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Corley Family Napa Valley

Chris Corley
November 18, 2008 | Chris Corley

BARREL TASTING - 2008 Chardonnay

"Posted By : Chris Corley

BARREL TASTING : Tasting through the new vintage in barrel is always a treat. The wines are typically bursting with juicy fruit and have a youthful vibrancy that is, more often than not, replaced by deeper layers of complexity by the time the wine is bottled, perhaps 1-2 years down the road, depending on the varietal. Tasting wines just after harvest is a great portal into that raw and exuberant youth of the wine ...

BLOCK 1, HEIRLOOM CLONE, ROWS 1-23 : The Heirloom Clone in Block 1 is an isolation of selected vines out of Block 4. These wines from these plants have a very distinctive melon and tropical fruit characteristic that is almost Muscat-like in its personality. In 2008, these aromas are very intense with papaya, mango, and other tropical fruits. The texture of the wine is ripe and rich yet maintains a very nice balance of vibrant acidity. Barrel-Fermented with Native Yeasts. 50% New Oak.

BLOCK 1, 'DIJON' CLONE 96, ROWS 24-28 : These rows are short, so this section has typically produced just a small amount of barrels. Although its not a large quantitative contributor to the blends, I've always enjoyed the purity of the fruit from this section. In 2008, the wine has a nice honey and floral aspect to the aromas and very well balanced richness and acidity. Barrel-Fermented with Isolated Yeast Strain D254. 0% New Oak. Malo-Lactic Lot.

BLOCK 4, OLD MONTICELLO CLONE, ROWS 21-27 : We isolated these rows this year to experiment a bit with pre-fermentation skin contact. These grapes were crushed together with their skins and cold-soaked like red grapes for 30 hours prior to pressing. This is a bit of a return to an old-school style of California Chardonnay, skin contact for whites being popular when our dad built the winery in 1981. My initial observations are that the aromas are intensified and the wine has a heavier weight in the mouthfeel. I like it so far, and am inclined to pursue this line a little further next vintage. Barrel-Fermented with Isolated Yeast Strain CY3079. 0% New Oak.

BLOCK 4, OLD MONTICELLO CLONE, ROWS 28-46 : This section has consistently produced crisp, vibrant wines with hints of pear and citrus that have contributed structure and vibrancy to our MONTICELLO ESTATE Chardonnays. This year, these flavors are very intense. The mouthfeel has a slight grip on the finish, but this will pass after a few months of lees stirring. Barrel-Fermented with Isolated Yeast Strain CY3079. 35% New Oak.

BLOCK 4, 'DIJON' CLONE 96, ROWS 47-55 : This section has been a favorite of ours for many years, and typically contributes to the CORLEY RESERVE Chardonnay. This year it is showing it's classic fruit qualities - fig, pear along with some beautiful early oak influence from the new barrels in the lot. Very well balanced with vibrant acidity, this wine should develop very nicely. Barrel-Fermented with Native Yeasts. 21% New Oak.

BLOCK 6, 'DIJON' CLONES 76/95/96, ROWS 15-85 : This is a fairly large section of fruit. It is a core contributor, like Block 4, to our MONTICELLO ESTATE Chardonnay. These sub-sections of different clones are co-fermented and provide a nice complexity to the finished wine. It is a field blend in some senses. The 2008 wine from this block is very expressive, showing banana, fig, and pear aromas. The wine is very well balanced ans will maintain a nice acidity. We won't pursue malo-lactic fermentation with this lot in order to favor the expression of its fruit. Stainless Steel Tank-Fermented with Isolated Yeast Strain CY3079."

Time Posted: Nov 18, 2008 at 12:32 AM Permalink to BARREL TASTING - 2008 Chardonnay Permalink Comments for BARREL TASTING - 2008 Chardonnay Comments (73)
Chris Corley
November 5, 2008 | Chris Corley


Posted By : Chris Corley

Anticipation is defined by Merriam-Webster as the "act of looking forward; a pleasurable expectation". Anticipation is an important aspect of our lives. We all have moments of anticipation. These moments excite us and send thrills down our spines. They make us feel alive. For me, anticipation is the thrilling blend of love and excitement that I felt standing at the altar in my clan kilt, watching my future wife walk up the aisle. For me, anticipation is the exhiliration of joy and nervousness as you await the birth of your children, holding tightly your wife's hand and sharing tears of happiness and disbelief of this magical journey of life and this beautiful little person that you're about to meet for the first time. Anticipation can be intoxicating, and always enhances the following act.

