A Visit to the Legendary Eisele Vineyards of Napa Valley

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.

Famous Eisele Vineyard of Napa Valley, California

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.”

Entrance to 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.

Manor House at Eisele Vineyard Estate. Photo Credit: NapaWineProject

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.

American, French and Spanish Flags at Eisele Vineyard

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.

Poetically Named Vineyard Blocks. Photo Credit: Eiselevineyard.com

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.

Vertical Tasting of Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

We felt very honored and spoiled to be allowed to taste these wines. Antoine relaxed back in 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.

Glowing Ruby Color of Eisele Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

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 (approx. $500 per bottle) 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.”

A Memorable Tasting of Eisele Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

A Gourmet Wine Picnic Lunch at Swanson Vineyards on a Toasty Day

We scheduled our COVID safe visit to Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley on a clear sunny day with temperatures hovering around the 100 degree mark. When we booked the Gourmet Picnic wine-tasting experience online, we didn’t know the heat would be so intense, but with the beautiful shade trees casting dappled patterns over the French style garden, complete with pea gravel and padded chairs, it turned out to be a lovely meal.


Whimsical French Garden at Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley

Friends Rave About Swanson Vineyards

For years I’ve had different sets of friends tell me how wonderful a visit to Swanson is with its delicious Napa wines, French Décor, huge garden and famous red salon. Indeed, Swanson was one of the first wineries in Napa Valley to establish the “sit-down winetasting experience,” which has now been adopted by most every winery in the valley.

Swanson was founded in 1985 by Clarke Swanson, the grandson of the founder of Swanson TV Dinners. Clarke’s wife Elizabeth, who had a great love for France, decided to model the gardens and winery after a Parisian salon of the mid 1800’s. Clarke hired famous consultant, Andre Tchelistceff, to assist with winemaking, and Andre encouraged him to focus on Merlot.

Today, Swanson is still well-known for its excellent Merlot wines that are a great value at only $32 per bottle for the Napa Valley Merlot and $65 for the Salon Merlot. Of course, they also produce high quality cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sangiovese, rose, pinot grigio, and other varietals. Marco Cappelli, a protégé of Andre, was Swanson’s winemaker for the first 17 years. Today the wines are crafted by Robin Akhurst, who became head winemaker in 2015.

Welcomed to Swanson by Nancy and Sarah

Use GPS to Find Swanson Winery in Napa Valley

I made sure to use my GPS to find Swanson Winery, because even though it is right off Highway 29 in Napa Valley, just after Robert Mondavi Winery and on the same side of the road, there is no sign for Swanson. In this way, they are known as an “under the radar” winery, which you need to “be in the know to find.”

Crossing the railroad track and driving down a narrow paved road with vineyards on both sides, I came to the Swanson entrance and a large sign overlooking a riotous garden of brightly colored flavors. Parking in a shaded parking lot, I donned my COVID mask and approached a welcome table where I was greeted by Nancy Richardson, Salonniere. She said a cheerful hello behind her mask, offered me some hand-sanitizer, and then escorted me to a table in the garden. Charlie arrived a few minutes later, and we sat down to a delightful wine lunch.


The Gardens at Swanson Vineyards

Gourmet Picnic Wine Lunch at Swanson

Since its lovely indoor Salon wine and food pairing was put on hold due to COVID, Swanson cleverly created an outdoor experience in their garden. For $75 per person ($150 per couple), visitors have the option of 5 gourmet menus paired with 4 Swanson wines. Even better, you can customize the wines for your own palate, as they create new printed wine-tasting menus each day. If you’re not that hungry, Swanson offers a tasting of 4 of their wines for only $40, and you can still relax in the whimsical garden patio in one of the many cozy settees or tables, with generous spacing and dream away the afternoon.

Meals are catered by Tre Posti, with the following choices:

  • Wild King Salmon
  • BBQ Spiced Pork Tenderloin
  • Grilled Filet Mignon
  • Poached & Chilled Shrimp
  • Beyond Sausages (only $70 pp)

Charlie and I ordered the Grilled Filet Mignon with salad and roasted vegetables. It was paired with the following wines, and for me this combination worked the best:

Classic Caesar Salad

with chopped baby hearts of romaine, garlic croutons, Parmigiano-Reggiano

Swanson 2019 Pinot Grigio


Simply Roasted Seasonal Vegetables

With sea salt and napa Valley olive oil

Swanson 2017 Pinot Noir


Grilled Filet Mignon

With horseradish cream sauce

Swanson 2016 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Swanson 2015 Petite Sirah

Dessert was a tiny taste of the rare Swanson Angelica wine, which is made from 120 year Mission vines in the Sierra Foothills. It is a sinfully delicious sweet white wine, brimming with apricot and honey notes.  Only made in certain years, anyone who joins the Wine Club is offered a special sample to take home.

