Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Eisele Vineyard (Calistoga, Napa Valley): A timeline

Wednesday of Premiere Napa Valley (PNV) week signals the official start, from my perspective, of the Hunt for the Auction Lot beginning with the tasting of the 20-case lots. This particular event was to be held at the Farmstead Restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch and we planned to attend after our scheduled visit to Eisele Vineyard.

Eisele Vineyard is the iconic Calistoga estate famed for its production of world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and Sauvignon Blancs. I was first introduced to this wine by a former neighbor in 1996 and and it has been a close companion ever since. I have won a Best-Cabernet competition held at The Wine Barn with a 2005 edition of this wine (The runner-up was a 1991 Dominus) and wowed attendees at the 2014 EWBC BYOB party in Montreux with a 2007 edition (Jaime Araujo was at the conference and spent a good part of the next day trying to find the person who had brought "her family's wine" over there.). All of the people that I drink wine with regularly hold this estate in high esteem.

This particular visit was arranged by Ron Siegel who had met Jean Gerandeau (Sales and Marketing Director, Artemis Domaines) at a Chateau Latour dinner held in Chicago by Hart Davis Hart. I had attended a Wine on the Way Araujo Wine Dinner with Antoine Donnedieu de Vabres (Estate Manager) just about a year ago and had had extensive dialogue with him on the integration and labeling strategy. I was excited to see what progress had been made since that discussion.

It was raining steadily for most of the travel from Yountville to the estate but the rain eased up just enough to allow us to make a dash from the parking lot to the office. Parlo and I were the first to arrive and were welcomed warmly by Sonia Guerlou, the Hospitality Manager.

The reception area was dominated by two exhibits of the estate's pedigree. First, on a table to the left stood a number of wine bottles, each displaying the label of a winemaker who had made vineyard-designated wines with grapes sourced from this vineyard. Second, directly opposite the entrance, a color map showing the various plots that comprise Eisele Vineyard.

Ron and Andrew finally showed up and the tour got underway. As it was still raining, we began our discourse in the office initially and then went outside once the rain stopped.

Sonia was warm, engaging, and knowledgeable. She kept stressing that they (the new owners) were not here to change things; rather, they were there to husband a tremendous resource that they had had the good fortune (and sense) to acquire.

Sonia Guerlou, Hospitality Manager
As Sonia explained it, Eisele Vineyard is located in northeast Napa Valley just east of Calistoga at the base of the Palisades Mountain Range. As shown in the timeline below, the vineyard's history stretches as far back as does the history of To Kalon and grapes have been planted continuously on the the property for the duration. The estate is 162 acres in size with 38 of those acres under vine.

When the vineyard was purchased by the Eiseles, they became 60+-year-old grapegrowers. They offered their grapes to Paul Draper of Ridge and he produced a vineyard-designated wine in 1971.

The Araujos bought the vineyard in 1990 and, in short order, built a winery and produced a wine under their own label. The 1991 harvest was shared between Joseph Phelps and the Araujos and they both produced wines under their individual labels.

During their tenure, the Araujos elevated the property from a great vineyard to one of the world's great estates. They introduced organic (1998) and biodynamic (2000) farming with all herbs and preparations used in the latter management process sourced from the vineyard.

As Sonia kept pointing out, Artemis Domaines purchased an iconic estate that was at the top of its game and that had a strong and loyal customer base. As in any acquisition of this type, the operating principle is "do no harm." That is, do not give the customer base any reason to think that the new owners are making wholesale changes just for the sake of making changes. The challenge for the new owners was seeking to establish an identity separate from the Araujos without giving the impression that they were changing the core product (which was a very high-value product to begin with).

The strategy chosen was to elevate the vineyard name above all else. This goal was accomplished over a three-year period of "gentle, subtle changes." The result is shown in the photo below. The 1991 label shows the vineyard name in the center and the estate name in the bottom right. Both of these bodies of text have similar size. The final label has only the vineyard name on the label and the font is larger than on the 1991 label.

I will cover the physical aspects of the estate and the changes that Artemis has made to the wine in a follow-up post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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