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Corley Family Napa Valley

Chris Corley
February 27, 2009 | Chris Corley

The Grapes Don't Fall Far From The Vine ...

Posted By : Chris Corley

When our Dad, Jay, started Monticello Vineyards in the late 1900s, he grew and sold grapes. The land that he purchased in 1969 was and old decrepit prune orchard, which he tore out and replanted to grapevines. Over the last 40 or so years, we've grown a lot of different types of grapes on the property. In the early days, we sold all of the fruit that we grew to other wineries. It wasn't until we built the winery in 1980 that we began to make our own wines and would keep a certain amount of fruit for our own winemaking needs. To this day, we continue to sell premium grapes to other well-regarded wineries throughout the Napa Valley for use in their winemaking programs.

Around this time of year, we get together with the winemakers that we sell grapes to so we can taste through and compare notes about the wines that they and we have respectively made from our grapes. It's a great way for us to keep in contact with our customers and exchange ideas and notes about the previous harvest. We'll compare and contrast winemaking techniques, look ahead to the next growing season and talk about any adjustments or improvements we would like to collectively make.

Just as tending to the field ensures that we'll grow the best grapes we can, cultivating our relationships promotes communication and better opportunities for all that are involved. Over the last month or so, my brother Kevin and I have been rolling around the valley visiting and tasting with our grape customers, tasting through their wines and sharing ours.

It is always interesting to taste two wines, made by two different winemakers from the same grapes. There are generally themes in the wines, especially when we taste wines from particularly expressive sites. These themes are usually oriented around particular or unique flavors or aromas that we would associate with that site. The winemakers hand also plays a large role in the wine. Certain fermentation techniques will lend themselves to wines of varying tannin levels, for instance.

Our family has always gravitated towards the open-minded and easy-going in the industry, and these types of winemakers are usually the most enjoyable to spend time tasting with. It's the open sharing of ideas that promotes creative thinking and helps us to continually improve our skills as winemakers and winegrowers ...

Time Posted: Feb 27, 2009 at 6:41 AM Permalink to The Grapes Don't Fall Far From The Vine ... Permalink Comments for The Grapes Don't Fall Far From The Vine ... Comments (215)
Chris Corley
October 31, 2008 | Chris Corley

Presenting the 2008 Harvest Cellar Crew

Posted By : Chris Corley

As I mentioned in my last post, it's people that make the difference. There are many ways to measure success in any business. This also holds true in the business of wine and grapes. In our family business, we pay close attention to the quality of our wines, the health of our vineyards and our financial statements, as any responsible business owner would. We have another important guage that we pay very close attention to that may set us apart from other wineries. We also measure our success in our people - our extended family. Happy employees that stay with us for a long time are indeed a major satisfaction and an important metric for us to guage how we are conducting ourselves as managers of our company. For this post, as we are just on the tail end of harvest, I'm going to focus on the Cellar Crew. Future posts will be dedicated to our other teams.


""UNCLE"" BRIAN CRAWFORD ... Uncle Brian (my mom's brother) really has no title. Over the last 25 years at Monticello, Brian has done just about everything. He has run the frost in the winter, driven the tractor up and down every vineyard row on the property countless times, and literally supervised tens of thousands of tons of our grapes going through the receiving hopper. He built most of the inside of the winery including all of our catwalks and barrel racks. Brian has lived on the property at Monticello - a stone's throw from the winery for almost 25 years. Brian is known to everyone around Monticello as ""Uncle Brian"".

RODOLFO CUEVAS - ASSISTANT WINEMAKER ... Rodolfo has worked with Monticello for nearly 18 years. He started in the field, working with the grapes, and moved full time into the cellar about 14 years ago. Rodolfo and I have worked side by side for all of those 14 years. Rodolfo has diligently worked hard over the years, and has performed just about every task imaginable in our cellar. He is currently our assistant winemaker and is also responsible for running our botling line.