During the relaxed 90-minute lunch, Nancy would stop occasionally to describe the wines to us and answer questions. Later Sarah Dennis, Tasting Room Manager, came to greet us, and we felt very spoiled with all of the positive attention. Later they brought us the Swanson Coloring sheet and a box of colored pencils so we could linger longer and relax into an almost meditative state of coloring as we enjoyed our wine and the beautiful garden.

An Alice in Wonderland Afternoon

My experience at Swanson was very relaxing. I felt a little as if I’d wandered into a fairytale setting, because the gardens were filled with towering sunflowers and giant dahlias that made me feel I had shrunk to a miniature size. Then wandering into the red salon room with its magnificent fireplace and inlaid octagon table, as well as the French bistro Sip Shoppe with its stripped walls felt like I had stepped into a Hollywood movie set of Paris. It is not the normal modern tasting room that you usually find in Napa Valley – instead it is a dreamy place, hidden down a side road off Highway 29, that you have to make an effort to find. It is worth the effort.


Taking Photos of Swanson Vineyards Wines

Two New Napa Wineries Created by Same Family – Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix

The name “Araujo” is quite famous in Napa Valley, as Bart and Daphne Araujo ran their namesake winery for 24 years, crafting a string of some of the most highly rated Napa Cabs from the legendary Eisele Vineyard. But with an offer “that came out of the blue” from the Artemis Group to purchase Araujo Estate in 2013, they decided the timing was right to move onto another “project.”

Fast forward to 2020 with a brand new winery at Wheeler Farms, a private custom-crush facility located in St. Helena, where the Araujo’s, along with daughter Jaime, have created two new compelling winery projects – Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix. Today they both have five vintages to their credit, and the wines are showing clear and delicious differences in style and personality.

Jaime Araujo conducting elegant tasting with COVID mask

Arriving at Wheeler Farms to Taste Accendo and Trois Noix Wines

We scheduled an appointment to taste wines from both Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix at 10:30 on a Friday morning as part of our series on safe COVID visits to Napa/Sonoma tasting rooms. After punching in the gate code I received with the email confirmation, I drove into a beautiful garden with flowering shrubs, vegetable boxes and leafy green trees. Rising up behind it all was an impressive two-story brown barn-like structure, which I learned was a state-of-the-art winery. Off to the left was an old historic house that was part of the original Wheeler Farms established in the 1800’s.

Even before I parked my car, two people wearing COVID masks approached to welcome me. One turned out to be the charming, Jaime Araujo, founder of Trois Noix and partner with her parents in establishing Accendo Cellars, and the other was Brand Ambassador, Mathew, who held a tray with a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne. A very nice welcome indeed!

Wheeler Farms Winery and Organic Gardens

A Mini-Tour of the Estate

A few minutes later my friend Charlie arrived, and with his glass of welcome Champagne in hand, Jaime invited us to peak into the winery.  Due to COVID safety regulations, visitors are not allowed to enter a winery, but we could stand at the door and gaze at the equipment. It was mind-boggling – and I have seen many wineries around the world. I told Jaime that this looked like a “Cathedral to Winemaking.” It had specially designed stainless-steel tanks, each with their own pump. There was a huge Bucher press, and an optical sorter – all “toys” that any winemaker would dream to have. Indeed, the winemaking facility attracts a number of highly talented winemakers.

Next Jaime pointed out the organic gardens and described how the fresh produce was incorporated into the food/wine tasting experiences offered at the estate. We walked towards the vineyards surrounding the property, and Jamie explained that they were primarily cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc vines, and that most of the grapes went into the Wheeler Farms wine brand. Currently there are six wineries operating at Wheeler Farms, including Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix.

Wheeler Farms Winemaking Facility

A Tasting of Trois Noix Wines with Founder, Jaime Araujo

After the mini-tour, Jaime led us to a beautiful outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards. Laid out on an elegant table under an awning were two place-settings with six wine glasses and a tempting charcuterie platter with local cheeses, estate-made crackers and fresh peach and basil from the garden. We were enchanted at the delightful setting and welcoming hospitality.

