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California's New Stars

A Handful of Small Producers Are Creating Some of the Golden State's Greatest, and Most Elusive, Wines
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: August 1, 1999

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Phillips, Harlan, Krankl, Colgin and a number of other superpremium wine producers had worked at least tangentially with wine, anything from selling the land to serving the bottles, but they had no reason to expect success at the highest level when they started their wineries. Araujo, an utter newcomer, did expect success. The Eisele Vineyard's unparalleled track record and his winemakers' 20-plus years of experience gave Araujo the confidence that Araujo Estate would be making some of California's most impressive Bordeaux blends almost from the start. As a home builder, he knew the value of location: in this case the mix of soil, climate and sun exposure that the French call terroir. "In my mind, that's at least 80 percent of making great wine," he says.

The Eisele Vineyard is a 36-acre plot of stony soil some 800 feet above sea level. It sits under a ridge called the Palisades, in the northeast corner of Napa's wine-producing region. It was first planted with Zinfandel and Riesling in 1886, and the first Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1964. Those Cabernet vines still exist and are bearing fruit. So are additional vines planted in 1978 and 1991.

Milton and Barbara Eisele purchased the property in 1969, and two years later began selling their Cabernet to Ridge Vineyards. In 1974, Conn Creek produced an Eisele Cabernet, and from 1975 to 1990 Joseph Phelps held title to the grapes and made the wine. Irrespective of the winemakers, the Eisele Cabernets--which are blended with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot--invariably show a distinctive earthiness with notes of spice and chocolate. Along with Heitz's Martha's Vineyard, Ridge's Geyserville, and a handful of other renowned tracts of land, the Eisele Vineyard is one of the strongest expressions of California terroir.

This fact is not lost on wine drinkers. From Araujo Estate's initial release, which coincided with Phelps's final Eisele Cabernet in 1989, the wine has caused a sensation. Priced then at $40 (it went for $169 recently at auction; the recently released 1995 retails for $75), it immediately sold out. Today, Araujo sells half his wine--2,500 cases of the 1995, his largest release ever--to his mailing list, about 35 percent to restaurants in more than 20 states and internationally, and the remainder in selected retail outlets. In 1996, he introduced a Sauvignon Blanc and last year added a Syrah. He makes wine, as all winemakers do, to be enjoyed, but admits that the prices his wines get have altered them from mere premium releases to wines so rarified as to be almost too valuable to drink. "It has changed the nature of how people view it," he says.

In a sense, Araujo is showing more respect for the vicissitudes of his land than any of his predecessors. Although the Araujo wines originate in a single vineyard, he treats each sector of land as if it were a different plot. He jumps into his four-wheel-drive vehicle and shows off the property, pointing out imaginary borders between sectors that are as real in his mind as the old Berlin Wall.

Over the nine years he has been working the land, he and his wine-making team have come to know the growing characteristics and weather exposure of practically each vine. (The team includes winemaker Francoise Peschon, viticulturist David Abreu and consulting enologist Mia Klein; another long-time enologist, Tony Soter, retired in April.) His stainless steel tanks vary in size so he can harvest some fruit and begin the fermentation process while other, slower-ripening grapes are still maturing on the vine. (Ultra-ripeness, resulting in wines of high alcohol and rich, extracted fruit, is a danger here because, while it creates wonderfully pleasurable wines and, not so incidentally, high scores from many influential critics, it tends to mute influences like terroir.) The final product is a blend of cuvées; that's common practice in many wineries, but almost always from fruit of different vineyards.

Araujo has acquired additional land abutting the old contours of the vineyard, and planted vines that will ultimately contribute to the wine if the fruit is worthy. So far, he has resisted planting Merlot grapes, which are a large component of most Bordeaux-style blends in France and beyond, but now says he is considering such a move.

"Tony Soter believes Merlot is primarily used to correct flaws in Cabernet Sauvignon," Araujo says, though many of the premier wines of Bordeaux's right bank, including Château Pétrus and Cheval Blanc, are made almost entirely from Merlot. Araujo reports that Soter believes Merlot isn't needed at Eisele.

Alone among Napa Valley winery owners, Bill Harlan considers the Eisele Vineyard and shrugs his shoulders. It's another fine patch of grape-growing land in what has become the most respected vinous region in the New World, he believes. But it isn't the finest. In his mind, it can't be.

Eisele, perched on a shelf in the Napa foothills, sits on gently rolling terrain. The Medoc area of Bordeaux, where Cabernet-based wines thrive, is even flatter. But that isn't the case in most of the other renowned wine-producing regions of the world. From Tuscany in northwest Italy to the Rioja in northern Spain to Douro Valley in northern Portugal, the finest vineyards are planted on hillsides; only cheaper bulk wines are made on the valley floors.

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