Who ever heard of a non-profit winery? The first time the folks at Ehlers Estate told me they were, I laughed. But somehow it's true -- amidst the glitz and glamour of Napa, there is a small winery that feeds all its profits back into the cardiovascular research foundation that owns it. There is, of course, a story behind this most unusual of affairs.
The Ehlers estate was established in 1886 by Bernard Ehlers, who erected a winery building and carved his name in the stone above the doorway. Ehlers purchased the estate for $7,000 in gold coin from an aspiring vintner who went bankrupt fighting the phylloxera infestation that devastated most Napa vintners near the turn of the century. Ehlers planted the estate and ran it as an operational winery until 1901 when he passed away, leaving it to his wife, Anna. The estate changed hands several times over the next decades, but was worked constantly as a vineyard, even during prohibition (albeit surreptitiously). From 1958 to 1980 the land was split up and sold to several Napa wineries and landowners.
In 1987, Jean and Sylviane Leducq, who were embarking on a journey to pursue their passion for the wines of Bordeaux, began buying up these separate parcels of land as they came on the market. Eventually even the original stone winery building, and its adjacent land were purchased, reunifying the original estate.
With a complete working winery planted through the years with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petite Verdot, the Leducqs went about making wines inspired by Bordeaux. Then, in 1996 they donated the winery wholesale to the Leducq foundation, a non-profit entity devoted to supporting cardiovascular research around the world.
Presumably the winery operates as a profit center for the foundation, which I think is a pretty cool idea, especially since it appears that the foundation is interested in making sure that the winery produces quality product. So interested, in fact that after several years of organic farming, they have made the move to fully biodynamic viticulture and winemaking.
These time consuming and detailed oriented activities in the vineyard and cellar are done under the guiding hand of the young Rudy Zuidema whose resume includes familiar Napa names like Beaulieu Vineyards, St. Clement Vineyards, Cuvaison Winery, Honig, and Robert Craig Wine Cellars, as well as Wirra Wirra vineyards in Western Australia.
I've watched Ehlers estate closely for the past three years, and made extra effort to taste their wines as the winery increased its efforts and expenditures towards pushing their already high quality wines to the next level. With pleasure, I can say that the winery has hit its stride and is firing on all cylinders, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. The wines show a level of craft and confidence that is admirable, they are packaged under a beautifully executed brand, and most importantly, they are damn tasty. I highly recommend people seeking them out, either online or by visiting their tasting room in St. Helena, which is somewhere that I usually send anyone who asks where to visit in Napa.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2007 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena, Napa
Pale gold with greenish highlights in the glass, this wine smells of unripe and green apples. In the mouth it is bruight and juicy with acidity, ripe green apple and citrus fruit, and altogether everything you want from a Sauvignon Blanc. Score: 9. Cost: $25. Where to buy?
2005 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a nose of cedar, pipe tobacco and black cherry fruit. The body of the wine, supple and softly textured with tannin, carries primarily black cherry flavors. Deeper more resonant flavors of tobacco and wet dirt emerge as the wine lingers in a long finish. Lovely. Score: 9.25. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2005 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc, St. Helena, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of cherry, wet leather, and plum flavors. In the mouth it is super juicy with black cherry and plum flavors that swim smoothly across the palate into a finish that has hints of the floral. Score: 9. Cost: $45.Where to buy?
2005 Ehlers Estate Merlot, St. Helena, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of forest floor and dried cherries. In the mouth it is all black plum and chocolate, with lovely faint tannins that grab the edge of the tongue and hold it lovingly but firmly. A nice finish brings in flavors of candied orange peel. Score: 9.25. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2005 Ehlers Estate "1886" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa
Inky garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cherries, rose petals, and vanilla. In the mouth it is bright and bold with cherry, plum, and spicy incense flavors that have a lavender edge to them. The tannins are fine and smooth, and the wine has a nice long finish. It betrays the quality of being quite young at this point, and will likely improve with age. Score: 9. Cost: $95. Where to buy?
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