By Ryan Snyder on April 2, 2006

Category: Winery of the Month

We chose to feature Elyse Winery as our April Producer of the Month not just for their delicious wines, but also because they epitomize the meaning of a mom and pop winery. Maybe that’s because when winemaker Ray Coursen founded the winery in 1987, he named the winery after his one-year old daughter, Elyse. Or, how about when Coursen decided that it was wrong to leave Jake, Elyse’s younger brother, out of the naming scheme and judiciously included Jake’s name in the Elyse Rhône blend. Shortly thereafter 8-year old Jake asked his father, “Dad, when am I going to get my own label? Without her name on it?” Not wanting to show preferential treatment to one child over the other, Coursen said, “Alright. It’s time,” and started a second label called Jacob Franklin.

Today, Elyse and Jake are 20 and 16-years-old respectively, and the thought of one day taking over the winery isn’t even in the picture. “They have to go work for someone else for 3 years before they can come work for me. They have to find their passion for it first,” Coursen said. “Besides, this wine thing has always been kind of a burden for Elyse. People would ask her to sign their wine bottles when she was younger and she’s always been so shy. Now that she’s in college, her friends ask her to bring bottles back to school with her every time she comes home. I think next year (when she turns 21) it will become a lot more fun.”

As a boy, Coursen spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ dairy farm in New Jersey. Not wanting to relive the strenuous chores he faced as a child, he decided to focus his attention on orchards. He earned a degree in pomology, the study of fruit cultivation, but never quite made it to the orchard. Instead, while pulling two jobs at a wine shop and a steakhouse in order to make ends meet in Boston, Coursen found his calling. “I got to taste the good stuff. ’47 d’Yquem. ’47 Margaux. Man, I got the bug.”

Before long, he and his wife Nancy packed up and shipped out to Saratoga in the northern portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where Coursen started working in the industry from the ground up, so to speak. His first job was at Mt. Eden Vineyards in 1984, where he earned his keep by picking grapes and planting vines. After that first harvest, the Coursens relocated to Napa Valley, where they ran a bed and breakfast for a couple of years while Ray trained at Tonella Vineyard Management. “It was Tonella, me and 6 Mexicans. He (Tonella) explained to me why we do it the way we do it, and the Mexicans taught me how to do it. Of course, they also taught me how to eat a jalapeño,” he chuckled.

Next, Coursen moved over to Whitehall Lane Winery, where he worked in every possible position in order to gain an understanding of wine from start to finish. He poured in the tasting room, sold wine as a rep and worked the bottling line before being promoted to winemaker, a job that enabled him to set aside space for his own project. Elyse Winery was officially founded in 1987, but for the first decade it was a nomadic existence as Coursen shuttled from winery to winery until he found the perfect little vineyard on Hoffman Lane just south of Yountville. “It’s an old horse barn with 1-1/2 acres of vines and a lot of concrete to work on. It’s nothing fancy,” he said humbly. “I’m just a big-time garagista.”

Because the Hoffman Lane vineyard is a touch on the smallish side, Coursen sources grapes from growers around Napa County for his wines. One of the questions to be raised is how can a winery ensure it gets quality grapes year after year? “I work with vineyard owners who sell a plot not as a vineyard, but as a wine,” said Coursen. He insists on building relationships with his growers in order to make sure the vines are properly cared for. Upon Coursen’s request, at harvest time his growers scour the vineyards at 3am and are only allowed to pick until 9am. “We really want that cold fruit. It makes for a slow, cool and gentle ferment.”

Whether raising children or making wine, Coursen never sheds his fatherly role. Once the grapes are in his hands, Coursen ensures they are destemmed and deseeded before being pressed gently in order to prevent many of the harsh tannins from entering his wines. He ferments most of his wines in open bins, holds off inoculating the wine as long as possible and performs all of the punch-downs by hand. Like letting a child come into his or her own with the help of a little guidance when necessary, Coursen knows he can’t force a wine to be something it’s not. He performs each of these hands-on winemaking techniques in a nurturing way, putting just the right amount of tender coercion into the wines and knowing when to stand back and simply let nature take its course.

The end result? The most applicable word I can find to describe Elyse wines is luscious. Each of the wines we tasted displayed a plethora of fruit atop a soft, velvety body, with hints of terroir and an array of spices on the finish. When I brought this up with Coursen, he immediately confirmed my findings. “That’s really the whole idea – I drink wine for the fruit. My desire is to make rich, fruity, soft wines. I want to keep the fruit level above the tannin level – both will fade over time, so after the wine ages I still want to be able to taste the fruit.”

The Nero Misto is a blend of 11 black grapes that features ripe berries, smoke and a spice array that explodes across your tongue. The Howell Mountain Zin resembles a pepper-coated cherry and the Korte Ranch Zin features jammy black raspberry and marionberry atop an über-silky body. The Morisoli Zin makes you feel like you’re amongst bushels of blueberries and blackberries at the farmer’s market – it’s expressive, yet just refined enough to keep you from feeling intimidated. And the oh-so-plush Petite Sirah will single-handedly change your mind about the inky grape. But as with most Napa Valley wineries, the Cab is where it’s at. The Morisoli Cabernet Sauvignon is dark, mysterious and brooding, but it is still able to maintain an air of elegance from the first sip until the bottle is completely polished off.

Since the beginning, Coursen’s primary focus has been on the typical Napa red varietals, but he keeps an eye out for his new lineup of Rhône varietals. “When I was a kid, we ate meat and potatoes every meal, and when we didn’t have that we ate potatoes and meat. The beauty of today in the food and wine industry is that these are the golden days. We’re eating so eclectically that Cab isn’t the first choice anymore. If there are 6 people eating out at a restaurant, neither Cab nor Chardonnay will work with all 6 dishes. The Rhône varietals are much more versatile.”

In closing, I asked Coursen if there was anything else he would like to share with the readers. He said, “If I had to recommend anything to young people – Experiment. Find a good wine shop with a good selection and price and start tasting. Find one salesperson and stick with him – learn through that person. I always tell my kids that if they learn about wine now, it will remain with them the rest of their lives. Our palates degrade over time, but we’ll always have that knowledge.” In the end, Coursen summed it up perfectly with the underlying philosophy that drives his passion. “It’s all about good wine, good company and good friends.”