Wheeler Farms. The Wheeler Farms estate property is located on 11.5 acres off of Zinfandel Lane just south of the city of St. Helena. For those curious about it’s history (and it is fascinating), the original stone winery was built in 1880 (along with a separate distillery for producing brandy) by Charles Wheeler and was conveniently located next to the train tracks about 1/2 mile to the west of the current Wheeler Farms Winery. It operated until shut down by Prohibition. The only visible remnant of this winery is an old stone wall – seen just east of the train tracks almost at the intersection of Highway 29 and Zinfandel Lane and according to a Napa Register article from January 1928, this old winery was demolished in 1928. This was also the site of a small train station called Pine Station or Bello Station – which was used by the Wheelers to ship out their products.
And across the highway from the old winery stone walls and just south of Zinfandel Lane is another Wheeler era structure; this one is a grand craftsman home built by John Hoffman Wheeler (Charles son who continued the Wheeler Farm operations) – today its owned by Dave and Yolanda Del Dotto (Del Dotto Vineyards).
Grapes were first planted on the site by Matthew Vann in 1865 (primarily Mission grapes using cuttings provided by John Patchett – Napa Valley’s first ever winery owner). Matthew had purchased 150 acres from Maria Bale in 1853 (the widow at the time of Edward Bale who was given this land from General Vallejo). Incidentally Bale’s homestead was anchored by a two-story adobe home on the west end of what is now Whitehall Lane (a short drive from Wheeler Farms). This structure stood until 1931 when it was destroyed by a farmer. Bale owned one of the early vineyards in the Napa Valley here – having planted Mission grapes in the 1840s.
It was Vann who sold part of his property to Charles Wheeler in 1879.
And it was the Vann family that played a role in Napa County’s last lynching – a story detailed nicely by Todd Shulman in his book, Murder and Mayhem in the Napa Valley. Briefly Matthew’s son Robert would hang out at one of the brothels in St. Helena; one day he and some friends caused trouble at the brothel including throwing a rock through one of the windows. One of the customers Jack Wright shot Robert who ultimately died a day later. Jack was arrested jailed in Napa and then moved to the St. Helena jail where a mob broke him out and left his body hanging from the York Creek Bridge just north of St. Helena – where one of the Beringer brothers of Beringer Brothers Winery discovered the murder.
Incidentally the last lynching in neighboring Sonoma County wasn’t until much later in 1920 – described by eye witness Clarence H. “Barney” Barnard in a 1985 interview to Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron – Clarence died in 2008 at the remarkable age of 108. But that is another story for another time!
The winery is named in honor of the Wheeler family, whose property along Zinfandel Lane extended to the other side of Highway 29 and for decades was known as Wheeler Farms. By almost 1940 at the height of their land holdings the property encompassed some 400 acres with the current estate planted to prunes at that time. Charles Wheeler’s background was in grain and milling; he was part of the group that built the first grain elevator in California located in the city of Vallejo.
Charles first moved to the Napa Valley in 1870 and began purchasing land. But more significant to Napa’s history, he was a founding member of the St. Helena Vinicultural Club in 1875 along with the president at that time, Charles Krug. This was the predecessor organization to the current Appellation St. Helena. Charles’ son Rollo would take ownership of the winery in 1882; he called it the R.M Wheeler Winery (named after himself). His father continued to oversee and own the surrounding land. Tragically Rollo died prematurely in 1889 when a horse he was caring for kicked him in the head. Other son John took over the holdings at this point and changed the name of the winery to J.H Wheeler, after his own name.
John had learned viticulture from his father – he was a prominent player at this time in the Napa Valley both with a sizable property as well as his vineyard related entrepreneurial efforts and his ability to produce carbon bisulfide for use in the vineyards and to ultimately non-successful efforts to combat phylloxera. He was also president of California’s State Board of Viticulture. Over the years the property has had a diverse workforce – ranging from Japanese to German POW’s during the middle of World War II (reference the POW camp site below what is Rector Reservoir along the Silverado Trail).
And like many other vintners in the valley – when the Volstead Act became law (Prohibition) in 1919, Charles’ son John Wheeler took out about 100 acres of grapevines and replaced them with a diversity of fruit orchards – primarily prunes (the site of Wheeler Farms today was once a prune orchard) and walnuts. And such was the impact of Prohibition that this property was not planted to grapes again until the 1960s.
The property was purchased in 2014 by long time Napa vintners Bart and Daphne Araujo – who pivoted somewhat after selling their iconic Araujo Estate and Eisele Vineyard. The previous owners, Kohala Investments, a Japanese firm had acquired the property in 2009 from the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Wheeler. Their intention was to build a winery on site but after the tsunami in Japan in 2011 they decided against this and ultimately sold the land.