Keeping her mask on during the tasting, Jaime described how she started Trois Noix, with her brother. The name means “Three Nuts” in French, and is in honor of their three kids. After working abroad for nearly 20 years, including as a professional actress in London, three years with LVMH in Paris, and CEO/Founder of Terravina, a wine marketing/strategy firm in France, Jaime was finally lured back home to Napa Valley when her parents asked her to help them launch their new winery, Accendo.

“I was very excited to help them,” she says, “but decided I also wanted my own wine project, especially when I realized there was so much good wine available in Napa Valley. Therefore, I established Trois Noix, which is based on an opportunist approach to winemaking.” She explains that, “together with friends in the community, we sleuth out compelling wines and grapes that might overwise go neglected.”

Once she identifies some high-quality Napa grapes and/or wine, Jaime works with top winemakers to craft wines that are approachable, but also with the structure to last. This makes tasting Trois Noix wines a very exciting adventure, because each year turns up new treasures. Indeed, we were very impressed with the three Trois Noix wines that Jaime shared with us:

  • 2018 Trois Noix Sauvignon Blanc – aromatic nose of jasmine and gooseberry with explosive grapefruit on palate combined with minerality and mouth-watering acidity. Very lively and refreshing. Made in a combination of neutral oak and stainless steel with battonage. 92 points, $40
  • 2018 Trois Noix Chardonnay – classic Napa chardonnay with ripe apple, pear, generous toasty oak and lemon-zest acidity. Delicious and approachable. From Oak Knoll AVA. 90 points, $50
  • 2016 Trois Noix Cabernet Sauvignon – a Napa Cab with lots of personality, this wine wakes up the palate with black cherry, chocolate, pepper and tobacco. Enlivening! 92 points, $100

A Tasting of Accendo Cellars Wines

Accendo Cellars is the new passion child of Bart and Daphne Araujo. After spending over two decades crafting masterpiece wines from the Napa “Grand Cru” vineyard of Eisele, this time they decided to focus on the “art of the blend,” according to Jaime Araujo. “Now, for Accendo, we source grapes from five to six of the top “Grand Cru” vineyard sites in Napa Valley, and create a masterful blend. Not only are we sourcing from specific vineyards – all organic or biodynamically farmed – but we are selecting the best blocks within those great vineyards.  Think ‘Burgundy in Napa Valley.’”

They have also assembled an all-star team to help craft their wines, with Steve Matthiasson as viticulturist and Jeff Dawson as biodynamic consultant. They were also able to convince their former winemaking team at Eisele vineyards to assist, including Nigel Kinsman, Francoise Peschon and consulting winemaker, Michel Rolland.

Accendo Wines. Photo Credit: Accendo Cellars

We tasted three Accendo Cellars wines after tasting the three Trois Noix wines, and there was a clear difference in the expression and style of the two wineries:

  • 2018 Accendo Cellars Sauvignon Blanc – made with all three Bordeaux grapes – Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musque and Semillon – this wine is the type I’ve been seeking in Napa Valley for a long time. It is so exciting to find such a delicious well-balanced “Bordeaux Blanc” with enticing floral notes of honeysuckle and exotic pineapple and green apple on the palate, with a hint of minerality. Fermented in new and used French oak barrels, concrete eggs and stainless-steel drums, with some sur lie aging. Elegant, balanced and long. 93 points; $65
  • 2015 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – nose of black cherry, earth and cassis, this is a big powerful Napa Cab made in the last year of the drought, and showing massive structured tannins, in the style of St. Estephe. On the palate dark cocoa, cedar, and cranberry. Aged 21 months in French oak, and will continue to evolve in the bottle for many years. 96 points, $360
  • 2016 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – perfumed nose of violets and blackberries, this is a magnificent wine with incredible balance, harmony and length. The palate shows complex spice, cassis, leather and black liquorish with fine-grained velvety tannins. It has both elegance, freshness and strength, and is Napa Valley cab at its best. Wow! 99 points, $360

Accendo wines are limited in production and sold primarily on allocation, though they are available in some fine wine shops.

Observing 6-foot social distancing at Trois Noix Winery, Napa Valley


Napa Valley Winemaker Conquers Coombsville AVA

In my quest to support local wineries during the COVID19 pandemic and demonstrate the safety procedures they are using, I reached out to one of my former students, Marbue Marke, who has been making wine in California for more than 20 years now. He has an impeccable winemaking background, with a B.S. from UC-Davis in winemaking, an MBA from Sonoma State University, and winemaking stents at Jordan, Gallo, Benziger, Cosentino, and Caldwell Vineyard in Napa Valley. Several years ago, he started his own successful firm called Marbue Consulting (Marbue.com), and now crafts wines for several small prestigious brands in Napa Valley.

