The drive from Calistoga to Volker Eisele Family Estate in Chiles Valley (a sub-ava of Napa Valley ava) is a 30 minute climb along a scenic winding two-lane road. As I drove I wondered why anyone would choose to grow grapes in this upper valley. I later learned that Francis Sievers founded Lomita Vineyards in 1870 on the same plot where Volker Eisele planted his predominately Cabernet vineyards a hundred years later. I was greeted at the old Lomita winery building, which now serves as the offices and a museum of sorts, by Volker Eisele himself. His German accent is still pronounced, giving the whole experience an old world feel. Being something of a Napa history buff, I was excited to meet this iconic pioneer vintner. Volker Eisele is featured prominently in the historical book, Napa: The Story of an American Eden by James Conaway.
We started our visit by walking through the 60 acres of organically farmed vineyards within the 400 acre estate. Volker, who still moves easily amongst the vines, is obviously proud to be an early proponent of sustainable organic farming. The vineyards on this day are just beginning to bloom and the vibrant green shoots are beautiful. Oaks and other native vegetation have been left in the creek beds and wetter areas to soak up excess moisture. The extensive views and quiet vineyards stand in contrast to the hustle and bustle at wineries on the Napa Valley floor. It all harkens back to an earlier time in Napa’s history.
Volker and I made our way back to the restored winery building where we sat in a conference room that served as the tasting room. Volker Eisele’s vineyards were planted in 1975, and for many years the grapes were sold to premium winemakers across the valley. In 1991, Volker began making wines under his own label. On only a few previous occasions had I enjoyed these robust and elegant wines. Earlier this year, while covering Premiere Napa, I met Volker’s son Alexander (winery manger) and was really impressed by their Cabernet offering for the auction, adding to the anticipation of the visit.
As we sat and began to taste, Volker told stories of his early days in Napa Valley. While a graduate student in the early 1970’s, he and his wife Liesel, were looking for a simpler life when they moved from Berkley to the 400 acre property where they still reside. The couple’s two children Alexander and Christiane (an ER doctor in New Orleans) are active in the winery operation. On the day I visited, Volker proudly reported that Alexander and his wife Catherine just had their first child; another Eisele for the family vineyards.
Our wine selection consisted of one white and two red wines, all from estate grown organic grapes. Volker Eisele wines regularly rack up scores in the 90-95 range and these were no exception. They are full, round, complex and robust. Each wine was complimented by Liesel’s specially selected nuts, cheese and dried fruits.
We started with the 2009 Gemini ($25), a blend of 82% Semillon and 18% Sauvignon Blanc, and a lovely alternative to Chardonnay. Clean and crisp with flavors of Meyer lemon, vanilla, pear and peach. Barrel aged sur-lie adds richness to the mouth-feel.
Next up was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45). Blended with 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc, the wine opened quickly with flavors of dark cherry, blackberry, saddle leather and smoke complimented by fine tannins and a lingering elegant finish.
We finished with the 2006 Terzetto ($75), a blend of equal parts Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This is a beautiful full rich red blend offering flavors of blackberry, cherry, vanilla, and dark spices held together with a supple tannin backbone. I asked Volker about his favorite pairing with this wine and the surprising answer was, “venison and chocolate sauce.” We paired the Terzetto with a chocolate truffle which really complimented the wine. However, I was intrigued by the venison and chocolate idea so I googled the recipe and found a video of Gordon Ramsey making the dish. Sounds weird but looks delicious and I’m sure the pairing would be awesome.
The Volker Eisele Family Estate is available for tours by appointment only and offers a wonderful alternative to the fast paced tasting rooms of other Napa wineries.
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