The Araujo’s founded Araujo Estate (now the Eisele Vineyard) in 1990 and by the time they sold the winery and property in 2013 to the owners of Bordeaux based Château Latour, the had built Araujo into one of the country’s most prized wine estates with wines highly coveted by serious collectors and other wine enthusiasts.
Not ones to rest, they immediately continued their focus on premium wines by founding Accendo Cellars – with the first vintage from 2013. These wines are made at Wheeler Farms and feature a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Rather then focus on a single vineyard site (as was the case at Araujo), these grapes are sourced from exceptional sites in select parts of the valley, including from select vineyards they personally own.
The vineyard landscape of the Napa Valley has changed dramatically over the decades – and this property is a good example of this. Original grape plantings included Carignan, Johannisberg Riesling, Gutadel, and Golden Chassales among other varieties no longer economically viable to grow in the Napa Valley. Today the property is planted to 6 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 acres to Sauvignon Blanc.
In a nod to some of the agricultural diversity originally on the property, a small orchard of stone fruit trees grows on site (the property used be home to an extensive walnut orchard, prunes and even citrus trees). A variety of vegetables are also grown in the raised beds highly visible directly in front of the winery. In part, these provide ingredients for selected dinners and various culinary offerings (a commercial kitchen is on site and a culinary coordinator is on staff). And chickens and bee hives round out the mix.
The winery itself is state of the art – a cellar underground follows the entire footprint of the main winery building. Tanks are fairly small (in the 4-5 ton range); each one contains a pump which simplifies the amount of work during harvest (the alternative is moving pumps from tank to tank). Each tank can be converted to open or closed top during fermentation. And every tank is located under a hydraulic arm which can be moved tank by tank to do punch-downs as needed. The winery also owns an optical sorter (advantage is this machine selects cleaner grapes and sorts faster then people).
And the cellar is used by select very premium other winery clients (renting space) – these other clients can also host tastings in the hospitality part of the winery for their own customers.
In a somewhat unusual move – they initially produced olive oil from trees growing in Winters, California (about an hour due east of St. Helena). However for subsequent vintages these same trees were physically moved from the orchard in Winters to their own estate – thus allowing them to now bottle Napa Valley estate grown olive oil. This limited production olive oil is harvested from 80 trees – all are various Italian varieties.
Bart and Daphne have worked for many years with acclaimed graphic designer, Chuck House of Icon Design Group (part of a team that has been responsible for numerous iconic Napa & beyond wine labels). Wanting to honor history on the label representing a specific time period (the late 1800’s), Chuck researched old USDA records and located images depicting the ‘ideal’ grape bunches with images of a number of varieties. He adapted these images for their own labels – including a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Their inaugural release of their Sauvignon Blanc was from the 2016 vintage. The 2016 Wheeler Farms Sauvignon Blanc is pale straw color in the glass with notes of citrus blossom and orange peel on the bouquet. This wine was 100% fermented in stainless steel tanks. Balanced with good acidity. Fresh and youthful. Lively on the palate with a rich intensity of flavor.
The 2014 Wheeler Farms Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon shows savory notes on the bouquet with aromas of dried herbs and a subtle hint of dust that is more in the background. A sweetness of fruit shows as the bouquet continues to open. Balanced with mouth watering flavors and acidity. Drying tannins – a fairly robust structure anchors the finish – with both oak and fruit tannins.
The 2013 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon shows dark fruit on the bouquet with a pleasing tobacco smokiness character and a savory component. Presents a higher toned fruit profile including both red and darker fruit flavors along with a thread of chocolate. A red cherry tartness shows on the finish. Features firm but very well structured tannins persisting on an extremely long finish. Big but balanced. This youthful wine (tasted 3.5 years after harvest) has plenty of life ahead of it.
Visits are for serious wine enthusiasts and collectors. A tasting is always a sit down personalized experience – with an interior feel of entering someone’s house. The open kitchen overlooks the main room with an adjoining side room for even more intimate tastings. A number of premium brands use the winery as part of the Wheeler Farms Winemaking Partner (WP) program for both production and hospitality purposes. It only makes sense to offer an experience to showcase these vintners; the Portfolio Tasting features some of their select wines. With a diversity of both premium producers and types of wines available, these tastings can be customized based on preference. Tastings often provide access to personalized visits with the winemakers or the owners behind the brands.
For more information and to join their mailing list, visit: www.wheelerfarmswine.com
Wheeler Farms Winery
Remaining Stone Wall from Original Winery