CourAvant produced their first vintage in 2019 and was founded by proprietors Gary and Sharon Lessing. The Lessing’s first trip to Napa Valley was in 1980, a year that Gary recalled was when they were just getting into wine. They were introduced to buttery Chardonnays at the time and their special red wines were Silver Oak and a Robert Mondavi reserve. They spent much of their time and subsequent trips in Carneros enjoying Pinot Noir from the limited number of producers back then including visiting Carneros Creek (Francis Mahoney’s original winery) and meeting Walter Schug at Schug Estate.
Eventually they purchased a home on Pratt Avenue in St. Helena with a small front and side yard vineyard. In 2006, they began making home wine from this vineyard creating two barrels each year and blending in a small amount of grapes from Rutherford. They called their wine Front Yard and made it at Judd’s Hill Winery, using their micro crush program. They produced this wine through 2022. Even today, Gary still receives emails and phone calls from some of his clients he gifted the wines to over the years. They remember visiting his tiny vineyard and the memories created over sharing these bottles.
In 2020, Gary and Sharon purchased the former Jaffe Estate property south of St. Helena. Nearby neighbors include Cathiard Estate, Dana Estate and Flora Springs.
This property is 4 acres of which 2 acres are planted to vines including 2/3 to Cabernet Sauvignon and 1/3 to Merlot. Despite such a small vineyard, the vines are planted in several different parts of the property including lining the driveway. The vineyard is located in the St. Helena Appellation almost on the border of the Rutherford Appellation. The vineyards were planted sometime in the early 1990s. For several years the previous owners, the Jaffe’s sold the grapes to a nearby winery. But then they hired the very talented and perhaps we should add ‘brilliant’ winemaker David DeSante; he produced the Jaffe Estate inaugural release from 2005 and a number of subsequent vintages.
Special mention must be made about the small but impressive observatory and rotating telescope the Jaffe’s built on the property. During one of our early visits to the property, Gary Jaffe told us the first time he became interested in astronomy was when he was 9 years old and had just visited Griffith Park Observatory above Los Angeles for a planetarium show. He was hooked from that point on, and astronomy became a lifelong passion.
At night with little light pollution up valley, this is an ideal location for an observatory. For some time, this was the only privately owned observatory in Napa County; as expected, this was a popular resource for local school kids. Francis Ford Coppola built his own observatory high up in the Mayacamas mountains above his house and Inglenook Winery. One can see this observatory if one knows exactly where to look while driving on Highway 29 through Rutherford.
Gary Jaffe also told us, “Astronomy is the one branch of science where amateurs can actually be involved in research” – researchers called him on a number of occasions for his help. After the Jaffe’s sold the property to the Lessings, Gary donated the telescope. Gary Lessing has since installed a new more modern telescope built by PlaneWave Instruments. Its auto tracking can follow the International Space Station flying 250 miles overhead. This telescope also has the ability to view the surface of the sun and download images directly to a computer.
And while there were a few olive trees growing on the property prior to their ownership, the Lessings have since planted additional trees and now have approximately 30 olive trees (primarily Italian varieties). In 2023 they produced their first olive oil from the estate. Several of the old trees came from Palermo, California a noted olive oil producing region in Butte County, named in homage to Palermo, Italy.
When it came time to name their commercial efforts, they tried to use Front Yard but this was already taken by another business. They decided on CourAvant which sounds far more elegant, matching the graceful and sophisticated style of their wines. CourAvant does not easily translate to English as their is no equivalent word in the French language. However cour refers to courtyard and avant refers to before. And some translations show couravant as meaning front yard. The image on their wine label is of their home, vineyard and observatory and was designed by southern California graphic artist, Steve Mitchell.
The 2020 CourAvant Proprietary Red Wine is a blend of the percentages of varieties planted within the vineyard. This wine is 1/3 Merlot and 2/3 Cabernet Sauvignon. Their Merlot adds structure to the bottling while the Cabernet Sauvignon adds the softness and elegance; these are the opposite characteristics one would normally expect from these two varieties. But their vineyard consistently produces these characteristics in both varieties each year. This wine is deep ruby in color; one can immediately tell this wine is built around elegance rather than ripeness or power and that is an important distinction. The bouquet offers a freshness which is also clearly noticeable on the palate. It reveals aromas of currant, cranberry and red cherry. And deeper in the layers are notes of vanilla and subtle mocha. The palate somewhat echoes the bouquet and sports flavors of red cherry, currant, raspberry and red plum. The tannins are remarkably resolved, rounded and feathery for such a young wine (we tasted only 3 years post vintage date). And this is most likely due to 2020 being a warmer year. This wine finishes bright and lively, begging another sip.
The 2019 CourAvant Proprietary Red Wine is deep ruby; the bouquet shows more floral characteristics than the 2019 vintage including of rose petals and violets. These scents are more prominent early and then evolve to reveal more fruit including of cherry and raspberry. The nose is focused on the purity of the fruit. We immediately noted its elegance. The palate offers a pleasing balance between fruit, acidity and texture. It offers flavors of cherry, currant and cranberry supported by lightly grainy but rounded tannins. The wine finishes bright and savory with a light lingering dusty character. The clones planted in this vineyard retain their acidity every vintage which is no different in this bottling.
The CourAvant Blanc is a proprietary white wine sourced from a 15-acre vineyard in Pope Valley every year. This wine includes both Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon and is fermented in both barrel (for the Sauvignon Blanc) and stainless steel for the Sémillon. Both varieties were barrel aged using a combination of neutral and 2nd fill barrels.
The 2021 CourAvant Blanc Proprietary White is pale to medium yellow in color; the bouquet offers a honeyed note, pineapple, straw, honeydew melon, white nectarine, passion fruit, lemon zest, vanilla and deeper in the aromas, a very subtle grassy herbal note. This wine is a rich expression (perhaps richer than the 2020 vintage) of acidity, flavor and texture. The mineral laden palate offers flavors of pineapple guava, under ripe pineapple, mandarin orange, Gravenstein apple and lemon juice. Its creamy almost briny texture is balanced nicely by the mouth watering and persistent richness of flavor and racy acidity on the finish. We immediately wanted to pair this with shellfish and something spicy…from Thailand. Perhaps boiled blood cockles with a tasty nam prik. And a view of the beach from one of our favorite islands in the southern part of the country. This beautiful bottling is well worth seeking out and is built to age for a number of years.
The 2020 CourAvant Blanc Proprietary White is medium yellow in color; the aromas offer a diverse spread of fruits including melon, pineapple, apricot, peach and yellow nectarine. There are also some floral characters at play here including honeysuckle. And as the nose evolves further it offers additional scents including of apple and kumquat. The bouquet is elegant, lively and fresh. This bottling clearly shows the influence of California sunshine but also offers a simultaneous brightness. The palate reveals flavors primarily on the citrus side of the flavor spectrum including honeydew melon, apple, mandarin orange and lime. A gentle creamy texture runs the length of the palate. This wine is slightly less rich than the 2020 bottling.
Total production between the two wines is only several hundred cases per year. Locally the wines are often available at premium restaurants including several the Lessing’s like to frequent: Press, Celadon and the French Laundry. And in Southern California they are at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, Beverly Hills at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The wines are also sold direct to consumer through their mailing list.
And CourAvant supports certain charitiies including Momentum for Mental Health and the 100 Women Charitable Foundation. For more information and to purchase wine, visit: www.couravant.com