acidity with a hint of creaminess. Very complex and long. Aged 12 months on the lees, with 15 to 20% new French oak, along with some stainless and cement eggs and some oak. Grapes harvested at 23 Brix. Good aging potential. 93 points.
Optimistic About the Future – Not in a Rush
Towards the end of the tasting, we discussed the marketing and future business strategy. Antoine explained that Artemis inherited the list of allocated Araujo customers and that most of them “have stayed with us.” Currently they sell around 50% of the wine direct to consumer (DTC), with a waitlist of around 2 years. Allocated customers are allowed two visits per year, and annual allocation is three bottles each of Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon and Altagarcia (around $130 per bottle). The remainder of the wine is sold via distribution to high-end wine shops and fine dining establishments – though on-premise sales have flattened due to COVID. On the bright side, Antoine said that DTC and off-premise sales have increased.
“Here at Eisele Vineyards,” said Antoine, “we are focusing on allowing the vineyard to be our teacher. It is already in balance, and we are not in a rush. Our philosophy is to leave the vineyard better than we found it. This place has a special signature, and we want to let the personality of the place come through.”
As we concluded our visit and thanked Antoine profusely for his incredible hospitality, he left us with one more insightful observation:
“Vineyards can change hands many times, but it is the terroir that lasts. Just look at Clos de Tart in Burgundy – it has had four different owners in 900 years, and yet it endures. Here at Eisele, the vineyard is only 140 years old…. We are optimistic about the future.”