Growing grapes and making wine is full of anticipation. We get very excited at certain times of the year. Pruning in January and February inevitably leads to all sorts of wonderment of how the growing season will shape up. As the vines flower, and the berries are pollinated and develop throughout the season, we are constantly abuzz thinking about how the vintage will turn out. When the grapes are harvested, the bins are not just full of sticky grapes - they're filled with hope and future memories and celebratory occasions. When I taste wines from the barrel, which I do nearly every day, I'm not tasting today's wine. I'm tasting tomorrow's wine. I'm reveling not just in the wine as it comes out of the barrel, but also in its beauty that will be realized in time, perhaps years away.

Anticipation is what makes it exciting to hold on to a bottle for 10 years and then open it on a special occasion. Anticipation makes the wine taste just that much better ...

Time Posted: Nov 5, 2008 at 12:32 AM Permalink to Anticipation Permalink Comments for Anticipation Comments (214)
Chris Corley
September 20, 2008 | Chris Corley

Sharps and Flats

I was tasting through some 2007 lots recently working on a blend, and it reminded me of my piano. Specifically the black keys. When we're putting together blends, we eventually work our way down to 2% increments. The interesting thing you observe after doing this enough times is that blending is not a linear art. A component may taste good at 4%, better at 6%, but out of sync at 8%. You don't want to stop there ! My inclination is to push it to 10% or 12% to make sure we didn't just hit a sharp or flat.

Just like my piano, there are scales that work and musical reasons that certain notes work well with others. I would guess that the majority of people can identify an off-note the instant they hear it, independent of their culture or preferred style of music. Perhaps the ear develops culturally in similar ways to the palate. Certain combinations of notes and scales that may sound ethereal to one culture may be grating to the ears of a listener from the other side of the globe. Sometimes an appreciation of another culture's music takes a little effort, and by understanding its history and instrumentation, you can better appreciate that culture's music. Replace the word 'music' with the word 'wine' in that last sentence and you can see what I mean.

Unlike my piano, with wines the scales are not pre-determined. You need to find them, at times coerce and entice them out of the barrel each time you put a blend together. While there are no pre-determined scales with wine, the concept of sharps and flats is real. Theoretically, sharps and flats shouldn't always sound good. A-flat doesn't sound so good played with just a D. But when you slip it into a D-major groove as a grace note, you're ready to shake your booty. I don't know why, it just sounds good. Sometimes its the same thing with blending wine. This is yet another reason wine will amaze and intrigue man until the end of time. As will music.

There's a lot of overused metaphors for wine, and I don't mean to add to it - but I will. For me, blending wine can be a lot like writing a song on my piano. You start from scratch with a simple groove and a riff in your head. You need to get from that riff to the song in your head, and in order to that you need to let your mind drift a little. You need to get into the ether a little bit so you can feel what you're doing from a distance. Wines have rhythms, blues notes, scales, sharps and flats just like a groovy tune - you just need to let loose and let them come to you ...

Time Posted: Sep 20, 2008 at 10:41 PM Permalink to Sharps and Flats Permalink Comments for Sharps and Flats Comments (11)
Chris Corley
August 27, 2008 | Chris Corley

The Chemistry of Pleasure

My olfactories are reveling in an aromatic cacophony of diacetyl and pentyl pentanoate, with hints of eugenol and vanillin swirling within the glass. On the palate, the ethanol is well-balanced against the tartaric acid while the phenols are providing the perfect frame for the sweet glycerol finish ...

Blah ... I'm glad I've never actually heard anyone talking like that about a glass of wine.

While all of those terms may be meaningful at times to a winemaker or enologist throughout the winemaking process, they really have no place when describing a wine's soul. I spend a lot of time with wines at all stages and after a while you develop relationships with them in the same way you do with people. Like people, wines in development can perplex and frustrate you, yet they can also provide immense pleasure, both intellectually and physically.

I've talked with people who have been reluctant to discourse about the wine we were enjoying because they didn't have a good grasp of the wine lingo. My response is always 'So What' and here's three reasons why ...

1) You know what you like and what you don't like.
2) Your opinion of what you like and what you don't like is equally as valid as anyone else's. Anyones!
3) An inability to describe the experience doesn't lessen the pleasure of the experience one iota.

