Napa Diary Day 9: New Wines at Accendo from an Old Team

“We sold Eisele but we still wanted to make wine and this property came up,” says Daphne Araujo as we walk through the winery at Wheeler Farms. “It came with a permit to produce 30,000 gallons, which was much more than we needed, so we made it into a custom crush.” It’s a practical operation, with modern equipment in a warehouse on the ground level, and a barrel room underneath. Wheeler Farms was a large property, with 376 acres in 1926, but today it is just 12 acres on Zinfandel Lane. It services about 6 winemakers and 11 brands in addition to the Araujo’s own wines.

Wheeler Farms is a custom crush facility on Zinfandel Lane

The objective at Eisele, which Daphne and Bart Araujo purchased in 1991 and sold in 2013, was to make wines in a European aesthetic, and the same objective applies at their new venture, Accendo, made at Wheeler Farms together with another label, JH Wheeler. The focus is on the same varieties as before, split between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Daphne summarizes the approach: “You make a wine with 16% alcohol and you get noticed, but that’s not what we want to do, we are more European.”

“The objective for the Sauvignon Blanc was to produce a wine in the style of white Graves. We started at Eisele using stainless steel as we found that too much oak lost freshness. Now we are sourcing grapes from farther down the valley we use more oak. The style is to have freshness, but to make a serious wine that is savory with a long finish. It has some Sémillon and Sauvignon Musqué,” Daphne says.

Accendo started with a single wine, and then Laurea was introduced with the 2018 vintage with the intention of producing a wine that is a little more juicy, a little more quaffable. It’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, but labeled as a proprietary red to keep blending options open. “We don’t like to call it a second wine, it’s a different wine. It has the same aging as Accendo but is released sooner. Everything is made as though it will go into Accendo until blending. We choose the lots for Accendo first and then start over.”

Accendo itself is a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from various sources including some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It’s very fine, and the current vintage seems virtually drinkable on release. How will it age? “Accendo’s first release was 2013 so we don’t have a ten year perspective yet.”

The JH Wheeler range is made by the same winemaker, Nigel Kinsman, who was the winemaker at Eisele, but it’s kept separate from Accendo. Wheeler has single-vineyard wines from grapes purchased from sources such as Beckstoffer and Vine Hill Ranch. The price point is a little lower than Accendo. The Wheeler wines are very good, but don’t have the absolute refinement of the Accendo. Accendo makes about 1000 cases of the main wine, Laurea is about 600 cases, the Sauvignon Blanc is 900 cases. There are 2000 cases of Wheeler Farms.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting of Accendo Cellars

2019 Sauvignon Blanc
Light golden color. Nose more inclined to stone fruits than citrus with some faint hints of oak. Smooth and fruity, in fact unusually fruity for the variety, showing good ripeness, with a sense of viscosity on the palate that gives more of an impression of breadth from maturation in oak than the aggressive character of stainless steel. 91 Drink -2024

2018 Laurea Red
Quite lifted aromatics give the impression of pure black fruits. Very fine silky texture, you hardly see the tannins except for a slight dryness on the finish. Those black fruit aromatics poke up from the palate and the wine seems virtually ready to drink already. 91 Drink -2029

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a blend with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Sterner black fruit aromatics than Laurea, deeper, blacker impression on palate, more sense of tannic structure on the finish. Texture is very fine. Great potential for aging, with elegant balance promising savory development in the direction of delicacy. 94 Drink -2040

Tasting of JH Wheeler

2018 Napa Red
Faintly spicy nose shows red and black fruits. Smoother and softer than Accendo, not as lively, tending towards a chocolaty texture on palate. Nicely balanced, already ready. 91 Drink -2029

2018 Beckstoffer George III Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford)
Very restrained nose. Silky, smooth palate, very fine texture, you can hardly see the tannins at first, then very slowly some dryness becomes evident on finish. Black fruit aromatics are just beginning to emerge. The fine, almost tight, texture reminds me a bit of St. Julien. 94 Drink -2037

2017 Missouri Hopper Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville)
Slightly spicy black fruit aromatics on nose, a bit closed at outset. Deep palate with intensity of black fruits joined by a gritty texture. Not as fine as George III. Cassis comes out on finish. Aromatics become more obvious in glass. 93 Drink -2036

A Reality Check on Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

It’s become a truism that more powerful, fruit-forward wines in the “international” style may show well at tastings, and in fact make it difficult to appreciate wines in more subtle, restrained styles. No matter how experienced a taster you are, there is always the possibility that the sheer deliciousness of a wine taken in isolation will give a misleading impression of how it will taste with food. So I like to perform a reality check: after seeing how a wine performs at a tasting, to have a bottle for dinner and see how much my impression changes. I should declare my perspective, which is that I’m with Emile Peynaud, who once famously said, “If I want to drink fruit juice, I’ll drink orange juice.” For me, wine should have at least savory intimations; it should not be an alcoholic version of grape juice.

