Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year's End Tasting: Nostalgia and the New - A Napa Road Trip to Volker Eisele Family Estate

From St. Helena, we headed east and turned onto the Silverado Trail, heading south. We took a left then, setting forth on Sage Canyon Road and leaving flatland behind. The route takes you up and above the valley, east on windy roads, passing the backside of Pritchard Hill.

Then, after driving down that long, curvy road, you round Lake Hennessey, which, on a sunny day - like Friday - had boaters. From there, it's left on the narrow Chiles-Pope Valley Road, as it perilously skirts the steep edge of a creek until you reach Lower Chiles Valley Road and take a right.

A half mile later you take the turn off on the left for the Volker Eisele Family Estate, which is marked only by a simple sign saying, in the plainest possible language, "Winery." Not, mind you, "Volker Family Estate Winery," but simply "Winery."

This is Chiles Valley, an area where miners once lived and where the first wineries made wine strictly for them. That is, in fact, the essence of early days winemaking in northern California. Wines were made close to the mines in regions where both activities co-existed. (You can still visit Nichelini Winery, not far away, filled with historic photos from that era).

Today there are just a handful of wineries in the Chiles Valley AVA, which lies in the Vaca Mountains, the range that forms the eastern edge of Napa Valley.

Drive up the lane. It's quiet here. You won't hear the roar of traffic - as you do at wineries on Highway 29. There's a sunny ridge here and hillsides covered in oaks. No one's planning to cut them down to make more vineyards.

With the winter rains, the hillside is bright green. On this Chiles Valley floor, 4,000 feet above sea level, the temperatures are cooler than Napa Valley. "Much closer in temperature to Bordeaux," Volker used to say, subtly promoting his wines as more authentic compared to those warmer vines on Napa's valley floor.

Chiles Valley is a part of Napa that few see. It's a place where mountain lions and bears roam. You won't find classical music being piped out to an elegant tasting deck inhabited by groups of Chinese speaking tourists (not that we don't love them - they are very welcome here, but it's not a spot to check off on their Napa "prestige winery" bucket list), and no one will pester you to join the wine club.

As you arrive at the site, on your left is an aging walnut grove, still bearing nuts. And as you drive up the small hill, an old barn, with fading white paint, beckons. You park your car and head inside, noticing the big green Christmas wreath with the big red bow, with its ancient sign overhead.

"Agriculture," it says in all caps. "California's Most Vital Industry."

It was six years ago when my old friend Elizabeth, a wine lover who lived in Napa for a time, and I first set foot on this property and came face to face with its charismatic, charming and occasionally cantankerous proprietor - Volker Eisele, a powerful force to be reckoned with and one who will not be forgotten for quite some time.

German born and bred, Volker was something of a Renaissance man - it's said he could quote Goethe and sing Wagner - and he took up the political challenge of protecting Napa from overdevelopment. Having lived in Germany, he knew how precious undeveloped land was and he fought for decades to help Napa preserve its treasures.

He appears in James Conaway's book, The Far Side of Eden, as a major character, a moving force behind the environmental activism that united growers and residents to fight overdevelopment in Napa's hills - development that was threatening watersheds and leading to landslides on steep sites. Some of the then new money folks settling on Napa's hillsides paid little attention to the planning rules, blasting out oaks and bulldozing new vineyards. Volker organized alliances to fight for better protection, forging many a coalition of strange bedfellows.

When he died in 2015, the entire Napa planning department turned out for the memorial service, along with hundreds of friends in the community, who celebrated him as "the lion of land planning" in Napa.

But knowing all that about him came later, much later. On my first visit here, in 2010, it was all about wine, and the land, and finding out what organic farming meant for a wine grape grower. Volker farmed organically for 40 years.

It was also about tasting some surprisingly superlative wines, which, frankly, I hadn't known I would encounter here. This was not - and is still not - a big "name" place. It was only later that I learned that Robert Parker said of Volker's wines that they had an "unmistakable elegance and impeccable balance." I was new to Napa, and here I was - out in the boonies by an old barn traipsing around with a guy with a German accent.

My friend and I decided it was time to revisit the family's wines, and get caught up on the "new" era at Volker Eisele, now that Volker's son Alexander and wife Catherine are now officially running the place. Volker's widow Liesel, whose aesthetics contribute to the simplicity and beauty of the site structures and landscape, is still very actively engaged as well.

Inside the old Sievers barn, home to the Volker Eisele Family Estate tasting room,
which was built in the late 1800s. The barn was a gravity fed winery way back when.

Catherine Eisele
Shortly before Volker's untimely and unexpected death from a stroke at age 77, the family had to hire a new winemaker because the old one, John McKay, was retiring. I had always admired McKay's wines for Volker, and the fact that McKay was also the first in Napa to make a White Bordeaux Blend (primarily Semillon coupled with Sauvignon Blanc) was just one more reason I admired him. I wanted to see just who this new winemaker was, and if she was up to the job.

I should have known not to worry.

