Elyse Winery specializes primarily in vineyard designate red wines. Founder and original 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 than taking some very short courses, Ray has learned his winemaking skills by 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 as a tasting room staff at Whitehall Lane Winery. Not always the most common path to become a winemaker but not the first. Fortunately, his passion for making wine was quickly evident and he did not work in the tasting room for very long. 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 Elyse wines, Ray purchased land and a winery in 1997 (today home of Elyse Winery). The space was previously owned by Bernard Pradel Cellars, founded 1983 by Frenchman and former restauranteur Bernard Pradel (although his wines were not being produced on this property). Some of his wines were poured at several of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants in the 1980s and in 1989 The Wine Spectator listed his 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (from purchased fruit) on their top 100 wines list of the year. The site was also previously used as a kennel for German Shepherds and a paddock for stabling horses.
A number of improvements to the infrastructure on site have been made over the years – the tasting room adjoins what was a horse barn and the guest cottage used to be a chicken coop. Elyse is named after Ray and Nancy’s daughter who was born in 1986. They later had a son Jake who while in 4th grade began complaining that he did not have a wine label named after himself … so Ray produced a second wine label called Jacob Franklin; for many years these wines were also available in the tasting room. Only in wine country…right? Jake Coursen continues to produce Jacob Franklin wines under he and Ray’s ownership and is no longer affiliated with Elyse Winery.
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. The wines show a bit more polish and are ‘riper’ since the transition in ownership and winemaking.
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. A dinner at Redd (permanently closed in 2018) in Yountville between Josh and Ray led to Ray’s decision to sell the winery. We originally met Josh when he was working at Chateau Boswell; he is originally from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. After graduating from the College of Charleston he took a trip to California. He spent some time working for a startup software company during the dot com boom and would visit Napa Valley on the weekends eventually moving to the valley and directing sales and marking for several luxury wine brands.
During his long time in the valley, he has met numerous winemakers including Russell Bevan who he works with on several wine projects.
As of our latest update to this review, Elyse produces a remarkable variety of premium wines – during our first visit many years ago, 27 different wines were listed on their price list – in more recent years, the number of wines produced here has been reduced. Regardless of production, all of their wines are priced extremely well for Napa Valley standards – even their premium reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (which is not made every year). Some nearly 18,000 cases were being produced at the peak of their production; today they produce around 7,000 cases annually.
A small number of brands produce their wines here as part of the 2100 Hoffman Lane Collection (a collective) and Josh is a partner in several of these brands. Since the change in ownership, Josh has moved the winemaking for these brands on site and potentially will be renaming Elyse Winery to The Institution. The Elyse wines continue to be produced on site. Wines from these brands are also tasted on site by appointment.
As of our latest update to this review, these brands are: Addax (named after a type of antelope), Morgado (produced by San Francisco based firefighter Kimberly Hatcher), Institution (Napa Valley Cabernet with a pair of scissors as their brand image paying homage to when Ray Coursen locked up the Elyse cellar simply by sticking a pair of scissors through the door latch – one of their three bottle offerings is in a wooden box, also latched with a pair of scissors), Standard Deviation (Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc) and Kobus (mostly Pinot Noir). Some of these brands produce non-Napa Valley wines.
Not setup to take large groups, tastings are typically hosted at a tiny bar in a cozy, clean and uncluttered room (which hasn’t changed much in the 15+ years since we started visiting Elyse), in a separate side room or weather permitting, outside. A private lounge space is also available for members. A tasting here is about the wine, but at the same time is relaxed curated by friendly and very knowledgeable staff.
A typical tasting includes 5 different wines although this can certainly quickly grow to a much larger selection based on interests of guests. Several of their wines feature extremely unique blends as well as rare varieties not often produced by Napa Valley based wineries. In order to acquire these varieties, they source from various locations in California including neighboring Sonoma County and the Sierra foothills. But most of their vineyard sources are from premium vineyards in the Napa Valley including from their own tiny 1.5 acres next to the winery, planted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Elyse makes several different Zinfandels and has done so for many years; Zinfandel is one of the varieties they are most known for. Not many small Napa Valley based producers produce, bottle and label a wine as a White Zinfandel. Elyse produces this wine from Rutherford. The 2021 Elyse White Zinfandel was fermented entirely from free run juice. This wine is medium to deep salmon in color; it has no issue with lightness of color. The bouquet reveals aromatics of wild strawberry (the white kind that never really shows much color), cherry pie, ruby grapefruit and subtle notes of lemon/lime. It offers rich and concentrated flavors of strawberry, black raspberry and watermelon along with a light spice note. A hint of sweetness shows among the flavors which is balanced nicely by its acidity. This wine offers a creamy and supple texture from the entry through to the finish.
One of our favorite Elyse Zinfandel bottlings is from the Morisoli Vineyard. This was also the vineyard that Ray originally began Elyse with in as his first vintage in 1987 (merely several hundred cases of Zinfandel at that time).