In connection with my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I have been investigating all styles of the variety, and during a visit to Napa last month tasted a range from the more restrained to the most opulent. In the course of the last week, I repeated this exercise on a more restricted basis with wines at dinner. The dinner wines were all from the 2005 vintage, which was relatively lush, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that all the wines seemed more fruit-driven and more overtly aromatic, than the impression that had been gained of each house during vertical tastings in Napa.

My first impression was that none of these wines is ready to drink with dinner. None of them would seem unready at a tasting in the sense that the fruits come through clearly, and are not obscured by the weight of tannins; indeed, I think these wines all come into the category of seeming delicious at a tasting. The big question is what will happen with time? All have a strong sense of a powerful underlying structure, but this is hidden by the intensity of the fruit concentration. That of course is what makes them approachable now. As the fruits (and tannins) lighten, I expect they will come into a balance that is more suitable to accompany food; the aromatics will become less intense, and the fruits will begin to turn towards savory rather than jammy. That will take at least another five years.

All the wines have high alcohol (over 14%), but this was not the main determinant of their suitability to accompany food. The wine with the highest alcohol (14.8%) was Araujo’s Eisele Vineyard, which seemed the best accompaniment to food. The wine with the lowest alcohol (14%), Shafer’s Hillside Select, seemed the least suitable. The main criterion for me was either the intense aromatics or the very high level of extraction. In the case of the Spottswoode, the aromatics seemed too intense against food, and the Shafer Hillside Select was simply so powerful that I tired of it before we could finish the bottle. I’m sure that in every case the high alcohol was a factor, in that it enhanced the sense of aromatics or extraction, but it was not the sole determining factor.

Of course it’s unfair to put these wines down because they are not ready to drink now. You would not necessarily expect Bordeaux to be ready to drink after six years; indeed, I have not started to drink any Bordeaux of the 2005 vintage. I would normally expect to start on the vintage after about a decade. It’s curious that the point at which the wines become ready to drink (as opposed to tasting) may be similar for both Bordeaux and Napa, but for very different reasons. Typically the tannins need to resolve to allow the fruits to show in Bordeaux, while it seems to me that the fruits need to lighten (especially to become less aromatic) in Napa. It’s premature to make a judgment now: just as you would no more have criticized a great Bordeaux vintage in the past for having too much tannin to drink when young, so it may be unfair to put down a great Napa vintage because it has too much fruit when young. (Some people feel that wines with too much extract and fruit will never age gracefully, but I am prepared to reserve judgment for the moment.) So for my money, a fair test to compare Bordeaux and Napa of the 2005 vintage would be to wait another five years or so.

Tasting Notes in order of suitability to accompany a meal

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele, Araujo Vineyard, 2005 (14.8%)

The nose gives a suggestion of balanced restraint, with a mix of red and black fruits and a touch of coconut and vanillin showing, turning to coffee in the glass. The palate shows the coconut and vanillin more distinctly than the nose, with the overt black fruits cut by a faintly austere herbal note of anise. This gives a fine-grained textured impression to the palate, with coconut and vanillin overtones coming back on the finish. This is still too young, but the herbal touch that takes the edge off the exuberance of the fruits promises that this will become a finely balanced wine in a more savory spectrum over the next decade. 91 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Spottswoode, 2005 (14.1%)

The initial impression is that this has a European nose but an American palate. There’s a hint of development in a faint touch of barnyard on the nose as it opens, than later this clears to show aromatic black fruits, before returning again. The palate is distinctly Napa, with bursting fruits overlaid by notes of vanillin and coconut. Some intense blackcurrant aromatics stop just short of cassis and make a forceful impression on the palate and finish. This vintage seems less restrained than others from Spottswoode. The underlying tannins take a while to show directly, but finally appear in the form of some bitterness on the finish. It’s not so much the power as the force of the aromatics that make the wine too forceful to accompany food; perhaps another couple of years will make a difference. 89 Drink 2013-2019.

Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Hillside Select, Shafer, 2005 (14.0%)

The first impression is very Californian, in the form of strong notes of coconut and vanillin on the nose, turning to coffee and chocolate, but then accompanying savory notes, with a faint tinge of barnyard, suggest there may be some development. The palate, however, reflects more the initial impression than the follow up, with a rather aromatic impression of black fruits, blackcurrants with overtones of cassis, and then those notes of coconut and vanillin coming back on the finish. It’s intense and chewy on the finish, colored by those strong aromatics. No one could quarrel with the quality and intensity, but sometimes I think this style is more food in itself than wine to accompany food. The label claims that the Hillside Select is typical of the Stags Leap District, but I think it is more typical of itself. The big question in my mind is how long it will take for those aromatics to come into a calmer balance, and whether that will be paralleled by an extension of those faint suggestions of development to the palate. My guess is at least a decade before the wine will cease to be so assertive that it overpowers any accompaniment. 90 Drink-2021.