(Mark, our enologist at Monticello, is working diligently in the lab on quantifying iotas)

You can be fully engaged in another person without being a psychologist or a biochemist, that is to say - without understanding how every one of their molecules is vibrating or synapses is firing. It's the same with wine. A person's inability to accurately or scientifically describe their experience doesn't lessen the pleasure of the experience itself. People inherently know what they like and what they don't like. It's got to be one of our most basic instincts.

I imagine that tastes and preferences are somehow 'built in'. There must be some reason that whole populations of people drink Retsina and Pinotage while other groups won't stray from Merlot and White Zinfandel.

Tastes and preferences can be learned and developed as well. My palate has broadened over the years and hopefully I'll continue to explore and broaden my horizons for as long as I live. There are times I come across intriguing and compelling textures and aromas which are new to me. For me, these are opportunities to learn. I like to write down my tasting notes when I can, so I'll scribble down my thoughts and keep that experience stuck in my head - like a song that won't go away -  so I can try to learn about it. If it's something pleasurable, I want to know where that aroma/flavor/texture came from so I can pursue it again. If it's something undesirable, I still want to know where it came from so I can avoid it in future wines. This is how we push forward our skills as winemakers.

All that being said, the two most important words to remember about wine are summed up in a neat little book called 'Still Life With Woodpecker' written by Tom Robbins.

Yum or Yuk ...

The rest of the discussion is secondary.


Time Posted: Aug 27, 2008 at 11:36 PM Permalink to The Chemistry of Pleasure Permalink Comments for The Chemistry of Pleasure Comments (2406)
Chris Corley
August 23, 2008 | Chris Corley

Sprints and Marathons

Making wine is a craft that blends art and science, it's a melange of imagination and numbers. There are decisions that at times need to be made rather quickly -  like whether or not a tank is ready to press off the skins or whether you should pick a certain batch of grapes that morning because it may (or may not) rain later in the day. There are other decisions that can be made over much longer periods of time, sometimes years, such as determining the proper clonal selection for your vineyard, or assessing which barrels are just the right match for each of your vineyard blocks.

I can think of two people who each are a great example of these traits.


One is a family friend, who we had dinner with at Monticello last night. His name is Bill Patterson and he is a very talented artist in addition to being an all-around great guy. Bill specializes in very vibrant paintings that depict high energy racing scenes. You can check out his works at On Thursday night, Bill performed a live-painting at our next-door neighbor, Andretti Winery, in which he created a piece of art from scratch live. The finished painting was fantastic. You feel as though the car is going to burst right off the canvas and run you over! Bill mentioned to me last night that he enjoys doing these live paintings, because he can paint fast and without thinking. It must be an exhilirating creative release for him.

Sometimes winemaking decisions work like this as well. Many times, I taste a blend and I just know its 'the one'.  There may be no logical reason the blend should work, but it does. Sometimes blending wine requires lousy math.  1+1 can equal 3 when it comes to blending wine, and you've just got to believe in it. When you taste grapes in the field and proclaim that the wine is going to taste great, what you're really doing is working from your instincts. There's an enormous amount of variables between getting the fruit off the vine and getting the wine into the marketplace 3-4 years later. Instincts are more valuable than formulas in the field and on the crush pad. They're also more exhilirating.


Although I've never met the man, I've been intrigued by a fellow named Dean Karnazes lately. He's a talented dude, but what amazes me is his ability to run - very long distances - like hundreds of miles at a time. He recently ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. His time in the NY marathon on the 50th day was something like 3 hours! I know you don't believe me ... check out his website What does a long distance runner have to do with making wine?

In winemaking, we need to run marathons as well as sprints. As effective and exhilirating as sprint instincts may be during a blind blending, we need to have a long term marathon outlook as to what we're doing. Once we have that creative surge on the crush pad or in the field that captures an essence of the fruit, we need to step back and make sure that we're still focused on the finish line, which like a marathon may still be much farther down the road. It may be several years before that incredible blend is released. It may take many years before a new planting is complex enough to garner its own designated bottling. While there may be many instinctive sprints in the meantime, we always need to be sure that they don't distract us from completing the marathon ...