ISAC AVILA - CELLARMASTER ... Isac has been with Monticello for about 9 years. He manages the daily operations in the cellar, and tracks all the work tags. During harvest, Isac is our PressMaster and supervises all of the grapes that go through the press. This is an important step in the winemaking process, and we're very happy to have Isac monitoring the pressing of our fruit.

MARK SULLIVAN - ENOLOGIST ... Mark joined us as a harvest intern in 2006 and again in 2007. Leading into the 2008 harvest, we hired Mark on full time. Mark tends to all of the fermentation tracking during harvest and performs all of our in-house analysis and prepares our trials tastings. Mark has a degree in Organic Chemistry from UC Davis.

RAFAEL CORTEZ-PEREZ - CELLARMAN ... Rafael has worked with Monticello for about 13 years. Most of those years he worked the vineyards as our main tractor driver. He joined our cellar crew a few years ago and has been a great contribution to the cellar. Rafael works diligently at the task at hand. During bottling season, Rafael assists Rodolfo in running and supervising the bottling line.

FEDERICO GUITERREZ - CELLARMAN ... Federico has been with Monticello for about 3 years. Federico joined us with little experience but a desire to work hard and learn. He has blended in with the team and has proven to be a very productive and welcome member of our cellar staff.

HEATHER FOSTER - ADMINISTRATIVE ... Although Heather isn't out on the cellar floor, she's an important part of our Production Team. For the last 2 years, Heather has organized all of our winemaking and packaging compliance, and kept our winemaking records organized and accessible. Her efforts in keeping us organized have been an enormous help.

Here's to our Cellar Crew! On behalf of my family, I want to say Thank You. We appreciate all that you do, and sincerely hope that we'll spend many more vintages together. You've become part of our extended family ..."

Time Posted: Oct 31, 2008 at 5:51 AM Permalink to Presenting the 2008 Harvest Cellar Crew Permalink Comments for Presenting the 2008 Harvest Cellar Crew Comments (560)
Chris Corley
October 6, 2008 | Chris Corley

FERMENTATION CHECK - Cabernet Sauvignon

Posted By : Chris Corley

NOTE : We spend a lot of our time doing Fermentation Checks each day during harvest. As it relates to our blog, ‘FERMENTATION CHECK’ will be an opportunity for us to share our cellar activities with you in real time.


As of today, we’ve got 4 lots of Cabernet Sauvignon fermenting in the cellar. The Tietjen Vineyard is coming in this morning. As a whole, it has been a very interesting year for our Cabernet Vineyards. The grapes reached 24 brix in early September but the flavors weren’t there. This made me a little nervous, as we had some hot weather in early September. I was concerned that the weather would force our hand, and make us pick earlier than we would have liked. Fortunately, for us the weather cooled off and we we’ve been able to hang the fruit for another 5 weeks, allowing the flavors to fully develop and the tannins to ripen completely. As an additional bonus, the sugars haven’t climbed up that much over the last 5 weeks. There are some aspects of this year’s Cabernet Sauvignon growing season that remind me of 2005, which was a great vintage all around !

STATE LANE (YOUNTVILLE APPELLATION) – This year, we’ve got two separate tanks fermenting and a batch that we’re fermenting in small bins. I’m looking forward to tasting the bin fermented batch alongside the tank fermented batch. State Lane is our first vineyard to be certified organic. The ferments smell great at this early stage.

TIETJEN (RUTHERFORD APPELLATION) – The Tietjen Vineyard has looked great all year long. The fruit has developed nicely all season, and has been in great shape right up until today’s pick. The flavors are dark red berry fruits, the seeds are fully ripe and showing a nice dark brown color. I’m looking forward to fermenting about 2/3 of this vineyard in tank and 1/3 in small bins this year.

YEWELL (ST. HELENA APPELLATION) – We harvested the Yewell Vineyard about 4 days ago, and the ferment is just getting started. We’ve got nice color development and the flavors right now are deep red berry. So far, looking great !

Please tip a glass of one of our Vineyard Designates tonight and share a toast to the 2008 Harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon !

