Rediscovering Napa Valley: Revisiting Ehlers Estate

When I started leading bike trips however many years ago, I was fortunate to visit many wine regions: initially I led trips in Burgundy, Champagne, Switzerland, and the Loire Valley. Each trip was a week long and with the occasional week off thrown in, those four regions kept me busy for the entire summer.

Over the course of a few years, the company added several more regions to their repertoire: Bordeaux, the Dordogne, Provence, the Cevennes, Alsace, and Belgium. Every subsequent summer, though, I was habitually relegated to those initial four trips.

And I bristled (to put it mildly).

I did not understand why I was not able to lead trips in those regions—actually, the reasoning was fairly sound: each year the company would train the new guides on the new routes. If they had trained me on those routes, they would be incurring expenses training me and the new hires on the trips upon which I had already been trained.

So it made sense.

But I bristled.

Particularly when it came to the Loire Valley. Champagne had bubbles, Switzerland had mountains (Zermatt is a great town), and Burgundy… well, Burgundy is Burgundy. But the Loire? Not very interesting cycling (pretty flat), the food and wine are great (but it is not Champagne or Burgundy), and how many renaissance castles can one guy endure?

At some point during my third or fourth summer leading trips, a funny thing happened—I started looking forward to one particular trip above all others.


The Loire.

What had changed? Very little. In fact it was the familiarity that I found appealing. Catching up with the hotelier in Blois, the restaurant owner in Tours, and even those stodgy Renaissance castles (have you ever been to Chenonceau?): all became times to relish. With each subsequent trip, I spent increasingly longer amounts of time with my favorite people and places, every so often discovering something new, but always reconnecting with the past.

Château de Chenonceau right before closing for the evening.

My approach to wine knowledge has (unintentionally) followed a similar pattern. Initially, I was more interested in discovering every crevice of the Valley; I wanted to check off boxes and move on. Sure, I would revisit some wineries (and even joined a few wine clubs), but my goal was more focussed on assessing the new vintage or availing myself of some perk.

More recently, much like with the Loire Valley, I have come to a greater appreciation of the familiar: riding north on Dry Creek Valley Road, coming back south on West Dry Creek; the view on the terrace at Gary Farrell; the warmth of Ehlers Estate.

I first visited Ehlers only last year, but when I knew I was going to be back in Napa this past Spring, I felt the need to return and check in. More than most wineries I have visited in the Valley, Ehlers embraces a sense of place that extends beyond what goes into the bottle. It incorporates the entire 42 acres of land, the historic buildings on site, and perhaps above all, the people who consider Ehlers much more than just their place of employment.

The tasting room at Ehlers Estate.

As I sat down once again with Kevin Morrisey, the winemaker and general manager at Ehlers, the conversation started with a brief update on our respective families and then morphed into the state of American politics. A good 15-20 minutes into the chat, we turned to wine and the current releases.

A few tidbits from the discussion:

  • Ehlers Estate only produces wine from the 37 acres they have planted at the estate, which, according to Kevin, is both constraining (it is difficult every year to realize a profit) and liberating (since it requires creativity and innovation to improve upon what they have).
  • After considerable debate and reflection, Ehlers redesigned their labels for this year’s releases, including a total revamping of the iconic 1886 bottle. Kevin lamented that the 1886 bottle was “out of whack” as it was too heavy and did not fit with the concept of an organic and sustainable winery.
  • As with most change, there was plenty of pushback, as customers loved the elegance and style of the old bottle (perhaps too much, as many were reluctant to opening it). Every time Kevin brought up the idea with the sales managers, the response was uniform: “Don’t touch the bottle.” Eventually, he went with his gut since it was the right thing to do, although he knew it was going to (at least initially) disappoint the customer. The new bottle is still heavy, but it is not as much the focal point, since after all, according to Kevin: “People should be drinking the wine, not admiring the bottle.”

The 2016 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($32) was as bright and precise as the 2015, but with a bit more fruit. Still sculpted by scintillating acidity and Outstanding. 90-92 Points.

The 2016 Ehlers Estate Sylvanie Rosé ($30) is a bit tarter with less red fruit than the previous iteration, but this “real rosé” still delivers plenty of verve and depth. One of my favorites. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.

2014 Ehlers Estate Merlot: ($55). A powerhouse, but more in an Old World sense of goodness here. The fruit and earthiness compete to attract attention, while the prominent tannins suggest that it was awoken a tad too early. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.

2014 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc: ($60) There are few in Napa that can match Ehlers’ Cabernet Franc on a yearly basis. Dark in the glass. So dark that it hints at a reluctance to be consumed. But the nose indicates otherwise: dark red fruit, some spice, and a touch of eucalyptus. This wine is deceptive as the nose indicates a big, brooding wine, but on the palate it is completely different: light, lively, even playful, this is a Franc to dispel myths, one to challenge preconceptions. OK, Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.

Kevin (right) was good enough to pose with me for a photo. Perhaps he realized it would only serve to make him appear more handsome than he already is.

As we moved on to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Kevin asserted that 2014 was one of the better Cab crops in memory at Ehlers. In fact, it was particularly difficult to choose the barrels to go into the iconic 1886 since so many of them were so good. When I pressed him, asking about that decision making process and what that means for the “standard” Cab, he stated that both were really good, and it was the sales team’s problem to justify the difference in price.

2014 Ehlers Estate 1886: ($110). 95% Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot). Beautiful. Whoa. Dark black fruit (blackberry, plum, blueberry), with chocolate, vanilla, and spice. Whoa. Built for the long term, but wonderful after about an hour decant. Whoa. Outstanding. 94-96 Points.

As I pulled out of Ehlers Lane, heading south to another appointment in Napa Valley, I started thinking about the Loire Valley and how after initially despising the trip, it grew to be my favorite. I figured Napa was on the same sort of trajectory as I passed by the Culinary Institute at Greystone, perhaps the Valley’s version of a Renaissance castle. As I continued down Route 29, a BMW convertible, with an out of state license plate, lurched out ahead of me before slamming on his brakes to avoid rear-ending the car stopped in traffic ahead of him.

The BMW had a bumper sticker: “I Break for Napa Cabs.”

My renewed love affair with Napa might need some counseling….




About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Rediscovering Napa Valley: Revisiting Ehlers Estate

  1. Beth says:

    Thank you, Jeff, for visiting and reviewing Ehlers Estate again! You are always welcome!


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