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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Ehlers - The most heart friendly Napa Valley Cabernet you’ll find

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ehlers St Helena Estate Winery is a benchmark for a great intimate, off the beaten track wine tasting experience in Napa Valley. Heading North on St. Helena Highway past the famed Charles Krug Winery and Culinary Institute, Ehlers Road beckons you to turn right down a pastoral drive until you reach the winery’s beautiful, honey-colored, historic stone barn, which instantly draws you in with it’s vintage charm.  Out front, you’ll find bocce courts shaded by a 100 year old olive grove, and scattered picnic tables where a few folks are peacefully enjoying charcuterie, bread and wine.  The setting is rustic and peaceful - the winery’s tranquility instantly distancing you from the bustling congestion of downtown St. Helena that creeps in during summer months.  We entered the stone winery which has been reincarnated into a warm tasting room where groups ensconce themselves at intimate lounge groupings surrounded by fabulous art, jazz wafting through the air. The experience is a far cry from over-crowded tasting rooms with people hovering around a tasting bar waiting in line for a pour.

We’re welcomed by Bradley, one of the most hospitable hosts I’ve encountered in the Valley, who even phoned us after our visit to inform us that I’d left behind my favorite Prada sunglasses and stayed at the tasting room late until I could pick them up, offering us sparkling pellegrino for our drive back to Yountville.  Bradley escorted us to a cozy corner table with a cute Martha-Stewart inspired mini chalkboard on which our name was scribed.  Soon after, we were delighted by a surprise visit from the esteemed winemaker, Kevin Morrissey.  Kevin (who took over for Rudy Zuidema) has an enology degree from U.C. Davis, and interned in Pomerol, France before working as an enologist at Stags' Leap Winery.  After spending five years rising to associate winemaker, Kevin joined Etude winery, though returned to Stags’ Leap in 2005 as winemaker and general manager until being recruited by Ehlers in 2009.  Kevin had to return to work, but not before we enjoyed a first taste of his favorite white wine in Napa Valley, the Estate grown Ehlers Sauvignon Blanc, in a French style with a nice balance of acidity and creaminess and bone dry finish.  

We sipped the Sauvignon Blanc as we started our tour of the biodynamic estate winery led by Phil Toohey, who gave us a great overview of the history of the winery, founded by Jean Leducq  in 2000 to make wines in the French Bordeaux style (more about the history of the winery can be found here).  For a winery that is rooted in Bordeaux style, this winery is refreshingly contemporary and focused on social responsibility.  After Jean passed away in 2002, he left Ehlers Estate in trust to the non-profit Leducq Foundation that awards over $30 million annually to directly support international cardiovascular research. 

This union of estate winery and philanthropy has defined Ehlers Estate ever since, giving the winery a unique sense of purpose, combining the pursuit of excellence with philanthropy. This mission has inspired Ehlers’ exceptional team of professionals who take pride in their work, making great wines while making a difference.  You can find subtle references to the cardiovascular foundation in the Winery’s logo (notice the E forms a heart) and one of the signature Cabernets, named One Twenty Over Eighty.  The winery is also  also at the forefront of environmentally aware farming practices guided by Morrisey.  The Ehlers viticulture program embraced organic farming in 2004, and adopted biodynamic farming practices in early 2005. Beginning with the 2005 red wine vintage and the 2007 white wine vintage, all Ehlers Estate wines have been crafted exclusively from this stellar palette of certified organic, estate-grown grapes.

The wines that the estate produces are made exclusively from grapes grown on the property, and the total production is 7000 cases, all of which can be picked at the same time if needed with room to crush and age them in the winery’s barrel room which currently houses the 2011 and 2012 vintages.  We tasted a barrel sample of the 2011 “1886” Cab (first released in 2002) which impressed me with its high quality and silkiness on the palette at such a young age. The winery is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petite Verdot.  After tasting all the wines (blended and single varietal) it’s clear that the wines show a gorgeous expression of Napa terroir and fruit and are packaged under a beautifully executed brand I’d recommend to anyone. The 1886 bottle is a gorgeous representation of an apothecary bottle, but the other wines shine as well - I’d highly recommend the Estate Merlot which has been called a “Cabernet Lover’s Merlot”.  Despite a small production and limited distribution, you can find Ehlers wines locally in California at restaurants such as San Francisco’s RN74, Bourban Steak, Epic Roasthouse and nearby at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay.  Few places make you feel so good about indulging in such pleasure as Bordeaux style wines - Ehlers is truly good for the heart and the community and the high quality, gorgeous wines are the icing on the cake of a very special Napa Valley tasting experience you shouldn’t pass up.

My Favorites - Tasting Notes:

2012 Sauvignon Blanc: 100% Sauvignon Blanc
A single-vineyard, terroir-driven estate grown Sauvignon Blanc aged 6 months sur lie.  This bone dry, full-bodied wine is defined by laser beam acidity, and rich, floral, mouth-watering flavor.  No new oak, and no malolactic influences fog the purity of this wine.  Notes of Bartlett pears, pink grapefruit, lemon and tangerine blossoms, this Sauvignon Blanc is at once creamy and crisp and dry.

2010 Merlot: 97% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc
A luscious, full and rich Merlot that illustrates the full potential of the Ehlers terroir.  A confluence of intense dark chocolate, red raspberry, a very subtle spearment, and black licorice defines this vintage.  The tannins are at once fine and chewy and the bold, juicy structure of the wine is what has always made the Ehlers Merlot a “Merlot for Cabernet Drinkers”.

2010 One Twenty Over Eighty Cabernet Sauvignon: 88% Cab Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Cab Franc
A voluptuous, full bodied, heavyweight Cabernet Sauvignon from the loamy benchland soils of the North St Helena Estate vineyard.  The wine is layered with blackberry, black plums, dark chocolate, tobacco and sumac and wrapped seamlessly in velvety tannins that create a structure and balance that is “classically Ehlers”.  Compelling and complex, this is a fine Bordeaux style Cabernet blend that will age for decades.

2009 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon: 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc
This full-bodied wine has a seamless structure, and boasts a delicate balance from beginning to end.  Bold and expressive with fat, full tannins that are at once refined, silky and subtle.  Blended from the rockiest, most well-drained parcels of the estate vineyard, this “1886” is a classic, age-worthy Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.  Filling out the layers of earthy complexity and spice are flavors of violets, chocolate cherries, cinnamon and cocoa.  A beautiful expression of the terroir.

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