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Anson on Thursday: What the Araujo family did next after selling to Latour owner

Bart and Daphne Araujo have started again after selling their namesake California wine estate to one of France's richest men, Francois Pinault, who also owns Château Latour in Bordeaux. Jane Anson finds out about the new Araujo wine venture - and predicts good things to come.

Both properties are a breath from the Silverado Trail, that stunning paradise of a road that runs parallel to Highway 29 in Napa Valley.

The original Araujo Estate lies just outside the Calistoga city limits to the upper end of the Valley. Arriving a little late, I drive right past the subtle entrance that bears the legend Eisele Vineyard and within minutes end up in a dead-end halfway up a mountain. That’s how it is here; from manicured to nowhere within the blink of an eye. I back up and head into one of the most perfectly-proportioned wineries that I have ever visited; verdant, shaded, redwood barns, chickens, bee hives, apricot trees, stillness. It’s no surprise to learn that former owner Daphne Araujo was a landscape gardener before turning to winemaking.

The new ‘Araujo 2.0’ as they call it was bought by Bart and Daphne within months of selling their former home to François Pinault’s Artemis Group in 2013. The search for new fruit to continue making wine began within hours of signing the sale papers. I drive down to them straight from Calistoga, heading around 15 minutes further south towards Rutherford and Oakville.

Accendo Cellars

Newly-baptised Accendo Cellars – they have left their family name with their former home under the terms of the sales contract ‘with the possibility of reclaiming it if Artemis decide to use just Eisele’ – is the first property you come to after turning off the Silverado Trail onto one of those cross roads that winds you back to the busier side of the Valley. It may be the most eagerly awaited new release in Napa right now.

Details of the project have been kept a closely guarded secret, but the first wine – a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, one of the grapes that they were most celebrated for at Eisele Vineyard – will hit the market next month.

A 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon follows later this year. And judging by my tasting of both, they are going to prove a formidable second act for the couple.

Offer for Araujo Estate ‘came out of the blue’

Eisele Vineyard was in the hands of Bart and Daphne Araujo for 24 years, and it is clear that it wasn’t easy to leave. ‘The offer from Frederic Engerer and François Pinault came completely out of the blue,’ they tell me.

‘We had no intention to retire. But we realised that we never truly owned Eisele. We were stewards of the vineyard and always wanted to pass it on in better shape than we found it. And we strongly felt that we had found the right person to take it forward.’

The Araujos built Eisele into one of the most sought-after wines in the whole of Napa Valley. The site had been renowned for the quality of its fruit when they bought, selling Cabernet Sauvignon to, among others, Paul Draper of Ridge, but it was their decision to bottle everything themselves that revealed the full potential of the land. They introduced organic farming in 1998 and went fully biodynamic in 2000, certified by Demeter in 2002.

It’s a farming philosophy that goes a long way to explaining why they felt Artemis was the right purchaser. Château Latour is one of the highest profile proponents of biodynamic farming in Bordeaux (although still in conversion to 100%) and Napa technical director Hélène Mingot continues to ensure that every detail, from wood chipping, composting, pruning and harvesting, adheres to the biodynamic calendar. If anyone can match the Araujos’ obsessive, exhaustive finessing of details, it is the team behind Latour.

The new approach

Down the road, less than two years into the ownership of their new home, there are touches of what Bart and Daphne loved most about Eisele, from the chickens that greet you to the beehives and rows of sapling fruit trees planted to bring biodiversity and authenticity to the slightly less Secret Garden feel of the new property. This is a stunning contemporary ranch-style house, but you feel the hand of architect more than you do at Eisele, where the buildings (designed by the Araujos) melt into the landscape.

‘We knew we needed to do things differently,’ Bart says as we uncork the wines. ‘We are very proud to have kept the same team, led by Françoise Peschon and Michel Rolland on the winemaking side, Steve Matthiasson as vineyard consultant, with Jeff Dawson for biodynamics.

‘And we are also working with two young and brilliant winemakers, Julien Fayard and Dan Petroski, who made their own wines from our grapes in the 2015 vintage.’

‘Instead of a single site wine, this time round we are purchasing fruit from our favourite vineyard sites, from friends who we already know are making great wine in Rutherford, Oak Knoll and Oakville. We are then blending that with two plots that we have purchased in St Helena and Oak Knoll. We want to recreate the blends that we used to love of Napa from the 1950s and 1960s – the old Inglenooks, the Mondavi Reserves.’

A new winery

Work has begun on a new winery next to their St Helena vineyard that will become the focus of the estate, leaving the ranch as their family home. They have already broken ground on the underground cellars and expect to be making the wine there by the 2016 harvest.

These guys know how to shape a wine. Tasting them straight after Eisele, there is a similar lightness of touch that comes from a belief in hands-off winemaking, of letting the fruit speak. The cabernet has elongated tannins that thread the fruit perfectly, with a touch of salinity to bring things to a mouthwatering finish. The sauvignon blanc has that vertical-build complexity that anyone who loves the Eisele Vineyard whites will recognise, although here with a touch more opulence.

Napa Re-wrought

This is Napa re-wrought, shaped from the ashes of earlier decades. ‘Our primary influence has always been Bordeaux,’ they say. ‘We look for weight without heaviness, a wine that dances through the palate. It’s not always easy to achieve in California because of the temptation to let fruit over-ripen and because of the rewards that come with that in terms of critic scores and industry recognition. But that has never been our motivation’.

After the tasting, I walk around the adjoining vineyard with Daphne, as Bart heads to San Francisco for a tasting. The shadows are lengthening over the Atlas Peak that stands on the far side of the Silverado Trail, and the vineyard is bathed in deepening gold.

None of these vines have so far been used for Accendo Cellars – in fact the entire vineyard is being taken out and replanted, ‘because it was planted for quantity not quality, and that is not what we are about.

One thing that we have learnt over the past 25 years is how passionately we care about looking after our vines. It’s impossible for us to resist investing emotionally in our wines’.

Updated 25/03/2016: To clarify that Julien Fayard and Dan Petroski made their own wine from Araujo family grapes, rather than produced wine for Accendo Cellars.

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