Elyse Winery produces excellent wines – specializing in primarily vineyard designate red wines. Founder and winemaker Ray Coursen, is a self-taught vintner who grew up on a farm in rural New Jersey. Ray has lived a diverse life including spending two years in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, traveling the world for a year visiting Europe and Africa and working at Bauer Wine and Spirits, a fine wine shop in Boston that was founded in 1960 – focusing on both European and domestic wines. We visited this shop with the sole purpose to see where Ray worked for a period of time – see our photos at the end of this review.
One day he and his wife Nancy packed everything up and headed to California to learn the winemaking business. Other then taking some very short courses, Ray has learned his winemaking skills doing doing – on the job. He worked one harvest picking grapes and digging ditches at Mt. Eden Vineyards in Saratoga and then picked up invaluable viticultural knowledge by working for a local vineyard management company.
Ray’s next job was actually as a tasting room staff at Whitehall Lane Winery. Talk about an interesting way to get your foot in the door to be a winemaker. Fortunately his passion for being a winemaker showed through and he wasn’t long for the tasting room. He was moved to the cellar where he learned wine making skills and eventually became head winemaker for Whitehall Lane Winery.
After 10 years of renting space at other wineries to make the wine, he purchased land and a winery in 1997 (today home of Elyse Winery). Elyse is named after his daughter. He later had a son Jake who while in 4th grade began complaining that he did not have a wine label named after himself … so his father Ray produced a second wine label called Jacob Franklin; these wines are also available in the tasting room. Only in Napa Valley…right?
Their wines are not cookie cutter; the wines in general that we have tried over the years have been about the fruit, not about the oak characteristics. Despite being well-established, wine enthusiasts visiting the valley often will never hear of Elyse even though the winery is located only 1/2 mile west of Highway 29 on Hoffman Lane and is an easy 30 second drive from the highway. Elyse has quietly been making excellent wines for many years and perhaps has preferred to remain under the radar.
In early fall 2018, Ray and Nancy sold Elyse to Napa wine veteran, Josh Peeples and his business partner, Cheryl Foil. We originally met Josh when he was working at Chateau Boswell – he later spent a short stint working at V Wine Cellars in Yountville and today works with winemaker Russell Bevan on several projects including Addax, a label he is a partner in (beginning in 2019, Addax is now made at Elyse). Cheryl is a computer engineer with a degree from William & Mary – she is a principal at Kiddar Capital, a global asset management firm.
The tasting room is simple and uncluttered – unless fundraising for charities, their tasting sheet says “No hats, no T-shirts, cave tours or openers”. True to this, a tasting here is about the wine, but at the same time is relaxed helped in part by the friendly and knowledgeable staff. Look for the wine dogs typically lounging around the tasting room entrance, they have been featured in the Wine Dogs of Napa Valley Book.
As of our latest update to this review, Elyse produces a remarkable variety of premium wines – at the time of our first visit, 27 different wines. Wow. With the exception of their high end Cabernet Sauvignons (priced accordingly for a Napa wine of this varietal), all their wines are priced very decently. Their total production is around 8,000 cases a year.
A typical tasting is quite generous (5 different wines) and is part of the spirit that comes with producing such a large number of wines. Several of these wines feature extremely unique blends as well as rare varietals not often used by Napa wineries. In order to acquire these varietals they source from various locations in California including the Sierra foothills. But most of their vineyard sources are from premium vineyards in the Napa Valley. However they do own 1.5 acres next to the winery, planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of these is their 2006 Elyse L’Ingenue, a Rhone varietal white wine blended with Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc. In part the Roussanne contributes a nice viscous creamy weighty mouth feel. Ripe pear and apple show well on the mid palate with nuances of fig and apricot towards the finish. The 2005 Elyse C’est Si Bon is composed of 7 different Rhone varietals, some of which you will never find in Napa and as a result the grapes for this wine are again sourced from the Sierra foothills. Tasting notes aside, this wine “is good” – which the name in French translates to “its so good”.
Elyse makes several different style of Zinfandels. The 2006 Elyse Korte Ranch is a leaner style with lots of white pepper in the bouquet which follows onto the palate. Zinfandel fruit lovers take note of the 2005 Elyse Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel. If you had to smell this wine blind, you would think you were smelling a Zinfandel Port-style wine. The aromas are of very ripe fruit followed by rich flavors of blackberry, raspberry and hints of mocha. This was also the vineyard that Ray originally began Elyse with in the late 1980s (merely several hundred cases of Zinfandel at that time).
The 2006 Elyse Petite Sirah (with some Zinfandel and a splash of Viognier) is interesting in that most of the fruit hits your palate towards the finish. Enjoy a slightly sweet white wine? Try the 2006 Elyse La Peche a blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Malvasia Bianca. Just the right amount of sugar versus fruit makes this a very well balanced wine with fruity notes of pear intermingled with almost a cinnamon aroma – leading to a palate with nuances of very red ripe apples…a delicious not quite dessert wine.
Their Petite Sirah Port-style wine is equally tasty. With a production of so many wines we have only highlighted a few that we have tasted. Most others are available through their website. Ray is also involved with Purple Heart Wine.
For more information or to join their mailing list or wine club, visit: www.elysewinery.com
NOTE: since the transition in ownership, this review has been identified as needing a *major* update. We will revisit in 2019 or 2020 once the current ownership settles in.
Winery + Tasting Room
Bauer Wine + Spirits, Boston (where Ray used to work)