Who ever heard of a non-profit winery? The first time the folks at Ehlers Estate told me they were, I nearly 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 the year after he purchased the estate for $7,000 in gold coin from an aspiring vintner who went bankrupt fighting a phylloxera infestation. 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.
Winemaking at the estate is under the direction 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.
The winery has a public tasting room in the aforementioned stone building, and offers its estate grown and produced olive oils as well as wines for sale to the general public.
2004 Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc, St. Helena
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a grassy nose of herb, mineral, and green apple aromas. In the mouth it has a decent amount of acidity, and primary flavors of golden delicious apples and vanilla, as well as surprisingly, toasted oak which lingers along with some citrus notes into the finish. It turns out that this wine is aged in 3 year old Sauternes barrels on the lees (pulp and seeds and other solids). I think some of the flavors imparted by this treatment weigh down the wine a little bit, and keep it from zinging as much as it could. 1,150 cases produced. Score: 8/8.5. Cost: $20.
2002 Ehlers Estate Merlot (88% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Estate Cabernet Franc), St. Helena.
Dark ruby colored in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of blueberry and blackberry with hints of tobacco. In the mouth it is silky, dense and ripe with fruit flavors of plum, black cherry, and cassis, with barely perceptible tannins that taper towards a substantial finish. One of the better Napa Merlots I have had in a long time. 2,050 cases produced. Score: 9.5. Cost: $27.
2001 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine doesn’t quite manage to be as dark as the Merlot, surprisingly. It has a nice nose of espresso, cherry, and tobacco, which is followed up by a nice mouthfeel structured by soft tannins that support flavors of black cherry, licorice, and blackberries. The wine has a nice acidity to it, and a moderate finish. 4,217 cases produced. Score: 9. Cost: $33.
2002 Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc, St. Helena
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a typically floral nose with scents of lavender, coffee and blueberries. In the mouth it is supple, with nice tannins, and primarily focused around flavors of cedar and blueberries. 396 cases produced. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $33.
2002 Ehlers Estate “1886” Limited Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena
I did not have a chance to sample this wine again during my tasting, but I scored it as one of several wines from St. Helena that I tasted a few months ago and it was a very substantial wine, loaded with flavor and complexity. Score: 9.5. Cost: $75.
Note: Prices are winery retail prices.