Marbue Marke, Consulting Winemaker in Napa Valley

Italics Winery in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley

One of Marbue’s clients is Italics Winegrowers, located southeast of the town of Napa in the rolling hills of one of Napa’s newest AVAs (appellations), known for its cooler climate and well-balanced acid-driven cabernet sauvignon wines. I had never been to Italics Winery, and was impressed with the large arch over the entrance and then a set of gates requiring an entry code. Once through the gate, I drove along a winding road through the vineyards and past a golf course, until, eventually, I reached the tasting room and caves at the top of a hill.

Marbue met us, wearing his mask, and we spent some time outside observing the vineyards. Marbue, who holds the title of Director of Winegrowing at Italics, explained that they had 34.5. planted acres, with 70% composed of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux red blends. Sustainable farming methods are employed, including use of recycled water in the vineyards and solar panels for the winery.

Marbue with Mask in Italics Caves

We were impressed with the extensive underground cellars, complete with expensive French oak barrels and private tasting nooks. Marbue led us to a room at the far back, and we caught our breath at the beauty of the chandelier arching over a long wooden table spread with food and wine glasses. The decanted wines for our tasting were arranged on a long table to the right.

Marbue started the tasting with some older vintages from different client wineries, and then we focused on Italics wines matched to different gourmet food pairings:

  • 2019 Italics Rosé, 100% Malbec paired with turnip soup
  • 2017 Italics Placemark Red Blend, paired with duck rillete and black garlic crostini
  • 2017 Italics Weapon X Cabernet Sauvignon paired with beef braciola with arugula pesto and parmesan
  • 2018 Italics Cabernet Sauvignon paired with smoked cocoa beef brisket with honey verjus glaze

Marbue’s Winemaking Philosophy – Elegance and Balance Start in the Vineyard

As someone who has produced many 90+ wines over the years, Marbue can easily pivot to create different styles of Napa Valley cabernet based wines, ranging from big, masculine powerful wines to those with more finesse. Lately, Marbue has gravitated to wine styles that are more balanced, yet filled with grace, elegance, and a long concentrated finish. He believes that this has to do with having control over how the vineyard is farmed. “It is one thing to get a score,” says Marbue. “It is quite another to design a program that reflects the uniqueness of the vineyard and the people who steward it. Truly authentic wines reflect both.”

Discussing “Black Lives Matter

Obviously the topic of “Black Lives Matter,” came up during the tasting, because of the recent events in the news. Since Marbue was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, he doesn’t believe he can comment on the experience of African-Americans born in the USA. “I had heard about racism in America before I arrived,” said Marbue, “but being from Africa I have experienced it differently than black Americans who grew up here. Is there racism in America? Yes, there is, but many people don’t want to admit it.”

Marbue describes a situation where he interviewed with a company in the South and on the way to the interview, his black taxi driver warned him that he wouldn’t be able to buy a house or join a gym in certain parts of the city because he was black. “It was then that I decided to focus my career in California,” states Marbue, “because it is a more liberal state regarding racism, even though it is still here.”

On the positive side, Marbue admits that having the professional degree and experience of a Napa Valley winemaker has its benefits. He described a time when he visited Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux with John Caldwell and a few other colleagues. “At Chateau Margaux, when they learned I was a trained winemaker, I was the only one from our group that was allowed on the floor of the winemaking facility. So being a winemaker, regardless of the color of your skin, does have its privileges on some occasions.”

Highlights of the Tasting

Though we tasted many excellent wines during the tasting, several stand-outs for me were:

2009 Marston Family Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – showing black plum, spice, oregano and earthy forest floor notes, this wine sang with elegance and complexity. Crafted in a lighter style, it harkened back to the early years in Napa Valley, when the Judgement of Paris was won.

2013 Caldwell Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville – opulent and perfumed nose of blackberry and violets, this wine exhibited the plush velvety tannins for which Napa Valley is known around the world. Yet, it also showed grace and elegance with well- integrated oak and a long concentrated finish.

2017 Italics Placemark Red Wine Coombsvilleblended in 2018 when Marbue first started working with Italics, this wine spoke clearly of the cooler climate of Coombsville and the rich complexity that can be achieved by a master blender. Comprised of 43% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot, and 14% petit verdot, it exhibited classic cassis, spice and peppercorn with refreshing acidity, great balance, and a long elegant finish.

