Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Volker Eisele Family Estate

Volker Eisele Family Estate was founded in 1974 by Volker and Liesel Eisele.  Their son Alexander Eisele now manages much of the winery's operation.  The area was previously known as Rancho Catacula when 400 acres were owned back in 1843 by Joseph Chiles, for whom Chiles valley was named.  (Chiles is pronounced as in "miles.") The portion of those 400 acres that now constitutes Volker Eisele Family Estate was sold off in the 1870s to Francis Sievers, a German immigrant, who founded Lomita's Vineyard and Winery on the site.  The original winery building, some of the tanks and the old wine press that were constructed by Sievers back then still remain on the estate. (see photos)

Volker Eisele

Old winery building

Volker Eisele Family Estate is in Chiles Valley at an elevation of about 11,000 feet, not the elevation one usually associates with a valley.  Although this is an actual valley, it is up in the mountains. Mr. Volker Eisele was instrumental in having it designated as one of Napa Valley's AVAs. Chiles Valley AVA is in the Vaca Mountains on the eastern side of Napa Valley and includes about 6,000 acres out of which a little over 1,000 is planted in vineyards.  Some wineries outside Chiles Valley source grapes from there and produce a wine with the Chiles Valley designation, but I could locate only five wineries that are based in Chiles Valley.  I asked Volker Eisele about this and he confirmed the small number of wineries in the valley.  Obviously it was designated as a separate AVA not because of its size or the number of wineries there but because of the uniqueness. There is no place else in Napa Valley quite like Chiles Valley

Old wine press

The Eisele's use to sell their grapes to other wineries but began producing their first wine under their own label in 1991.  They never source fruit from other vineyards and do not own vineyards in other AVAs, so all of their grapes are from their own vineyard in Chiles Valley. They produce around 7,000 cases a year.  Many of the vines on their 60 acres are about 40 years old.  The winemaker is John McKay.

Inside winery building

The primary focus of the winery is on Bordeaux style wines, three of these being Cabernet based and the other, their only white wine, a Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend.  They also make a very small amount of Sirah that is sold only to club members and is not available for tasting.  Volker Eisele is insistent on his wines coming only from Chiles Valley and is emphatic that his wines should represent the terroir of this valley.  He grows Bordeaux varietals because Napa Valley has the climate, geography and soils that make it best suited to these grapes.  The French had hundreds of years to experiment with this.  In the European tradition, he believes in growing only those varietals that do best in a particular area.  He is completely devoted to wines that are expressive of their location or terroir, although in conversation he does not use the often misused term, "terroir" and eschews all references to jargon and fancy marketing terms.


Volker is all about authenticity, the land, the grapes, nature, and integrity.  In perfect harmony with this, he also believes in organic farming and in minimal intervention by the winemaker.  The winery is Certified Napa Green Land and also certified as organic by both the California Certified Organic Farmers and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. 

We often seem to glorify winemakers. We want to idolize people, make them stars or heroes.  How do you idolize nature, the soil, the weather or the topography, even though that is the source of greatness in wine? Volker asked me, "Do you know the name of the winemaker at Chateau Lafite Rothschild?"  Of course not.  We know the winery.  We know the soil and climate from where the grapes grow.  A winemaker cannot make wines better than the grapes.  Volker has strong opinions on this and other issues. Great grapes are given to winemakers so the best can be brought out in them.  Whether you are focused on quality grapes or terroir integrity, you know that it is all about the grapes rather than winemaking magic.  If you don't have the right place, the correct vines and proper farming, then you will never find greatness.  Every great wine begins with outstanding grapes.  I have not met anybody who knows anything about wine who disagrees with that.  Nobody will ever produce a Napa Valley quality Cabernet Sauvignon from grapes grown in Modesto or Fresno.  It can't be done.  It is all about grapes and grapes are all about where they are grown.  Here is a You Tube interview with Volker Eisele you might like to watch:  Interview

The winery is located above Lake Hennessey and is in a secluded, very rural area.  One nearby road goes on to Pope Valley and the other to Lake Berryessa.  If the location of Chiles Valley is known at all to locals, it is usually known as the place that is on the way to Pope Valley. The winery itself is in a large rustic barn like building with a rather charming interior.  Tastings and tours are by appointment only. 


After a tour of the vineyards with many questions and answers, we returned to the winery building to begin our tasting.  The well known Volker Eisele himself conducted our tour and tasting, partaking himself in each sample while offering a toast.  A separate wine glass was used for each sample, and we both had a plate of cheeses, truffles, almonds and dried apricots.  Much thanks to Mrs. Eisele.

Tasting room

Our tasting began with the Volker Eisele Family Estate 2010 Gemini at $25.  This is a 73% Semillon and 27% Sauvignon Blanc blend that was co-fermented.  It was barrel aged with 20% new French oak.  450 cases were produced.  A pale straw in color, this has an intense flowery aroma of Japanese pear, vanilla and lemon blossoms.  It is very well balanced and dry but not at all tart, with more pear and some lime on the palate with a decent finish. This is a very enjoyable wine to drink on its own, the Semillon giving the Sauvignon Blanc some roundness and immediate accessibility.  It might not have some of the complexity of some high end (expensive) Sauvignon Blancs or white Bordeauxs, but it more than makes up for that in pure pleasantness and price.

Old piano in tasting room

Next up was the Volker Eisele Family Estate 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon at $45.  This is 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc.  It spent 22 months in oak with half of it in new French oak.  A deep ruby purple in color, it had a nice nose of cherry and vanilla.  On the palate it was more blackberry and black currant, with good structure, nice tannins and excellent acidity.  I also got some vanilla and forest floor, plus some minerality.  It had a good, moderate length finish. Although it is still young, it is quite drinkable now.  It is unique, interesting and complex, a Cab that I will need to spend more time with and will certainly do so since we purchased three bottles.  Highly recommended and very competitively priced. 

Tulips on grounds

Our final tasting was the Volker Eisele Family Estate 2008 Terzetto a Bordeaux style red blend made from equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  70% of it saw new French oak.  It sells for $75.  Making this blend is difficult because these varietals are picked only when all three are ripe at the same time.  This is not so difficult with the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but rather tricky with the Cabernet Franc.  I got some light cherry and sweet oak on the nose.  This was a full bodied wine with beautifully ripe, but not overly extracted fruit, mostly cherry and blackberry with hints of chocolate, buttered toast and sweet oak.  The tannins were very well integrated.  Finish was medium long.  Again, highly recommended.  It paired very well with a chocolate truffle per Volker's suggestion.  If you want a wine that pairs fantastically with chocolate, this is it.


Their other wines include a Sirah and a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon called Alexander. ($125).  The Sirah is very limited production and is sold only to wine club members.  Neither wine was available for tasting, but I'll bet they are both exceptional. 


If you have never visited Chiles Valley, we highly recommend doing so by making an appointment at Volker Eisele Family Estate.  If you can't visit but want to experience Cabs from all of the Napa Valley AVAs, you should  try one of their Cabs. I strongly recommend their 2008 Cab at only $45.  It does not taste quite like any other Cab I've had and is very nice for the price.  If you can spend a bit more, then try the Terzetto.  Volker Eisele Family Estate offers some unique wines from an AVA has its own special signature.  I don't think you will be disappointed.  If Volker or Alexander ever offer us a tasting of the Sirah or Alexander, we will be back in a flash.

Winery building and patio

3080 Lower Chiles Valley Rd
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 965-9485
Date of visit: April 17, 2013

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