Senior editor James Molesworth will become Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon at the end of this year. He recently made a trip to Napa Valley and is posting dispatches from some of the region's top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.
France's recent World Cup victory is not the reason for the Tricolore hanging outside the office at Eisele Vineyard in Napa Valley. Artémis Domaines, the holding company of French billionaire François Pinault, took over here in 2013, following the Araujo family stewardship that began in 1990. The accents have changed a bit and there are some tweaks going on in the vineyard and in the wine, but the soul of Eisele Vineyard remains very much intact.
The 162-acre estate is pristine, maintained with an overarching dedication to the environment.
In the vineyards (35 of a potential 38 acres are in production) the varietal makeup has been reconfigured. Cabernet Sauvignon remains the lead dog, with 30 acres of vines, while the Syrah here (a personal favorite of mine) has been cut in half, to just 2.5 acres. There's 4.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc (and some Musqué), and just a drop of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Gone is the Merlot and Viognier (save for just a single row). The rejiggering was done to emphasize varieties on certain soil types. Going forward, additional replanting—25 percent of the vineyard over the next 10 years—will be done to eliminate virus-infected vine material (primarily red blotch and fan leaf). General manager Antoine Donnedieu stresses that these are issues that the Napa Valley wine industry needs to address as a whole, and are not a function of the previous ownership.
"[The Araujos] gave us a vineyard in perfect condition," he says. "The soil is healthy, there were no missing vines, the winery was clean. You couldn't ask for a better situation."
And from those vines and cellar, Hélène Mingot has been charged with making the wines. Mingot was handling the winemaking for Stéphane Derenoncourt's Napa project from 2006 through 2012, so she has the combination of French aesthetic and Napa chops to seemingly be an ideal fit.
"We arrived to a vineyard with old vines, planted 1991, in perfect condition," says Mingot as we walk through one of the estate's top Cabernet blocks. "The idea is to prolong their life as long as possible. Really the only reason to pull a vineyard in Napa is virus. With the weather and growing conditions here, it's otherwise perfect."
As for what drew her to the challenge of Eisele, Mingot recalls tasting some '98, '04 and '05 bottlings of the wine made by the Araujo team. "I didn't think it was the typical California Cabernet. There was something special to it," she says. "I was intrigued."
Among the tweaks in the vineyard is tilling the soil, rather than leaving it with native cover crop. This was done to offset the lowering vigor brought about by drought, as tilling reduces the competition that cover crop creates for nutrients and water. And there's a new section of Cabernet vines going in on "echalas," the pike-trained vinegrowing method favored in Côte-Rôtie.
"Echalas allows for even sun from all angles to fall on the bunches while protecting them from too much sun, as opposed to vertical trellising, where one side of the fruit is usually exposed," explains Mingot. "In California, as we deal with increasing heat, we have to consider ways to address this."
It's a level of attention to detail that is typical of an Artémis Domaines estate (sister properties include Bordeaux first-growth Château Latour and storied Northern Rhône monopole Château-Grillet). We stop to watch a vineyard team green harvesting; the idea is to take off smaller bunches from shoots less able to carry the fruit, resulting in a more even crop load (and even ripening) through the vineyard.
In the winemaking, shifts include elimination of high-toast barrels after the 2013 vintage, as well as temperature control in the barrel cellar. The wine is also blended sooner, mirroring Bordeaux timing (in the March following harvest) rather than waiting until just before bottling.
Eisele Vineyard could be considered a "grand cru" plot among Napa's select Cabernet vineyards. It has been lucky to have quality-minded stewards over the years, and current ownership seems well on its way to maintaining that heritage.
WineSpectator.com members: Read James Molesworth's tasting notes on several recent vintages of Eisele Vineyard Cabernets.