California can produce some remarkable cabernet sauvignons. One of the very finest is produced from the grapes grown in the northern end of the Napa Valley near the sleepy town of Calistoga by Barbara and Milton Eisele.
Their vineyard is one of several that depends on the quality of its grapes -- and not wine it produces -- for its fame. Though the Eiseles are growers, not winery owners or winemakers, their reknown has spread because many California wineries designate by the vineyard certain batches of wine that are so special that blending them into a vat with wine from other vineyards would be considered lunacy or gross negligence.
For more than a decade and a half, the Eiseles have been selling their grapes to some of California's best cabernet sauvignon producers, who in turn have deemed the quality of the Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon so special that it has merited a vineyard-designated bottling.
Prior to 1975, the Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon grapes were sold to Souvernin, Ridge, Robert Mondavi and Conn Creek. Ridge produced a 1971 Eisele Vineyard-designated wine and Conn Creek produced its 1974 cabernet sauvignon from Eisele Vineyard grapes. Since '75, the grapes have been purchased exclusively by the Joseph Phelps Winery, which has produced a vineyard-designated Eisele cabernet sauvignon in every year except 1980 when technical difficulties with the making of the wine precluded an Eisele cabernet.
The Eiseles attribute the high quality of their grapes to the microclimate in the foothills of the northern Napa Valley. In addition, the vineyard is quite old by California standards.
In tastings I have done, I have always found the Eisele cabernet sauvignon to be a very rich, full bodied, densely colored wine with a huge bouquet of ripe black currant fruit, a tarry, almost truffle-like aroma, and a scent of violets. It has been, along with the famed Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon from Ridge, the Beaulieu Private Reserve, and Caymus cabernet sauvignon the most consistently brilliant cabernet produced in California.
My belief in the supremacy of the Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon was put to the test several weeks ago. A local collector, Jay Miller, offered a rare opportuntiy to see a wide range of Eisele cabernet at a tasting he put together.
It was billed as both a vertical and horizontal tasting. The vertical tasting was of all the Eisele Vineyard cabernet between 1974 and 1979. The horizontal tasting placed the 1978 Eisele Vineyard cabernets against some of the famous cabernet sauvignons of '78, such as Beaulieu Private Reserve, Caymus Special Selection, William Hill, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Stag's Leap Lot 23 and Villa Mt. Eden Reserve. In short, this was a tasting of the cre me de la cre me of California cabernet sauvignons.
For those in attendance, the Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignons were simply spectacular, revealing an intensity of fruit and a level of richness and power that was so perfectly balanced that one must certainly ask why there are not more California cabernets this special. To the group's surprise, the 1974 Eisele Vineyard sauvignon won the vertical tasting and the 1978 Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon won the horizontal tasting of '78s. The 1975 Joseph Phelps' Eisele Vineyard cabernet and the 1976 Joseph Phelps' Insignia cabernet sauvignon (made from Eisele Vineyard grapes with the addition of 6 percent merlot) were close seconds in the vertical tasting, as well as in the overall group rankings. Given the competition, this type of showing is a remarkable vinous accomplishment.
I hate to say that one wine won, because I would gladly take a case or two of the last-place finisher in this type of tasting -- the wines were all that special and interesting. However, group tastings must have a winner even though one would argue that in this tipoff of the titans, no one deserved to lose, not even the non-Eisele cabernet sauvignons, which were all very good to superb.
The reason for the surprise in the 1974 Eisele cabernet winning was that it was a bottle of Eisele cabernet sauvignon thrown into the tasting for amusement only. In 1974, the only commercially available cabernet sauvignon with the Eisele Vineyard designation was produced by the aforementioned Conn Creek Winery. This wine won numerous awards and got tremendous critical acclaim as being one of the great cabernets of 1974, and it showed brilliantly in this tasting.
However, the Eiseles hold back a tiny percentage of their grapes each year and have a local winemaker produce a "homemade" version of their famed Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon. The 1974 Eisele Vineyard cabernet that came out on top in this tasting was never commercially available, as it was the homemade Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignon donated to the tasting by the Eiseles.
The home winemaker in this case was the late Norman Miny, who made many of the private-stock cabernet sauvignons for the Eiseles. The Eisele Vineyard cabernet sauvignons are unfortunately produced in very limited quantities of less than 1,000 cases. They are also expensive, usually retailing for $20-$25 a bottle. If you agree with me that the Eisele Vineyard cabernet is one of California's three or four best cabernet sauvignons, then given its scarcity and high quality, the price doesn't seem so high.
While the tasting authoritatively proved that the Eisele Vineyard produces superb cabernet sauvignons, one should keep in mind that the wines do need time. In this tasting, none of them, including the 1974 Conn Creek Eisele and the 1974 homemade Eisele, could be said to be fully at the peak of perfection.
The producers of California's cabernet sauvignons, the victims of declining popularity and prestige as a result of the huge publicity and quality attributed to the recent vintages of their chief rival, the red wines of Bordeaux, would do themselves a great favor by seeing that more cabernet sauvignons were made along the lines of the magnificent Eisele Vineyard cabernets, which seem to turn out profoundly regardless of who touches the grapes.