Tracking down the Napa Valley’s latest big-deal wine projects before they get buzz is a sleuthing game I play every time I visit the region.
Two weeks ago, I hit pay dirt at new ventures started by two of the valley’s singular vintners.
First, Christian Moueix, Bordeaux’s Pomerol superstar and owner of Napa’s Dominus Estate, has been hard at work on Ulysses, whose first vintage, 2012, will make its debut this month. And then there’s Bart and Daphne Araujo, who in 2013 sold their cult winery Araujo Estate to billionaire Francois Pinault, of Chateau Latour, and then quickly founded Accendo Cellars, which will release its 2014 Sauvignon Blanc in April and its first Cabernet in September.
These are wines worth trying for their pedigrees alone, but I won’t keep you in suspense: They’re all must-have stunners.
Let’s start with Ulysses.
The property is west of Highway 29, the major north-south road in the valley, in the southern part of the Oakville Bench at the foot of the Mayacamas mountain range— top Napa cabernet territory.
In the 1800s a part of the historic Charles Hopper Ranch, Ulysses’s 35-acre vineyard surrounds a modest farmhouse, ramshackle wooden barn, and shingled water tower. Bright yellow mustard flowers bloom among the vine rows.
Moueix bought this estate in 2008 and has been pulling out merlot vines and planting cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, with certain of the vines sourced from top Bordeaux vineyards. Winemaker Tod Mostero, who showed me around, wouldn’t say which ones.
But he revealed that Moueix hasn’t slept out in the Ulysses vineyard as he planned to do at Dominus to “better understand” the terroir before making his first wine there in 1983. (Dire warnings about rattlesnakes apparently stopped him.)
Compared to Dominus’s dramatic, low-slung, ultra-modernist winery, constructed of austere metal cages filled with dark, green basalt rocks, Ulysses has the low-key, casual vibe of an earlier Napa era, before the invasion of famous architects.
The Ulysses Wines
The wines are surprisingly different, too, despite the fact that Ulysses is only about a mile north of Dominus and has the same kind of gravelly soil. Mostero, who makes the wines for both, said that’s due to climate. “Ulysses is colder in winter, warmer in summer,” he said. That translates into softer, plusher tannins.
As we tasted in a simple wood-paneled room (all the wood comes from old recycled barrel staves), it occurred to me it could sound pretentious to name your wine after the hero of the famous Greek epic. But you don’t have to read Homer to get the symbolism.
Ulysses’s 10-year voyage home after the Trojan War is all about how he never loses sight of his goal. Clearly the courtly Moueix is on a quest for the perfect wine.
There are 800 cases of the sensual, juicy 2012, which costs $179 a bottle. Aromas of wildflowers and red cherries lead to cool, briary fruit in the taste that bursts in your mouth with the fresh, almost crunchy texture the French call croquant.
But the 2013, to be released next year, is the exciting, gorgeous one, deeper, more complex, with notes of smoke and tobacco and a silky texture—just about everything you could want in a great Napa cabernet. Mostero called 2013 “a once-in-a-century vintage.”
Drink the 2012 while you’re waiting for the 2013.
Next up: Accendo Cellars. A couple of days later, I stopped by Bart and Daphne Araujo’s modern home off the Silverado Trail, the valley’s other north-south road, to hear their tale and taste. In the garden, a huge sculpture of a bright red tomato rested on a white cube.
Bart was already wearing a fleece vest embroidered with the Accendo Cellars logo. He explained that they hadn’t planned to sell Araujo Estate and its legendary Eisele vineyard, which they owned for nearly 25 years.
“Pinault’s offer came out of the blue,” he said, as we talked in their office in front of shelves of plant books (Daphne Araujo has been a landscape designer) and a white impasto painting by California artist James Hayward. “He was the right buyer at the wrong time. We had no interest in retiring.” In truth, the couple had no succession plan; neither of their children was ready to help at the time. So they decided to sell early and quickly move on to a new project.
“We decided to do something different,” said Bart. Instead of a single-vineyard cabernet like Araujo Estate, the first Accendo Cellars red is a blend from five top vineyards, including a couple that the Araujos own. This uber-blend (as they call it) harks back to Napa’s history in the 1960s and '70s, before astronomically priced single-vineyard wines became the rage.
Bart pulled out an architectural rendering of the nearby winery they recently bought and are renovating. Proudly, he told me that the Araujos have pulled together their former winemaking team.
What's in a Name?
And the name Accendo? It sounds like an Italian musical term, but in Latin it means to inflame or arouse, and Daphne Araujo said it took them more that a year to come up with it. (Pronounce it "akkendo.")
The 2014 Sauvignon Blanc will be available in April for $50. It’s zingy and bright, yet opulent, a mix of citrus, herbs, and spicy ginger notes with a delicious minerally chalk and oyster shell character.
The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (not yet priced) is their first vintage. Wonderfully elegant, it’s a rush of lush fruit with a scent of violets and savory layers of flavor with an earthy, dusty edge.
There are only 550 cases. It won’t be shipped until next fall, but you can get on the mailing list now.