I remember the first time I visited the Volker Eisele Family Estate; it was a surreal experience, and one that changed my perception of the Napa Valley forever. Somewhere between the beautiful vistas, historic relics, fresh mountain air, firm handshakes, warm laughter, and fantastic wine, there lay a predominant sense of sustainable practice in agriculture, a respect for the land that I hadn’t seen reflected in the ubiquitous, seemingly disingenuous, heavily subsidized solar panels on the valley floor below. I wrote once that Volker Eisele, a German immigrant to California and a champion of the land, had been farming his grapes organically long before it was hip, simply because he knew it was the right thing to do. Though Volker is gone today, that legacy is carried on in the vineyards by his son, Alexander, Alexander’s wife, Catherine, and their well-behaved, bilingual children, who seem inherently to understand how lucky they are to grow up in such a rare and fantastic place.
When Ryan asked me to teach a class on the Napa Valley at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese, selecting the Cabernet Sauvignon was easy. I know of only a small handful of producers in Napa who check all of the boxes I’m looking for. First, Volker Eisele Family Estate wine is made using sustainable practices, something that matters increasingly more and more in a world that seems to have once been on the right path, but perhaps has gotten distracted. Secondly, it’s a wine that puts food on the table of a family of grape farmers, rather than padding the bottom line of a wealthy corporation. (The Volker Eisele Family Estate has a staff of three employees, two of them named Eisele.) Third, it’s a tremendous value. There aren’t very many Napa Cabs in the $50 range that I get as excited about as this one. And fourth, of course, is the quality of the wine. The VEFE Cab Sauv is evidently mountain fruit from the first whiffs of the bouquet, and has been skillfully crafted by winemaker Molly Lyman for many, many years. The blends vary from year to year, the 2006 being 85% Cab Sauv, 10% Merlot, and 5% Cab Franc, while the 2013 we tasted it next to was 94% Cab Sauv, 6% Merlot. Both wines underwent the same 22 month barrel regiment in 50% new French Oak, both wines are entirely produced from estate fruit, and both wines are superb.
Ryan, the manager at Corkscrew, worked diligently to prepare for the class, opening each wine and decanting the Cabernets, pouring five glasses of wine each for nearly thirty guests, and making sure every place was impeccably set. As he did, I reviewed a few notes of my own and made sure I remembered what I wanted to say in my limited time with the group, most of whom I suspected would be trying the wines I had selected for the first time. I get excited about sharing the wines I’m passionate about with people. In my down time, I helped him set up the room and picked at the charcuterie board.
A teacher always, I brought along to class several visual aids that I hoped would help explain what I thought were essential understandings of the Napa Valley. I brought a map of the valley, pointing out the river that runs through the heart of it and the highway that was built alongside, then put a pin in where the Volker Eisele Family Estate Winery sits in the Chiles Valley AVA. I also brought along two books by James Conaway, which I largely credit with my love of the valley today, and which were my initial introduction to Volker the man and his legacy not only of pioneering the rebirth of the wine industry in Napa, but also his herculean efforts to protect the land from predatory practices. While my class sipped at the 2006 and 2013 vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, I read a brief passage about Volker from the book to them which I have always loved.
The final thing I asked of my “students” was that together we write a tasting note. “No fresh cut garden hose!” I instructed, alluding to the documentary, Somm, and the fact that some people ruin wine for others with their highbrow zealotry. “Have fun with it,” I told them. Here’s what we came up with:
The Volker Eiesele Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a ruby color that fades to garnet at the edges, persimmon almost, the color of the brick red 1980’s lipstick that one of our classmate’s mother wore. The nose is spicy, with notes of freshly cracked black pepper, a whiff of tire swing on a hot day, and the gravel roads that lead to home. Bing and black cherry abound. On the palate, the wine is powerful yet undeniably smooth, the dark purple and black fruits still strong and many of the flavors from the nose appearing subtly therein, but with the addition of saddle leather. “I grew up on a ranch,” said one enthusiastic participant. “I have licked a saddle.” Laughter always enhances the flavor of wine in my opinion, and there was plenty to go around.
As the class wound down, I was asked what were my very favorite wineries in the Napa Valley, and I got the sense that the person asking would soon be visiting. “The ones who made the wines we’ve tasted tonight,” I told her, and I meant it. I ended my class with an earnest plea that wine drinkers be socially conscious, make themselves aware of the practices of the grape growers, and also strive to seek out wines made by families — like the Eisele’s, and not by corporations. I was told recently by a winemaker whom I respect a great deal that corporations employ a lot of people in the Napa Valley, and I see his point, yet I’ve written before about the fact that when we buy wine, we are voting with our money. Either we are voting to keep alive a small, agriculturally-driven family-owned operation, or we are tossing our money into the massive coffers of organizations that have no connection to history, nor to the land, and yet make billions of dollars from it annually with little regard for how they do it. To me, it’s an easy decision to make, and the one place in life where I attempt to be a straight-ticket voter.
The passage I read in class about Volker and Liesel Eisele, from James Conaway’s Napa: The Story of an American Eden, was my original introduction to Volker Eisele, and I think perhaps concisely punctuates my passion for Napa’s history and the people who carved it out:
“…Volker and Liesel Eisele had visited a neglected ranch in Chiles Valley directly across the road from the dirt bike course. It was part of the original land grant to a Kentucky trapper, Colonel Joseph Chiles, called Rancho Catacula, where grapes were grown. It was bought in 1880 by Francis Seviers, a San Franciscan and a native of Schleswig in northern Germany. A former ship’s captain, another German, built Seviers’s farmhouse, which included a cupola, using thousands of square-headed nails. Seviers’s son built a winery, Lomitas Vineyard, in the last years of the century and planted Zinfandel, Sauvignon Vert, and Berger. The old press and fermenters had fallen into disuse with Prohibition, and the property into general decline. The Eiseles managed to buy it. They had discovered that they could actually live quite happily in the country.”
Cheers to the people who pioneered an industry, and to those who keep their visions alive today,