Amber comments: Our introduction to Ehlers Estate was quite unusual. I was looking for great rosé wines made from Napa and Sonoma for an article I was putting together for Amaré Magazine so I asked a group of wine friends who they’d pick as their favorite. Ehlers Estate Rosé had the most votes and recommendations from that group. With that much enthusiasm and a following that big from other wine professionals, it had to be outstanding right? Unfortunately, by the time I contacted Ehlers Estate they had sold out of that wine, but they kindly invited us to come out and taste the rest of their collection instead.
Ehlers Estate is a Napa winery with a long history. In 1885 Bernard Ehlers, who owned a grocery business in Sacramento, purchased the forty-two-acre estate for $7,000 and planted ten acres of vines. He planted an olive grove and built a stone barn a year later. Both survive to this day, the barn is now the tasting room. Bernard’s widow sold the vineyard to when prohibition arrived. It continued to be a winery until 1958. During the 1970s, as Napa wine flourished after The Judgement of Paris, the barn was used by several wineries including Conn Creek and Rombauer.
In 1987 Jean Leducq purchased seven acres on which he planted Bordeaux varieties. Over the next fourteen years, he acquired more of the original estate until in 2001 he bought the old stone winery and the early twentieth century home that sits behind it. Thirty-nine acres of the estate are planted to vines; with all of the Ehlers’ wine made from these estate grown grapes. Since 2008, they have been certified organic.
Tastings at Ehlers Estate are by appointment only; we arrived early for our 10 am slot and enjoyed the warmth of a May morning walking around and taking pictures. Amber and I were joined by Rick and Gary of Strong Coffee to Red Wine and Rupal from The Syrah Queen. Charlotte, our host, emerged from the tasting room to greet us and let us know that we were welcome to start our tasting whenever we wanted.
The inside of the tasting room has exposed stone walls, comfortable sofas and chairs, and bright artwork. On our table, in addition to the glasses and spit buckets, were winery brochures. Brochures are not unusual, but what struck me was that along the expected photo and bio of the winemaker, there was a picture and information about Francisco Vega, the vineyard manager. This was the first hint of an approach to the business that focuses on the importance of the land and not just the wine.
We started with the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($32). The grapes were harvested in late August and it was bottled on February 9. It had been aged sur lie for six months in stainless steel. The result was a low-intensity nose of citrus and a delightfully light and crisp white wine; showing flavours of apple and white peach.
There may be just thirty-nine acres of vines, but there are five different soil types present across twenty-four blocks of vines. Each block has its own fermentation tank. Charlotte explained that all of the red wines use wild yeast fermentation; in other words, the winemaker does not add a cultured yeast but relies on the yeast present on the fruit.
The first red wine we tasted was the 2015 Cabernet Franc. It was bottled after twenty-two months in a fifty/fifty mix of new and neutral French oak barrels. The alcohol was 14.2%. It retails for $65. The intense fruity nose invoked raspberry and herbs. Taking a sip, the first impression was of acidity and then soft lush mouthfeel rich with cherry and supple leather. The tannins are already softened to a pleasurable subtlety. That acidity calls out to be paired with a rib-eye steak.
Amber comments: There is nothing “Petite” about this Petite Syrah at all.
Charlotte started telling us about the importance of the cover crops that grow between the rows of vines. The cover crops provide fertilizers and attract the “right bugs”. Bird boxes sit at the end of the some of the rows so that birds who eat pests are encouraged to nest in the vineyard. She also emphasized the importance of having a dedicated vineyard crew of ten, led by the previously mentioned Francisco Vega; who lives in a house on the estate. This gives immediate year-round attention. For instance, the Cabernet Franc vines are cut back eleven times during the growing season. I was surprised at the depth of knowledge about the farming practices that Charlotte displayed but she explained that all of the winery staff have a row of vines for which they are responsible, so she has first-hand experience of the care and attention needed to tend vines. The tasting room staff also participate in the harvest.
Amber comments: Sustainability and Organic Farming – aren’t just buzzwords: you can really taste the difference and the quality in your glass.
Our third wine was the 2015 Portrait, a $75 red blend. This is Ehlers’ first vintage of this blend (59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot). The nose was intriguing, with cherry, wood, and herbs; a lot going on. Taking a sip and the taste did not disappoint. The acidity arrived first; followed by raspberry, cherry, and silky tannins. This was a complex and tasty wine. It may be Ehlers’ first Bordeaux style blend but Kevin Morrisey, the winemaker, has nailed this style of wine.
Ehlers winery is neither family-owned nor part of a corporation. Instead, it is owned by the Leducq Foundation which receives the profits of the winery. The Leducq Foundation supports research into cardiovascular and neurovascular disease. Whilst giving us this information, Charlotte pointed out that the ‘E’ in the logo incorporates a heart; a nod to the foundation’s purpose.
Amber comments: Purchasing their wines and supporting their brand not only helps other people’s hearts but your own. After all, doctors have been touting the heart health benefits of resveratrol in wine for years.
The last wine was the 2015 vintage of the 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon. All but 8% of the 1886 is Cab; the remainder is 4% Cab Franc, 3% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot. This is the Ehlers flagship bottle and sells for $125. The nose was predominantly plum with an herbal backing interlaced with notes of oak. The flavours were a complex mix of sour cherry, raspberry, and oak; featuring very restrained tannins. There was a slight and pleasing hint of sweetness and cocoa in the long finish. The balance between the wood and fruit was excellent. Ehlers uses only French oak, from nine different coopers.
Whilst we enjoyed the 1886 Cab, we chatted with the winemaker Kevin Morrisey. He is a film school graduate from NYU, who worked as a cameraman in France and after ten years of work in the movie business enrolled in a postgraduate enology course at UC Davis. He worked as an intern at Pétrus, the legendary estate in Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation. Kevin described tasting their wine as being as memorable as a first kiss. He reflected that he is lucky that at Ehlers he can make wines that he likes; reflecting the terroir in a style reminiscent of the old world.
Ehlers combines an attractive setting, a cozy tasting room, friendly knowledgeable staff, and excellent wines. The tasting fee is $35. Reservations are required, and there is a seventy-two-hour cancellation policy. Ehlers also offers a $50 early bird tasting at 9:30 am, which includes freshly baked croissants from Bouchon in Yountville, a stroll through the vineyard, and tasting of a future release.
Ehlers offers two wine club options; The Cellar Club and the Cabernet Club. Both clubs require a purchase of twelve bottles at sign-up and an annual commitment to purchase a case in March. The difference, obviously, is that the latter option includes just Cabernet Sauvignon.