Time Posted: Oct 6, 2008 at 6:31 AM Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK - Cabernet Sauvignon Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK - Cabernet Sauvignon Comments (55)
Chris Corley
September 29, 2008 | Chris Corley

Red, Yellow and Green Lights

Posted By : Chris Corley

This has been a very interesting growing season. As an industry, we had one of the worst frost seasons in recent history, then a mild summer with some very intense heat spikes and then another cool spell through September. Aside from the damage and crop reduction caused by the frost throughout the valley, this year's crop is lighter than usual. We're seeing people scrambling for fruit, and its years like this that help remind us how fortunate we are to be growing most all of our own grapes (and also how fortunate we are to have a kick-ass sprinkler system and a guy named Angel to protect every last one of our grapes from the bitter cold).

Most growing seasons you don't have a map. You know where you want to go, but there's a lot of variables that prevent you from just charting your course in the spring. It would be like pulling out your map, except that they keep rebuilding the streets and putting up detours as you're driving so the map isn't really valid anymore after you start your trip. So we don't use a map. It's more like navigating with a globe, except you've got stoplights to monitor the traffic.

In the beginning of a growing season you can see where you are when you get started, and we know from experience where we want to be at the end. The variable is all the stuff that happens in the meantime. Most of the variable is the weather, but if you've got a solid starting point and destination, you'll know how to react to the variables when they strike. You must simultaneously be immersed in the minutiae and also grant yourself a necessary distance from the details to be able to see where you are. This is like navigating a globe but with stoplights.

Thomas Jefferson had a penchant for finding the highest point in any new place or city that he visited. It gave him a broader perspective of a new locale. He governed in much the same way, granting himself a 'necessary distance from the details' in order to maintain a broader perspective. This was effective for him because he had other people delegated to sweat the small stuff. We need to do both ourselves.

When growing grapes for wine, we need to be looking down the field, and to do that you need the highest perch you can find. Literally, that is sometimes standing on the roof of the winery or utilizing aerial photography. We also pay attention to the stoplights. A vine's stoplight system also kind of works on Red, Yellow and Green but in slightly different ways. When we sample our grapes, the taste and texture of the fruit override most all other factors. We also run numbers in the lab to establish metrics. Sometimes the fruit tastes great and the numbers look good, and one may be inclined to pick.

That's when we need to pull out our globe and check the stoplights. From our perch, we can see where we are on our journey and how the road looks ahead - will it be hot, dry, cold, rainy ? The color of the vines leaves are our stoplights and can indicate to us the ability of the vine to continue down the road. If the leaves of the canopy are very green and the road ahead looks mild - go (in this case 'go' means keep hanging the fruit). If the leaves are yellow, pay close attention - the vine may be shutting down. If the leaves are red, odds are the vine has a virus, and you'll want to stop and pay close attention to those vines.

Although we don't get tickets in the field when we run lights, you'll know whether we were paying attention while we were driving each growing season. In light of recent legislature in California, we'll be assessing after this year if we need to institute a policy of not using a cell phone while we're in the field ...

Time Posted: Sep 29, 2008 at 11:01 PM Permalink to Red, Yellow and Green Lights Permalink Comments for Red, Yellow and Green Lights Comments (159)
Chris Corley
September 26, 2008 | Chris Corley

If You Love Something, Set it Free ...

Posted By : Chris Corley

Tomorrow, we''ll be celebrating our annual Harvest Party. This party is always a great time, and an opportunity for us to gather with many of our friends and enthusiasts. The event also doubles each year as the release and first tasting of our 'Big Reds'.

This year, we're releasing our 2005 CORLEY RESERVE Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 CORLEY State Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2005 MONTICELLO Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm very excited about this vintage and particularly these wines. All three of these wines are produced in small quantities and represent the ripe, rich fruit and balanced tannins that we find so attractive about each vineyard site.

