Who ever heard of a non-profit winery? In Napa no less. The first time the folks at Ehlers Estate told me they were, I laughed. But yes it's true. In the midst 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 coins 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 in 2001.
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. The winery's first vintage was 2000, and 2002 marked the release of what has since been their flagship wine, a red blend called 1886 after the year stamped on the front of their stone winery.
Sadly, 2002 also marked the passing of Jean Leducq to heart disease. Before he passed, he donated the winery wholesale to the Leducq foundation, a non-profit entity that he and his wife had founded in 1996, which remains 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 (the vineyards are officially Organic certified by the State of California), in 2005 they made the move to biodynamic viticulture and winemaking (the winery achieved Demeter certification last year). The wines that the estate produces are made exclusively from grapes grown on the property, meaning the winery's designation of being an "estate" winery is more than just the name. Total production is somewhere around 7000 cases.
The time-consuming and detailed-oriented activities in the vineyard and cellar are done under the guiding hand of general manager and winemaker Kevin Morrisey (who took over for Rudy Zuidema, who was the estate's winemaker for its early years).
Morrisey, who has an enology degree from U.C. Davis, interned in Pomerol before beginning a job as an enologist at Stags' Leap Winery, where he spent five years rising to the level of associate winemaker. From there he joined Etude winery as their winemaker under the guidance of Tony Soter, but after two years returned to Stags' Leap in 2005 as winemaker and general manager until being recruited by Ehlers in 2009.
I've watched Ehlers estate closely since its first vintage hit the market, and have 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 is knocking it out of the park these days. The wines show sure and confident hand, and a gorgeous expression of Napa fruit.
It doesn't hurt that they are also packaged under a beautifully executed brand. The 1886 bottle is simply gorgeous, and I adore the logo. But most importantly, of course, the wines are damn tasty. I highly recommend people seeking these wines 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, especially if they want to play Bocce ball in the shade of a 100-year-old olive grove.
2010 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena $28
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and wet stones with a hint of white flowers. In the mouth, that floral quality continues to suffuse the wine, while flavors of green apples, wet stone, and hints of citrus bounce around the palate. Great acidity makes this wine zippy, while also being quite well balanced. Tasty. Score: around 9. click to buy.
2009 Ehlers Estate "One Twenty Over Eighty" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena $45
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit and dusty earth. In the mouth dusty tannins wrap around super juicy flavors of cherry, tobacco, and plum. The wine has wonderful balance and great bright fruit, if perhaps a little less profundity than you might thing. But who cares? It's easy to drink and certainly likely to at least get your blood pressure headed in the direction its name suggests. Includes 4% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. click to buy.
2008 Ehlers Estate Merlot, St. Helena $45
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a bright plummy fruit nose with earthy undertones and a hint of green herbs. In the mouth the wine is fantastically lush and supple with faint tannins and gorgeous layers of juicy plummy fruit ranging from cherry to dark plum. The fruit is explosively juicy and delicious, tinged as it is with hints of earth and herbs that linger in a very long, very fine finish. Certainly one of the best Merlots being made in Napa at the moment. Score: around 9.5 click to buy.
2008 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc, St. Helena $45
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of violets, leather, chocolate and cherry. Some overt notes of French oak come through on the nose, but aren't heavily present in the mouth. Instead bright juicy cherry and plum mix with green herbal notes and floral components on top of a wonderful bass note of earth. Leathery tannins linger through the finish. Great acidity makes this wine lip-smacking good. Score: between 9 and 9.5. click to buy.
2008 Ehlers Estate "1886" Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena $95
Medium garnet in the glass, this blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, and 1% Petite Verdot wine smells of sweet bright cassis and tobacco. In the mouth the wine is lush and supple with gorgeous ripe cherry and plum fruit, with cassis and cola undertones. Notes of cedar and earth linger through the very very long finish. Fantastic bright acidity and phenomenal soft, chewy tannins. Delicious and quite age worthy. Score: around 9.5 click to buy.
2009 Ehlers Estate Petite Verdot, St. Helena $60
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberry and cassis. In the mouth, massive velvety tannins wrap around hugely lush cassis and blueberry flavors with lingering notes of wet wood and earth. Good acidity keeps this wine from being too over the top, but it is a big mouthful of fruit and texture. A very delicious one, I might add. If you like your wines dark and delectable, this is your thing. 92 cases made and only available at the winery. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2010 Ehlers Estate Barrel Sample Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
Dark cloudy garnet in the glass, this barrel sample (of the winery's best blocks of Cabernet that will eventually make their way into the "1886" blend) has wonderful floral aromas of cassis and black cherry, and a wonderful overall aromatic purity. In the mouth the wine has extraordinary length and poise with deep plummy, cherry flavors with underlying earthy and floral notes. Suffused with a deep aromatic sweetness, the wine also has powdery tannins and gorgeous acidity. Stunning. Score: around 9.5
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