Until more recently, Elyse had almost exclusive access to the oldest vines in the Morisoli Vineyard – the approximately 100-year-old Zinfandel. Because the vines are so old, there is also a small percentage of other red varieties in this wine. Ray and Nancy used to live in a guest house at this vineyard and over the years became very attuned to the site’s nuances including noticing that when a single Black Muscat vine ripened, it was time to harvest the old-vine Zinfandel.
The 2019 Elyse Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel is dark ruby in color, the sweetly fruited bouquet shows aromas of boysenberry and blackberry, but there’s also a darker more brooding character to the aromatics, including mushroom, truffle, and some darker spices. As the wine opens it evolves to some notes of chocolate. The palate offers notes of licorice, cherry and a perceived fruit sweetness along with some baking spices including clove and vanilla. The tannins show a light dry and chalky texture anchoring the long and fruit-filled finish.
The 2005 Elyse Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel offers very ripe fruit aromas followed by rich flavors of blackberry, raspberry and hints of mocha. If one were to smell this wine blind, one might think it was a Zinfandel Port-style wine due to its aromatic sweetness.
The 2019 Elyse Korte Ranch Zinfandel is dark ruby in color; the aromatics are initially a bit brooding, including notes of forest floor and mushroom along with plum, and a hint of wood spice. But let this wine continue to evolve in the glass and it will reveal a nice union of both darker fruits, dessert spices and chocolate. This is a fairly robust Zinfandel, but still very balanced. One might call it a crowd pleaser. One can feel the tannins on the darker spice filled finish.
The 2006 Elyse Korte Ranch Vineyard (sourced from vines around 80 years of age) is a leaner style Zinfandel with notes of white pepper on the bouquet some of which shows on the palate. This wine displays a freshness and a liveliness that one does not always associate with wine made from this variety grown in warm California conditions.
It is interesting to note that despite 13 years between tasting Elyse bottlings from the Korte Ranch Vineyard, both vintages showed very similar darker spice driven characteristics.
The 2019 Elyse Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is noticeably dark in color with a Garnet/purple hue on the rim of the glass. The bouquet is sweet and ripe and includes scents of blackberry, boysenberry, a jam-like note and brown sugar, almost like crème Brulé. Simply put, it smells like dessert. The opulent aromatics continue onto the palate which is equally as opulent showcasing an intensity and a noticeable richness. The tannins are dense, with a light gravelly texture, and linger with for quite some time.
The 2019 Elyse Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from several vineyard including from Tench (neighboring vineyard to the north next to Screaming Eagle). In terms of color, this wine is ‘darkness in the glass’ and is opaque; the aromatics include dark cherry and ripe plum, blackberry and boysenberry along with mocha and chocolate. This is a juicy, big, opulent and flamboyant wine without the heavy-handed influence of robust tannins. Rather its texture rolls over the palate lingering with notes of tobacco spice.
2013 was the first year that Elyse produced a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This vintage was aged in 80% new French oak and spent 3 years in barrel before being bottled. The 2013 Elyse Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon offers an intriguing menthol sweetness of aromatics with ripe blackberry and notes of a chocolate brownie and as the wine opens further – espresso and mocha. Quite layered on the palate, there is a noticeable density of fruit from start to finish. There is plenty of weight but without robust structure with tannins still showing plenty of grip but not in a coarse way.
The 2005 Elyse C’est Si Bon was crafted with 7 different Rhone varieties, including some of the grapes for this wine being sourced from the Sierra foothills. Tasting notes aside, this wine is easy drinking good and is also comfortable on the pocketbook; the name in French translates to “it’s so good”. Elyse continues to produce this wine although not always from the same number or types of varieties.
The 2006 Elyse L’Ingenue is a Rhone inspired white wine, a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc. In part the Roussanne contributes a pleasing viscous, creamy and weighty mouth feel. Ripe pear and apple show well on the mid palate with nuances of fig and apricot towards the finish.
Enjoy a slightly sweet white wine? The 2006 Elyse La Peche is 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; this is a delicious and not quite a dessert wine.
And Elyse used to produce port-style wines. These age remarkably well based on personal experience (some of the oldest of these wines we have tried have been nearly 20 years old). They are intensely flavored but without being heavy or too sweet.
Josh is associated with Napa Cider Company, a local producer of wine-infused hard cider. We tried their Dry Hard Cider offering blended with Chardonnay. This cider is deep gold in color; it smells fresh. This cider showcases a smooth texture and flavors of apple (obviously!), lemon and lime. The finish is clean and drops off quickly. Napa Cider is sold by the bottle and by the keg.
Ray is a Vietnam War veteran and was the founding winemaker for Purple Heart Wines beginning with their inaugural vintage in 2013. As of 2017 Ray is no longer winemaker here although these wines continue to be produced. General proceeds from the sales of the wines are donated to the Purple Heart Foundation an organization that works to secure benefits for veterans including service dogs, education opportunities, helping with brain injury recovery and other war injuries.
The wines are primarily sold direct to consumer although they do have limited distribution to restaurants and fine wine shops. For more information or to join the Elyse mailing list or wine club (with 6, 12 or red only options), visit: www.elysewinery.com.
Winery + Tasting Room
Bauer Wine + Spirits, Boston (where Ray used to work)