These 2005 vintage Cabernets were all bottled in June 2007. With 15 months aging in the bottle prior to release, we are excited to set these wines free! The tannins have evolved beautifully and the fruit is very expressive at this time. I anticipate that these wines will age gracefully for the next 9-10 years, perhaps longer. All three of these Cabernet bottlings will reward proper decanting, even in their youth. Tomorrow, we'll plan to decant the wines an hour or so prior to serving them to our guests.

It's always a pleasure to release our wines and pour them for our guests. You can think of the pleasure you might get from organizing and preparing a special meal at your home for friends or family. There is a deep satisfaction in taking the time to select the ingredients, prepare the food and select appropriate wines to make the meal memorable and enjoyable. This is the same feeling we have each year at our harvest party. Although we won't be preparing the dinner ourselves tomorrow night, we have spent years growing, making and aging the wines we will be serving - and we are extremely proud to be sharing them ...

Time Posted: Sep 26, 2008 at 11:50 PM Permalink to If You Love Something, Set it Free ... Permalink Comments for If You Love Something, Set it Free ... Comments (2049)
Chris Corley
September 23, 2008 | Chris Corley

FERMENTATION CHECK : Knollwood Vineyard Merlot - Clone 181 - Godzilla Block

Posted By : Chris Corley

NOTE : We spend a lot of our time doing Fermentation Checks each day during harvest. As it relates to our blog, ‘FERMENTATION CHECK’ will be an opportunity for us to share our cellar activities with you in real time.


Yesterday we harvested our Knollwood Vineyard Merlot that will be the Merlot designated for our CORLEY Proprietary Red Wine. The falvors are rich and ripe, the seeds were a nice dark brown and the skins soft and velvety to the touch, with very little crunch when you pop a berry in your mouth. All of these are signals that we're ready to pick.

We carefully sorted through all of the fruit on the crush pad as it went over our conveyor. In the end we sorted out a little over 1.5% of the fruit brought in from the field. This may not sound like much, but even this level will impact the eventual quality of the wine. Keep in mind from an earlier post that we blend down to increments of 2%, so this is a level that we strive for all the way back to raw product in the field. The low percentage is also a tribute to clean farming (the less we pull out is a sign of a healthy growing season and a cleaner pick).

I like to let the must soak in the fermentation vessel overnight and then run analysis and taste the juice the following morning. When we tasted the juice this morning, I was struck by a very distinctive spice flavor which threaded its way through the fruit. It was almost cinnamon in characteristic, very unique and quite compelling.

2008 is shaping up to be a very good vintage, and I think this is a year that patience will be rewarded. We pitched the yeast into the Merlot this afternoon to get the ferment started, and I'm already getting excited about the Cabernet Franc lots - still hanging on the vine - which we'll be blending with this wine to make the eventual 2008 CORLEY Proprietary Red Wine.

Tomorrow, we're picking our first batch of Syrah for the season. I can't wait to get my hands on those grapes - they're tasting great ! I'll keep you posted ...

Time Posted: Sep 23, 2008 at 8:23 PM Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK : Knollwood Vineyard Merlot - Clone 181 - Godzilla Block Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK : Knollwood Vineyard Merlot - Clone 181 - Godzilla Block Comments (91)
Chris Corley
September 18, 2008 | Chris Corley

FERMENTATION CHECK : The Natives are Getting Restless

Posted By : Chris Corley

NOTE : We spend a lot of our time doing Fermentation Checks each day during harvest. As it relates to our blog, ‘FERMENTATION CHECK’ will be an opportunity for us to share our cellar activities with you in real time.


- See more at:

One of the ironies of growing grapes and making wine is that while we control so many minute details of the process from budbreak to bottle, we are still dependent on natural occurences that are largely out of our realm of control. For example, we can farm our vineyards with meticulous care each season, yet a few ill-timed heat spikes and a drizzle could dictate whether or not all that hard work will result in an excellent vintage or not. Sometimes we choose to use these natural occurences to our benefit, understanding that the risk that we take may lead us to an even tastier or better wine. This is another layer of irony, in the sense that one of our conscious winemaking decisions is to leave it entirely up to nature.

