Ehlers Estate is located about 2 miles north of St. Helena on the east side of Highway 29 on Ehlers Lane. This location is in the heart of the north part of Napa Valley, is quite scenic and well removed from the often busy wine strip of Highway 29 in the south. As a result of their historic setting, intimate tasting experiences and premium wines a stop here is highly recommended. In addition, the winery and grounds are extremely photogenic.
Drive down a long single lane road and park along the edge of the vines just below the tasting room entrance. As you walk in, note some of the displays lining the wall including the full wine barrels. The winery’s original press dates from the early 1880’s and is also on display.
The elegant tasting room is in the old stone ghost winery which has stood the test of time very well although additional structural support has been added over the years and as well as upstairs office space. If you look on the south facing side of the building – you can clearly see the dividing line (based on color) where a second floor was added. Inside the tasting room, casual and comfortable chair seating outnumber the bar seating…and that is a good thing (when it comes to having a more personalized and relaxing tasting experience).
The main winery room is located directly behind the tasting room/hospitality center. The number of tanks housed here corresponds to the number of unique blocks within their vineyard. An additional building houses their barrel aging program. Total production each year on the reds is usually around 8,000 cases. All their wines are fermented using the indigenous yeast existing on the grapes.
The original winery was founded in 1886 by Bernard Ehlers, a German immigrant who prior to moving to the Napa Valley was a grocer in Sacramento (primarily selling supplies to gold miners going east into the Sierra Nevada foothills). While none of his original grapevines have survived the olive grove he planted are doing quite well. Incidentally, he and his family are buried in a cemetery in the town of St. Helena (to the south of the winery). The winery remained open during Prohibition as a “home winery” (bootlegging) – in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition, commercial wine was again made legally until 1958 under the name, Bale Mill Winery (named after the nearby Bale Grist Mill).
The current winery dates from 2001; prior to this, the winery was the original home to the former Napa Cartlidge & Brown Winery. The winery was purchased by Jean and Sylviane Leducq (both since deceased) and is owned by the Leducq Foundation, through a trust they established in 1996.
Proceeds from your tasting fee and or sales of wine help support the Leducq Foundation‘s international cardiovascular research programs. This is the only winery with a physical winery location in Napa valley that we know of who has built their charity work directly into their winery operations. What a great way to directly contribute to a worthwhile cause and enjoy good wines at the same time.
The estate is 42 acres of which 39 are planted to vineyards. The vines are all farmed organically (CCOF certified) and Biodynamically. Biodynamic farming typically involves a number of farming practices including three primary ones; you build the soil naturally using special natural compost, philosophically farm, prune and harvest based on phases of the moon and planets, control pests and diseases without chemicals (cover crops), and use plants that attract beneficial insects. If you would like to find out more about this type of farming – ask one of the employees – they are more then happy to share additional information.
Ehlers Estate does not purchase or sell fruit – all wines produced are from their estate vineyards. In addition, unlike the majority of area wineries who outsource to vineyard management companies, Ehlers Estate employees their own vineyard workers. They are overseen by vineyard foreman Francisco Vega who has lived on the property for more then 15 years.
A unique employee vineyard management program is in place here – we have not seen this at any of the other Napa wineries we have visited. When you park you may notice a number of small license plates attached to the end of the grape rows – each with a person’s name listed. Then winemaker and General Manager, Kevin Morrisey thought it would be a good idea to have employees learn about what happens in the vineyards and understand some reasons why certain vineyard management decisions are made. So each employee manages 10 vines of their own and helps with thinning, shoot positioning, pruning and harvest.
The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was aged 6 months in barrel sur lie. It saw no oak. Initially it shows crisp aromatics on the bouquet including lemon, lime and some citrus blossom notes. As it opens it reveals notes of of melon and honeysuckle. The wine shows great acidity, some minerality nuances and is lively and refreshing on the palate. Very nice food wine.
Be sure to try the Cabernet Franc; it is 100% varietal (somewhat rare to find in Napa). The 2013 vintage spent 22 months in French oak (50% new). We reviewed our notes from an older vintage and noted some similarities in this most current vintage. The bouquet shows a pleasing mix of dust, cigar smoke and fruit (red cherry, black currant) all elegantly and aromatically intertwined. It is soft on the entry and very well balanced. Well integrated slightly astringent tannins linger for some time – mouth wateringly so. This is a delicious wine that delivers layers of flavor.
As a tribute to their founding date, their premium Cabernet Sauvignon is simply called “1886”. The 750ml bottle of this wine is very creatively packaged. Sylvia spotted this unique bottle shape and design in an apothecary in Paris and decided it would be a good bottle for their wine. It certainly stands out with its pewter packaging and platinum etching. The 2013 “1886” spent 16 months aging in new French oak and another 6 months aging in neutral oak. The blends do change each year; in 2013 it was 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot and 2% Petite Verdot.
A part of the property that Kevin calls “the sweet spot” is located right next to Highway 29 – on bench-land (the vines just north as you pull turn of the highway heading towards the winery). These vines are planted in rocky and well drained soils that have been washed down from the slopes of the Mayacamas mountains. Kevin has always been attracted to vines growing on various bench-lands throughout the valley ranging from Yountville, Rutherford to Oakville – select blocks from this part of the vineyard are used in each vintage.
The bouquet is very appealing and aromatic – it is an elegant nose carefully focused on the fruit characteristics rather then being influenced by wine making or oak. Along with the fruit, hints of mocha and vanilla linger delicately. On the palate this wine strikes a nice balance between fruit, acidity and structure. Flavors of blackberry & raspberry show – leading to a long finish with somewhat chewy tannins.
The “1886” (2005 vintage) is extremely well balanced. The nose is elegant showing notes of black fruits and herbs with touches of vanilla. On the palate, it follows with flavors of raspberry and more cherry. This vintage has a pleasing mouth feel.
Picnic tables under the olive trees and a nearby Bocce Ball court are available. Ehlers offers a one of a kind ‘Start Your Day’ Tasting Experience daily at 930am. Croissants from Bouchon Bakery in Yountville are offered (ever seen the lines at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville?!) – no lines here – this is a very personalized experience. This has also been a popular tasting with visitors to the valley who are from times zones further east in the country and don’t mind an ‘early’ morning tasting. Allow about 90 minutes to enjoy and discuss four wines, try a barrel sample and take a tour of the property.
Ehlers Estate offers two options for wine club shipments. For more information and to schedule an appointment, visit: www.ehlersestate.com