2018 Italics Cabernet Franc Coombsville – with a heady nose of raspberry and violets, I could have just enjoyed smelling this wine all day. Vibrant with red plum, cocoa and tobacco notes, this graceful and seamless wine seduced with fine-grained tannins and a long elegant finish.

6- Foot Wine & Food Pairing at Italics Winery in Napa Valley

A Place in Napa Where They Make Wine the Old-Fashioned Way: Charter Oak

I have lived for 20 years now in Napa/Sonoma wine country and still have not been able to visit the more than 1000 wineries that are located in this world famous wine region. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the nation, I have decided to venture out to the wineries that are open and try to support them as a local tourist. I am not the only one doing this, as many of the tasting rooms are now booked weeks in advance by locals. Due to the pandemic, you must make an appointment to visit, and the tasting rooms are following all of the safety protocols, including the requirement to wear a mask and sit 6 feet apart.

Charter Oak Winery. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

So, this past Friday, I visited 3 wineries in Napa that were new to me, with my friend Charlie Johnson. Please keep in mind that over the years, I have probably visited more than 200 Napa/Sonoma wineries, but never before have I encountered an old fashioned commercial winery like Charter Oak Winery. Located in the town of St. Helena, it is in a small house tucked away down a side street. I was surprised to find that it is not only a small gem of a winery, but also the home of internationally acclaimed artist, Layla Fanucci, who began her art career in that very house 20 years ago when she retired as a local music teacher.

Layla with her paintings & Liz standing near Layla’s larger canvases

The Chateau Wineries of Napa Valley

It’s not that I don’t like visiting the very famous old wineries of Napa Valley, such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau Montelena; or some of the newer landmark wineries with their unique architecture, such as Opus One, Darioush, Sterling, and Castelo di Amorosa, as illustrated below. They are large and exciting to visit with well-crafted high-quality wines, and professional tours. At the same time, I still remember the Napa Valley before the turn of the century (2000), that was more relaxed. This is what I found at Charter Oak Winery – a warm welcome and a tasting in the kitchen at an old wooden table.

Some famous wineries of Napa Valley. Photo credits: wikipedia commons

Charter Creek Winery – Still Making Wine by Hand in Basket Press

Winemaker and owner, Rob Fanucci, inherited Charter Oak and the cute little white house and half acre of vineyards from his grandfather, Guido Raggihaiti, who came from Italy more than 100 years ago. As was the traditional of many Italian families, Guido planted some vines and made wine in his barn, sharing it with family and friends. Now, Rob, does the same, using the same winemaking equipment as his grandfather.

It is rare today to still see a winemaker using an old-fashioned wooden barrel press, because they are a lot of work and require much muscle power.  But not only does Rob honor this ancient technique, he also picks all grapes by hand, used natural yeast, and ferments in large open containers using his grandfather’s wooden paddle to punch down the grape cap three times a day. Once the wine completes fermentation, he performs the pain-staking labor of crushing it in the 100 year old press, and then transfers it by bucket to age in barrel, before bottling unfined and unfiltered one year later.

Rob Making Wine. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

Wine and Art Meld in Layla Fanucci’s City Scape Paintings

When we arrived at Charter Oak, Rob’s wife, Layla Fanucci invited us into the house and led us to the kitchen where we sat at a small oak table for a tasting of four red wines. On the way, we passed her art studio where she creates large oil paintings of “city scapes,” in which she uses a unique technique of painting multiple cities on top of one another. She has been incredibly successful with this technique, and exhibits her paintings in galleries around the world. She also showed us several books that had been written about her and the amazing style of paintings.

Wines we tasted in Kitchen at Charter Oak Winery

As we tasted through the wines, Layla described each one by reading Rob’s poetic descriptions, and it really made the wines come to life. They were primarily red blends, made in the old Italian fashion of field blends, as well as several zinfandels.  All were delicious and would easily pair well with Italian food. Even better, many of the wine bottles were graced by labels depicting some of Layla’s paintings.

Rob and Layla had a video produced that describes the old-fashioned winemaking and her unique painting style. See below:

Magical Backyard with Event Grounds, Vineyard and Guest Houses

After the tasting, Layla encouraged us to wander through her studio and the back garden. We discovered many interesting displays in the garden, as well as an old barn decked out for private events, and several guest cottages for wine club members.  It felt a bit like a magical playground, and gave me a warm feeling to realize that there were still authentic wineries in Napa that make wine the old-fashioned way.