This is the case with Wild (or Native) Yeast fermentations, which we will be utilizing this year with some of our select Chardonnay lots. Essentially, after a whole growing season of carefully cultivating our vines, individually selecting the vines for each lot, and carefully sorting through the fruit on the crush pad after the pick - we pump the pressed juice into our barrels and then cross our fingers ... literally.

Most of the time its several days until the native yeasts begin to ferment. I must say it is somewhat comforting (and humbling) to me that even with all of our investment in equipment and winemaking experimentation over the last 28 years, that the quality of our product is still inherently tied to a single-celled organism - that spends its summers in our vineyard and winters in the cellar.

The Native Yeasts are begininning to get restless this year ! The Chardonnay lots we pumped to barrel 4-5 days ago are now singing that beautiful refrain of fermentation, and the sweet smells of tropical fruit are filling the headspaces of the barrels. Native Yeast fermentations are typically slower and longer than inoculated ferments, and we think are usually conducted by several strains over the course of the fermentation. They usually lead to more complexity in the finished wine and a slightly higher anxiety level in the winemaker as they struggle to get started.

We've utilized Wild Yeast fermentations in select lots of our Chardonnays and some vintages of Pinot Noir all the way back to the mid 1990s, and bottled our first 100% Wild Yeast Chardonnay in 1994. It was a beautiful wine. Over the years, the percentages of Wild Yeast fermentations that we've employed with our Chardonnay has varied, largely dependent on vintage, condition of fruit, and the winemaker's state of mind. This year, we may play around with some Wild Yeast fermentations in some of our other varietals, possibly Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

All that being said, it's comforting to me that I'm not the only one this time of year that's getting restless !

Time Posted: Sep 18, 2008 at 11:07 PM Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK : The Natives are Getting Restless Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK : The Natives are Getting Restless Comments (1068)
Chris Corley
September 11, 2008 | Chris Corley

FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 1 Chardonnay - Heirloom Clone

Posted By : Chris Corley

NOTE : We spend a lot of our time doing Fermentation Checks each day during harvest. As it relates to our blog, ‘FERMENTATION CHECK’ will be an opportunity for us to share our cellar activities with you in real time.


We picked our Heirloom Clone Chardonnay yesterday out of Block 1.  Some of you will remember these special grapes all the way back to 2000 when we bottled the first CORLEY Heirloom Clone Chardonnay. The grapes have a very unique flavor profile, almost muscat-like, which is very appealing and easily identifiable in the field as you pluck the fruit off the vines. The resulting wines are strong in tropical fruit characteristics like mango and papaya, and the grapes retain a vibrant acidity which keeps the ripeness in balance, and the texture of the wine fresh and compelling.

This year, as we did in 2007, we flagged each individual Heirloom Clone vine in the block as there some interplanted vines of another clone in this block. By flagging the individual vines for this lot, we maximize the opportunity to capture this special characteristic in the wine. We picked about 3.5 tons which will give us 9-10 barrels of wine. The juice will be pumped to barrels tomorrow (Friday) and will be fermented with wild yeasts and serenaded with Mexican opera throughout the fermentation (we've got a few crooners in the cellar !).

I'm very excited about the juice this year. It has a nice pale straw color and beautiful beam of acidity which will assert itself even more after the sugars are fermented through. The flavors are ripe and tropical ... I'm looking for commercial-size cocktail umbrellas to put in the barrels during the fermentation. If you see the cellar crew in hula skirts this year, no doubt it's the Heirloom Clone that's the culprit !

I'm anticipating that this wine will be a foundation lot for our 2008 Corley Reserve Chardonnay, so we'll be allocating about 60% new French oak barrels to this wine. The decision to put the wine through malolactic will be made pending the tasting after the primary fermentation is completed. We'll keep this fermentation running at about 55-60F, and I'll be tasting it as often as I can throughout with the excellent excuse that it's my job to !