The new winemaker is Molly Lyman. As Catherine Eisele told us on our tour and tasting, Volker knew Heidi Barrett from the St. Helena Catholic Church, where both were members. Heidi is famous for making the cult wine that sold at auction for $500,000 - Screaming Eagle - as well as for being married to Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena fame - as well as being the daughter of Richard Peterson, an elder in the pantheon of Napa's winemaking royalty. (You can read his history in the fascinating book The Winemaker.)

Of course, Heidi was too busy to take on a new client, but she recommended that Volker speak to her assistant winemaker, Molly Lyman. It was a match. Lyman spent two vintages working with McKay before making the 2014's on her own.

During the tour, we took a quick gander at the main portion of the 60 acre estate site, which is planted mostly to Cabernet vines from the 1980's and 90's.

A small block of hillside vines on a gentle slope are older Cab vines that date back to the 1970s. These go into the estate's most expensive and limited production wine, Alexander.

The winery recently launched two, new single block Cabernets - Las Flores and Sievers Reserve.

The Las Flores is named for a section of the vineyard where the mustard flowers most brilliantly. It turns out to have a different soil type from the rest of the vineyard.

The Sievers Reserve comes from a canyon block, named for Francis Sievers, the original settler who first planted that section to vines in the late 1800s.

The elegant, seated tasting provides an introduction to the estate's three main wines.

• 2014 Gemini, a White Bordeaux Graves style blend ($28)

• 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($52)

• 2012 Terzetto ($75), a Bordeaux blend composed of equal parts Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc


This is a white wine which - I have to confess - is easily my favorite white wine from Napa.

Pardonnez moi, but I don't think the region makes great Chardonnay. ( I say that after experiencing a best of Napa Chards tasting with Karen McNeil where a group of professional wine writers guessed the real Chablis in the lineup right away). I've given Napa Chard a lot of chances. I haven't given up (there's one I like), but I'm not expecting a lot these days.

And while I may like the occasional Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, it's the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend that the Volker Eisele Estate makes - called Gemini - that I adore.

I don't know why more wineries in Napa don't make a White Bordeaux Blend like it. (Perhaps that's because it's so easy - and lucrative - to grow Sauvignon Blanc on the clay soils by the river).

The blend in the 2014 Gemini is 76% Semillon and 24% Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was whole cluster pressed and spent 5 months in French oak, 20% of which was new.

Gemini strikes the perfect balance between fruit and acidity. I'm looking forward to drinking it with some roast chicken this week and also trying it out with salad.


In the morning of our Napa road trip, before arriving in Chiles Valley, my friend and I tasted at Opus One, a spot long on our bucket lists, but one we'd just never gotten around to visiting (though, it should be said, we only get together once in awhile, and we only go to Napa together about once every other year).

While the 2013 Opus One ($280) is a very, very lovely wine, it's also extremely restrained - so restrained, in fact, that it has exceedingly quiet aromatics.

The Opus One building is Napa wine marketing at it Most Serious, which made it not our favorite sort of place, whatever we thought of the wine. (While I appreciated the wine, my friend was not a fan.)

Not so the Cabernet at Volker Eisele, which we both adored at first whiff. As Robert Parker is so fond of writing, the wine "leaps from the glass." This wine does just that - in a beguiling and come hither way. It's nice to enjoy the aromas before you take a sip. And this is a wine built for that experience. It's also, of course, delicious on the palate, with cherry, berry and cassis notes. A gorgeous wine.

The blend is 87% Cabernet and 13% Merlot, aged for 24 months. in French oak, of which 50% was new.

Also it should be noted, there's an unworthy habit in Napa of releasing wines when they are very young. Many wineries are on the 2014's in 2016. Here, at Volker Eisele Family's, they're on the 2012's.


If it's restraint you're looking for, the Terzetto offers a change of pace from its Cabernet sibling - it's all about elegance and finesse.

The three grapes - Cabernet, Merlot, and Cab Franc - are co-fermented, a potentially risky step - in equal parts.

The grower has to know what they are doing to get all three grapes to ripen at the same time.

Catherine lightheartedly calls it "German engineering" because the family grows the Cabernet in a slightly cooler area, to hold it back, so that the three varietals ripen together at the same time.

The finale of our tasting was a Terzetto truffle.

Laden with our newly purchased wines (after swearing before we visited that I wouldn't buy any more wine), we wandered off into the sunny afternoon, contemplating the beauty of the place and the wines. A fitting way to celebrate a day in Napa and to raise a glass to the end of a very bad year and the beginning of what we hope will be better times in 2017.
From my 2010 visit

I also left with a feeling of reassurance and renewal. Even though we've lost Volker, who played a big part in my organic education and who contributed - simply through his friendship - to me getting started on this path, life at the estate is going forward. Alexander and Catherine's kids are 2 and 5. Catherine is very capably conducting the tours and tastings now. And then there's Molly's fine work in the cellar. But it all began with Volker and Liesel's vision - and now Alexander's hard work in the vines with the very capable and committed Nevarez family, who live on the estate and have tended the vines there since 1974.


Here's to drinking more lovely wines - including my newly replenished stash from Volker Eisele Family Estate (I'm looking forward to trying the two new single block Cabs that I purchased) - and to carrying on traditions that honor and support great farming, wonderful winemaking and deeply pleasurable drinking.

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