Time Posted: Aug 23, 2008 at 5:10 PM Permalink to Sprints and Marathons Permalink Comments for Sprints and Marathons Comments (127)
Chris Corley
August 17, 2008 | Chris Corley

A Question from Ed Buckingham : 1997, 1998, 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon

"I have a few bottles of your 1997 Corley Reserve Cab, and 1998 and 1999 Jefferson Cuvee. How long is too long to cellar these? I opened a 1998 the other night. Pretty darn good!

 Ed Buckingham - Austin, TX

Thanks for the question Ed, and also the nice comments on the 1998 Jefferson Cuvee. You've touched on one of the most pleasurable aspects of enjoying finished wines - assessing ageability !

1997-1999 were all good years, although there are distinct differences across the years. I'll talk a little about each vintage, specifically as it relates to our Cabernet Sauvignon.

1997 was a very memorable vintage for us, and for most everyone in Napa, as the quality was superb and we had a large crop. I can recall that at one point during the thick of harvest, we were basically out of tanks to put grapes into! The grapes ripened very evenly and the combination of ripe luscious fruit and rich but not aggressive tannins made this vintage one of the favorites of the 90s. The 1997 Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is drinking great right now, especially with an hour or so in the decanter, and I think this wine will be drinking nicely for another 7-8 years.

1998 was a smaller crop than the year before, as was expected after such a big year in 1997. The Cabs from 1998 showed very nice fruit early on, although the tannins were softer than in either 1997 or 1999. For me, the 1998 Jefferson has always been a slightly softer style than either 97 or 99. I would anticipate that the 1998 Jefferson Cuvee should drink well for another 2-3 years.

1999 was another excellent vintage, with a long moderate growing season. The wines were dark and intense, and I remember the tannins being pretty firm early on with the 99s. After about 7 years in the bottle, the 1999 Jeff Cab is tasting great, and I think this wine should be drinking nicely for another 4-5 years.

I recommend decanting all of these wines for 30-60 minutes prior to enjoying. You'll likely get a feel for your 'sweet spot' by stealing a few sips at regular intervals ...

Time Posted: Aug 17, 2008 at 8:43 PM Permalink to A Question from Ed Buckingham : 1997, 1998, 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Permalink Comments for A Question from Ed Buckingham : 1997, 1998, 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Comments (123)
Chris Corley
July 28, 2008 | Chris Corley

"That which we call a rose..."

Posted By : Chris Corley

Juliet :

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet

As a refreshing finish to a warm day or midsummers night, I've been enjoying our 2007 Rose with some frequency over the last couple of months. Clearly I have a natural bias, but I really like it. It's got a nice light pink color, vibrant acidity, and a long fruity finish.

In the past, our Rose has always been varietal specific - for instance ""Rose of Pinot Noir"" and ""Rose of Syrah"". In 2007, I did 'saignee' on a fair amount of our red fermentations. No, saignee is not a form of voodoo, although I have been known to use a little mojo in certain vintages. Saignee is a french term for bleeding juice from the fermentation almost immediately after crushing the red grapes. The juice that is bled from the tank is generally clear to light pink, as it is removed from the tank before it has a chance to extract much, if any, color from the skins. This pink juice is then treated much like a white wine, fermented at cool temperatures and protected from the air.

In 2007, we had several varietals of rose which we had produced by saignee, which all tasted great individually - Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah. Not really inclined to bottle four separate Roses for the vintage, I started playing around with blends, and ultimately arrived at the current bottling, which includes all four varietals and even a splash of Chardonnay, which added a very nice textural component with its naturally high acidity.

Clearly, we couldn't call this wine ""Rose of ..."", so we casually kicked around a few ideas. One name that sticks with me is ""Rose de Sangre Fresca"" because its fun to say and translates (in a somewhat macabre way) into ""Rose of Fresh Blood"", tying into the winemaking technique. Ultimately, we decided to simply identify the wine as ""Rose"". It's elegant if you ponder the word a bit and let it linger ...

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

Time Posted: Jul 28, 2008 at 3:30 AM Permalink to Permalink Comments for Comments (850)
Chris Corley
June 18, 2008 | Chris Corley

Get Lost !

I taste wine nearly every day. My typical regime is to have our lab tech, Mark, pull and prepare the samples in the morning and I'll taste through various wines each morning between about 10:00-12:00. In terms of winemaking, it is one of my most cherished rituals and pleasurable responsibilities.