Time Posted: Sep 11, 2008 at 9:36 PM Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 1 Chardonnay - Heirloom Clone Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 1 Chardonnay - Heirloom Clone Comments (10)
Chris Corley
September 7, 2008 | Chris Corley

FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 3 Pinot Noir - Dijon Clones

Posted By : Chris Corley

NOTE : We spend a lot of our time doing Fermentation Checks each day during harvest. As it relates to our blog, ‘FERMENTATION CHECK’ will be an opportunity for us to share our cellar activities with you in real time.


With yesterday’s pick of Block 3, we’ve just finished all of our Pinot Noir for the season. This year, Block 3 was a three day pick. Block 3 has four different Dijon Clones planted in basically equal amounts. The clones are 113, 115, 667 & 777. While we do find nuances of flavor and aroma each year in the finished wines, the vines in the field grow mostly in sync. By this, I mean that all four clones tend towards the same growing schedule – budbreak, veraison, ripening patterns, harvest.

This year, we isolated a couple of selected tons of each clone to be individually fermented and aged in barrel separately. These free run, individually barrel aged clonal selections will be the materials for our CORLEY Pinot Noir. The balance of the clones will be co-fermented and will form the base of our MONTICELLO Pinot Noir. Individually fermenting the clone doesn’t make the resulting wine ‘better’. It simply provides us with more nuanced blending options further down the road. For our CORLEY Pinot Noir, which may be just a couple of hundred cases, these options are nice to have – and also fun to play around on the blending table with.

The Block 3 Pinot Noir lots have just been inoculated, they have picked up nice color during their cold soaks. We’re planning to keep the fermentations fairly cool – between 75F-80F – to maintain as much aroma and flavor as we can without extracting too much tannin, which Pinot Noir can have considerable amounts of in the seeds. The sugars jumped a bit due to the heat spike we’ve had this past week, but the flavors are rockin’, the seeds are all brown and the skins like velvet, so we’re pretty excited about the potential.

I think we’ll have a bottle of MONTICELLO Estate Grown Pinot Noir with dinner tonight to keep my palate calibrated for this season and (hopefully) celebrate today’s 49ers opening day victory !

Time Posted: Sep 7, 2008 at 7:24 PM Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 3 Pinot Noir - Dijon Clones Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 3 Pinot Noir - Dijon Clones Comments (63)
Chris Corley
September 6, 2008 | Chris Corley


Posted By : Chris Corley

This past Monday our two children, Jackson (4) and Ruby (3), started the schoolyear. Jack was happy to be back for his second year and see his teacher and friends again. Ruby was excited for her first year, because now she's a 'big girl' and can go to school with Jackson. After we dropped them off, I got to thinking about what a beautiful time of year this is, for different reasons than I have in the past.

I've basically lived my whole life in Napa Valley, and this time of year has always represented the frenetic culmination of the growing season. The sticky bins of grapes and invigorating sensation of thrusting your arms into a tub of fermenting red grapes, the yelps from the field as the pickers banter in fieldsong, the somewhat appealing aromatic blend of diesel fumes and dirt as the tractors crawl through the field.

For my whole life, these sensations have signalled to me the end of a season. As each block of fruit gets harvested, that block begins to slowly yellow, the leaves will eventually fall off, and the vine will fall into a dormant slumber awaiting its budbreak the following spring. Harvest is the end of red carpet for that block for the year. All the attention and tending-to and primping the vines have enjoyed will be largely over until the crew returns in the spring to manicure the canes.

When we dropped Jackson and Ruby off, I realized that for them - this time of year is an exciting new beginning. It is the inspiring trailhead of a great new adventure with their teachers and friends. They will learn new lessons, make new friends, make mistakes and learn from them, have successes and revel in them.

The smiles on their faces and the excitement in their voices this whole past week could nourish me for a lifetime. My children have taught me that this time of year is also a beginning not just a finale. The smell of diesel, dirt and grapes has never been so sweet ...

Time Posted: Sep 6, 2008 at 5:54 PM Permalink to Seasons Permalink Comments for Seasons Comments (122)
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