Shortly after starting this blog, Beth, the Traveling Wine Chick and I started following each other (I think she began her blog just a few months before I started mine). We eventually met at a Wine Bloggers Conference (2012?) and have been friends ever since. We have followed each other’s wine journey and I would say that she is one of my better friends in the “industry.”
If you have not read about her well-chronicled mid-life career change that involved not only an entirely different career (College professor to winery employee), but also a move across country (from the East Coast to Napa), you should certainly give it a read as it is a compelling tale.
I won’t ruin the story and tell it all here, but Beth is now very happily employed at Ehlers (Elle-erz) Estate in Napa Valley. After one of my tedious rants against all things Napa, Beth implored me to come visit her new employer–she assured me that it was not “typical” in Napa.
Ehlers is a paradox for it is both as far from the “Napa” norm as you can get, while at the same time being the quintessential Napa winery. How can that possibly be? Well, it sits just off Highway 29, on the Valley floor, where one can see countless wine tourists roll by in their shiny BerMexus Wenz on any given weekend. The property is beautiful and immaculately maintained and the tasting room offers much more to purchase than wine.
Then there are the elements that set Ehlers apart. The aforementioned tasting room feels much more like a large, comfortable family room than it does a tasting bar—there are a half-dozen inviting couches with twice as many velvet-covered fauteuils all in mini-salon arrangements that provide some intimacy while allowing to be a part of the larger experience.
Yet that is only the beginning.
The winery is 100% estate (they only produce wines from fruit grown on the property) and certified organic. The property is a contiguous 42 acre farm (37 planted) with the historic late 19th century barn at the hub, rendering the farthest point on the property a mere 600 yards from the winery. This provides winemaker Kevin Morrisey and Vineyard Manager Francisco Vega a connection with the land and vines that is (as far as I can tell) unique in Napa.
If it were to stop there, Ehlers would already be different from other Napa wineries, but of course it doesn’t. Perhaps the most amazing aspect to the Ehlers story is the people, both past and present, that continually shape every facet of the winery.
The winery was originally founded as the Bale Mill Winery by Bernhard Ehlers in the late 1800s who replanted 10 acres, established the extant olive grove, and built the stone barn. His wife maintained the winery long after his death, but inevitably the winery changed hands a few times in the 20th Century. Then, at the turn of the millennium, French nationals Jean and Sylviane Leducq bought the winery. The pair is now deceased, but as they had no children, the winery is owned by their Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to cardio-vascular research.
Today, the vineyards are maintained by the aforementioned Vega (who has lived on the property for the better part of two decades) and the nine person vineyard crew, which employed year-round, morphing into the winery crew at harvest and when needed throughout the year.
The bulk of my visit, though, I spent with Kevin Morrisey, the winemaker at Ehlers Estate since 2009. Let me get this out of the way immediately: Kevin is a good-looking man, a cross between Harrison Ford and Eric Roberts. I have to admit that his meticulously unkempt argenteous coif had me transfixed in envy for most of the time we spent together. I was not surprised to hear that Kevin originally worked in the film industry, but (and this was hard to believe) his work was not in front of the camera, but behind it as a cameraman.
After spending a few years in France making movies, he returned to the States and soon went back to school to study oenology, eventually becoming the head winemaker at Stags’ Leap Winery, where he stayed until lured to the unique setting and approach at Ehlers in 2009.
There is certainly not a “proto-typical” winemaker, but even if there were, Kevin would not be it (and I mean that as a compliment). Initially shy and perpetually introspective, Kevin readily admits that hospitality is not his forté, but realizes that it is of the utmost importance in today’s market. So he tries to hire good people and “give them a lot of rope to do their job.” Not under constant pressure from the Foundation to increase profits, the staff is free to conger up and implement different approaches and new ideas. (I was the beneficiary of one of those new approaches as I started at the winery at nine in the morning and we were tasting by 9:30 before nearly every winery in the valley was even open—a program called “Start Your Day.”)
As we tasted through the wines, Kevin shared several tidbits about winemaking (“Suckering is the most important aspect of vineyard management. You have to do it early and then you have to make another pass.” And “Cab franc takes twice the farming as Sauvignon.”), and running a winery (“Customers are expecting Zappos but it is nearly impossible for a small winery to give that kind of service. The software available to wineries is provided by two companies that are mom and pop companies and lag far behind big internet players.”)
After a while, though, I stopped taking notes and we just chatted: about being a parent, about France, and the Napa Valley (about which Kevin had some interesting insights that I promised not to print here).
Of course none of the above would matter if Ehlers were not producing good wines, but they are. Damned good wines:
2014 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc: Retail $28. A Sauv Blanc for just shy of $30? Well, this is not your “normal” SB. The wine spends six months sur lies in neutral oak to cut the corners off the edges, which works. On the nose not overly expressive some lemon lime but no cat pee. Tart on the palate and round. Different in a good way. A Very Good to Outstanding way. 88-90 Points.
2015 Ehlers Estate Sylviane Rosé: Retail $28. 100% Cabernet Franc. A dedicated, or intentional rosé, this is one of the darker rosés on the market for sure, and the color is striking as it almost glows in the bottle. Strawberry rhubarb a go-go. Really wonderful nose. Wonderfully tart–all rhubarb. Really bright. There are several Outstanding American rosés but this wine is not looking up at many of them. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 Ehlers Estate Merlot: Retail $55. I reviewed this a few months ago. Still one of the better Merlots out there, and a must for fans of the variety. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
We then had a couple of examples of the 1886, the flagship wine named with the year of the winery’s founding. Kevin intimated that he “likes a lot of acid in the wine. This wine will age forever. I take these wines to parties in the valley with a bunch of wine makers and the Ehlers is always empty first.” While I am sure that many winemakers would say the exact same thing, Kevin is much more believable—not because he reminded me of a childhood hero (Han Solo), but because the wines were right before me, and they were fabulous.
2014 Ehlers Estate 1886 (barrel sample). Pretty fruity still but this still needed more barrel aging before being ready for the bottle. Mostly red fruit, with hints of clove and vanilla. This is obviously a baby, but can tell this is going to be gangbusters. Outstanding. 92-95 Points.
2013 Ehlers Estate 1886: Retail $110. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. Whoa. Good dark fruit (blue and black), with cocoa and spice (nutmeg?), and incredible balance—not one aspect stood too far out at any point. Over the course of the hour really opened up. Finishes with noticeable but not overly chewy tannins. This is built for the long haul, but of so good now. Whoa. My kind of cab. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
I easily could have spent the rest of the day in that comfy chair, drinking great wines, listening to Kevin’s thoughts on life and wine, all the while admiring his hair, but we both had a schedule to keep so after an hour or so of chatting, I regrettably left Ehlers Estate. I drove a few hundred yards along Ehlers Lane, and turned left onto Route 29. Within a minute, traffic came to crawl, and I found myself behind an enormous LandBurban with a “BIGCABZ” license plate.
I was decidedly back in Napa.