It's not unusual for me to get lost in glasses of wine during these tastings. It's that moment when you close your eyes, the world goes silent and you take in the full experience of the wine as a canvas drenched in vibrant colors and musical notes raining down from the heavens. It's that moment when the wine sings to you in a voice so beautiful that the lyrics don't matter. It's that moment when a wine is a field of wildflowers, or a dusty box of fresh cherries, or a sweet fragrant kiss from your true love.

I love getting lost in wines. It's the indescribable thrill and ultimately the reason we work so hard in the field and cellar to craft the wines we do. It's the climax.

While allowing yourself the luxury of getting lost in a wine is perhaps the purest route to enjoyment, it doesn't ultimately lend itself to responsible cellar management. As a counterbalance, I also keep extremely detailed tasting notes and rankings of all my tastings - lot by lot - and diligently have these entered into the computer for future reference, both long and short term. In my humble opinion, a winemaker must simultaneously be his own most enthusiastic supporter and also his own bluntest critic. The former trait will encourage and compel him to try new paths in seeking his ideal wine - the latter trait will keep him true to his vision and let him know when he's drifted down the wrong path.

And so my tastings go each morning, oscillating back and forward from beautiful lost wanderings in glasses of wine as vast as seas and skies to scribbling down its essence in a handful of sentences when I open my eyes again.

What a beautiful journey ...

Time Posted: Jun 18, 2008 at 3:39 AM Permalink to Get Lost ! Permalink Comments for Get Lost ! Comments (199)
Chris Corley
May 7, 2008 | Chris Corley


I love tasting young Syrah out of the barrel! It's such an expressive grape in its youth, just exploding with spicy, peppery, deep dark berry fruit and sweet juicy tannins.

We've got 2 different clones of Syrah planted - Clones 470 and 174. Over the years, I've gone back and forth on my preferences between the two, spending equal time favoring each and have come to the conclusion that, at least for us, the Syrah clones are like your kids - you enjoy their individual traits, but don't really pick a favorite.

The 2007 vintage of Syrah is fantastic, with some barrel lots showing intensely dark, almost electric color and beautifully rich textures framed by moderate tannins which give the wine just the appropriate grip on the finish at this young age. I'm very excited to see how this vintage of Syrah develops over the next 12 months ...

This past weekend marked the release of our 2006 Monticello Syrah, which is tasting great as well. With each passing vintage, we grow increasingly excited about this varieatl and its flexibility in the cellar, both as a stand alone wine and also as blending wine ...

Time Posted: May 7, 2008 at 3:01 AM Permalink to BARREL TASTING - 2007 Syrah Permalink Comments for BARREL TASTING - 2007 Syrah Comments (17)
Chris Corley
April 12, 2008 | Chris Corley

BARREL TASTING - 2007 Pinot Noir

Continuing our tastings through all of the 2007 lots in barrel, we recently tasted through our Pinot Noir.  We have two blocks of Pinot Noir planted with 4 individual 'Dijon' clones - 113, 115, 667 & 777. Clones are an additional level of distinction within a varietal family of grapes.

Over the years we've found enjoyable differences in aromas, flavors and the texture of the wines made from these different clones. We've broken out our Pinot Noir into as many as 13 different lots in the past in order to isolate the different flavors and aromas of each clone and section in the vineyard. in 2007, we made 8 different lots that have been belnded down to 6 at this stage.

All of the Pinot Noir from 2007 is showing very nicely at this stage - the wines have medium intensity tannins, nice berry and spice aromatics, and long finishes.

Some highlights from the recent tasting of each clone :

Clone 113 - Spicy aromatics, lighter tannins relative to the others. Nice redberry flavors and a little smokiness on the finish.

Clone 115 - Dark berry aromatics, dark cherries, blueberries. Medium to full tannins. Nice long finish with smoky sweet tannins on the end.

Clone 667 - Spicy and floral, showing cola, redberry and some ginger notes. Medium weight with sweet tannins on the finish.

Clone 777 - Cherry and strawberry aromas which follow through on the palate. Medium to full weight. Tannins are a little more firm than other lots but finishes long.

Typically, we don't distinguish our bottlings by clone on the label, but have toyed with the idea of doing a specialty bottling of individual clones in very small amounts.

Thoughts ?

Time Posted: Apr 12, 2008 at 5:52 AM Permalink to BARREL TASTING - 2007 Pinot Noir Permalink Comments for BARREL TASTING - 2007 Pinot Noir Comments (110)
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