"I was reading an article that was talking about people running naked through the vineyards. It really wasn't a serious article, but that storyline kept me hooked," said Bart Araujo, dryly, when I asked him how he got interested in biodynamic farming. "And then I got to the second page, and it mentioned Nicolas Joly and Huët. And also de Vogüé, DRC and Leflaive. And Zind-Humbrecht. I asked myself, well, if it's good enough for those guys, why isn't it good enough for me?"
Araujo, 68, has applied a pragmatic approach to the Eisele vineyard ever since he and his wife, Daphne, purchased it in 1990. They've kept the historical name of the vineyard (named for Milt Eisele, who planted much of it and tended it into his later years before selling it) and improved upon the site's impressive track record for producing some of Napa's best Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc bottlings.
"The first vines were planted here in '64, with additional plantings started in '78. By the mid-'90s the plantings from '78 had to be redone, since they were on AXR rootstock [which was prone to phylloxera]. And then in '00 we had to replant the original vines from '64 as they succumbed to leaf-roll virus. And I said to myself, the vines I'm planting now, I don't want them finished in just 20 or 30 years. There's no question that older vines produce a character that young vines can't. So getting a vineyard to be 40, 50, 60 years old is what I want. It's what we should all want around here. But no one is talking about the life-cycle of the vine, and that's crazy."
Araujo is echoing the cautionary tale of Alan York, whom I met with yesterday at Quintessa. York noted how vineyards in Napa rarely make it past 20 vintages before needing to be replanted, while vineyards in Old World wine regions where more organic farming is often the norm, such as the Rhône Valley, stay viable well into their sixth or seventh decade, or beyond. Older vines are thought to deliver more intense fruit, more minerality and more overall complexity, while being better at self-regulating their crop and withstanding the effects of overly warm, cool, wet or dry years.
The Eisele vineyard is located just east of the Silverado Trail in Calistoga. It features sandy loam soils over a deep layer of large rocks, so rocky that there are air pockets throughout, providing ideal drainage. Eisele Cabernets are typically marked by dense but polished structure, a noticeable loamy edge and dark, smoldering fruit. The Syrah is also sensational, with lush licorice snap notes and layers of cassis and plum intertwined with a floral edge.
"I see more consistent ripening and quality despite very variable vintages," said Araujo, when I asked him what changes he's seen in the Eisele vineyard since he converted to biodynamics in 2001. Today the 162-acre estate includes 39 acres of vines, along with olive trees, chickens, cattle and bees. Vineyard manager Caleb Mosley, 29, has been at Araujo for five seasons; winemaker Nigel Kinsman, 37, a New Zealand native, worked his first harvest at the estate in 2010.
"I think vine recovery is better," said Mosley of how he has perceived the effects of biodynamic farming. "A day after a really hot day, and the sycamore trees along the road are still drooping a little. But the vines bounce right back. They look energetic and perked up."
Kinsman has worked at Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa, as well as in Tuscany, Australia and his native New Zealand. But at Araujo, he's working with biodynamic fruit for the first time since 2003 when he was at Cullen.
"It's refreshing, really, and in a totally good way," he said. "The fruit is alive and you can see it when they bring it in."
Araujo's observations are more pragmatic, as he noted, "I don't know if I taste energy or anything like that. I mean, I think we made some pretty good wines before we farmed biodynamically. But I do remember shortly after we started, I was looking out at the vines one day and I thought there was something wrong with the tint in my lenses. The color in the vineyard was so pure, so green, so strong. I hadn't seen that before."
Araujo has even seen the changes in other aspects of the estate, including his vegetable garden. "Daphne brought in some spinach one night for dinner and I thought there was something wrong with it. It was such a dark green. And the flavor was so intense. I didn't realize I'd been conditioned to accept the washed-out color and boring flavor of what we get in the stores all the time. It was a real eye-opener."
Both Kinsman and Mosley look at biodynamics as a farming method that helps a vineyard protect itself better against disease and other potential problems. For them, it's a farming method, but not strict dogma. Picking here isn't necessarily done exactly on the lunar cycle, for example, as the team at Flowers is experimenting with.
"We look at propitious days on the biodynamic calendar as opportunities, but it's not set in stone," said Mosley. "We focus on getting the canopy right early, then getting the energy of the vine going into its roots and the fruit. The rest falls into place. There's the process and the timing and sometimes the timing is more important for how we want to do things than what the book said."
A tasting of older vintages showed the common thread of Eisele terroir. The Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyards 1992 showed plum, pastis-soaked prunes and roasted cedar notes, along with espresso and loam hints. The structure was more burnished with time than polished or refined, but it still managed to meld nicely into the mature fruit. In contrast, the Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyards 2002 had more youthful vibrancy, with gorgeous plum sauce and loam aromas and flavors, finer-grained cedar and apple wood notes and a delicious steeped fig and currant finish. It had more flesh, depth and drive, but was that a function of the shift in farming, a 10-year difference in bottle aging, or both?
Again, Araujo took a simple approach in answering the question.
"I've come to realize that biodynamics is sort of like when animals can sense an earthquake before we as humans can. There are some things beyond our comprehension, but they do exist. I look out at the vineyard and the property and I know it's healthier now than it was before."
"You have to realize when you have something like this, that you are just passing through," he said. "The site will be here forever, we won't. And we want to take care of it and make sure we pass it along the way it was to us."