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Corley Family Napa Valley

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
Chris Corley
October 27, 2008 | Chris Corley

Swan Song in a Field of Geese

On Friday, we brought in our last batch of grapes for the vintage. It's a nice feeling to have all the fruit in for the year. It's been somewhat of a challenging growing season, but with patience and attention to the details we've worked through each challenge, and are extremely happy with the preliminary tastes of the vintage. The reds are concentrated and showing nice fruit and tannin balance. Our Chardonnay lots are showing excellent aromatic complexity and even some nice oak integration, as the barrel fermented lots have now been in barrel nearly a month and a half.

Every year, we tend to the vines and grow the grapes as carefully as we can, all the while showing our respects to Mother Nature. In the cellar, we hover over the tanks and bins, and tend to the barrels with care. However, with each year that goes by, I find more and more aspects of our lives on Big Ranch Road that I take deep satisfaction, pride and pleasure in.

A week or so ago, I was standing on the crush pad, enjoying an extremely rare moment to simply observe the pad as a whole. As I was watching everyone working diligently at their tasks at hand - unloading the bin trailers, weighing fruit, preparing the sorting table, cleaning the press, etc. - I was once again reminded about the single most important aspect of growing and making great wine. People. You've got to have people who care about what they do. Otherwise, that shiny piece of stainless steel equipment that you just bought is just an expensive accessory - pretty but kind of useless. People make good things happen, and it's people that can coerce the magic out of a pile of sticky grapes. People are what counts.

We've got a gaggle of geese that spend their autumns in our fallow fields. They like to rummage around in the freshly spread pomace in the mornings and evenings. The sight of them flying through the sunset sky is one of my most memorable visions of harvest. The sound of them flying over my head on the pitch black crush pad before the sun comes up one of my most memorable sounds.

Geese work together. They fly in a formation to help everyone cut through the wind. When one bird gets tired, they switch around and the rested bird takes the lead for a while. A good winemaking team functions much the same way. We help each other and as a team, our individual skills and shortcomings are balanced by one another.

As I was watching the geese recently, it struck me that an upcoming post should be dedicated to our team. So our next post will be dedicated to the 2008 Monticello Harvest Cellar Crew ...

Time Posted: Oct 27, 2008 at 10:02 PM
Chris Corley
October 10, 2008 | Chris Corley

Keeping Yeast in Suspense

We're fermenting some of our Chardonnay lots with Wild Yeast this year. These native fermentations typically are slower, longer and a little more nerve-racking for the winemaker than fermentations which are conducted with isolated commercial yeast strains.

Our Block 1 Heirloom Clone Chardonnay is nearing the end of its fermentation, so our lab dude Mark is regularly checking each individual barrel to confirm its status. Some of the barrels still have a little more sugar to be fermented, and the lots are cooling down.

As the fermentation tails off, less CO2 gas is produced so the yeast start to slowly sink to the bottom of the barrel. It's important for us to keep the yeast floating in the juice. If all the yeast is at the bottom of the barrel, they can't very easily ferment the juice that is near the top of the barrel!

Over the years, we've tried all manner of techniques to keep the yeast in suspense - from playing Alfred Hitchcock theme music in the cellar at night to starting jokes in the barrel room and then not giving up the punchline. In the end, we figured out that the best way is simply to stir the barrels.

Usually the Wild Yeast has the last laugh as it keeps us in suspense right up until the end. While we are excited about the excellent aromatic complexity and killer flavors up to this point - until the wine is completely dry and settled down after harvest, we won't know what we've got ...

Time Posted: Oct 10, 2008 at 4:53 PM
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
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
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
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
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
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
Chris Corley
September 15, 2008 | Chris Corley

A Question from Leslie Burma : 1999 Corley Reserve Pinot Noir

"What was so special about 1999 that you created a 1999 CORLEY RESERVE Pinot Noir (totally awesome btw). You had a CORLEY Pinot Noir in 2006, but not a CORLEY RESERVE. Do you see a Pinot in the near future that is worthy of the CORLEY RESERVE title ?"

Leslie Burma - Napa, CA
(Leslie is a member of our Monticello Retail Staff)

Thanks for the question Leslie. As long as we've known Leslie, she's always had a soft spot for Pinot Noir ...

1999 was the last vintage we produced a CORLEY RESERVE Pinot Noir. It is a wine that we are very proud of, as it displays our required balance of fruit and longevity. Shortly after that vintage was bottled, our Pinot Noir plantings were entering a state of transition. Our Pinot Noir at Knollwood Vineyard was beginning to decline, and was in need of replanting. Our blocks in Monticello were showing incredible promise, but were still young, and we required a few years of consistency from them first. We made a conscious decision to forego CORLEY RESERVE bottlings of Pinot Noir so we could refocus our efforts for a while on the MONTICELLO Estate bottlings.

In 2002, we made another step forward by bottling our MONTICELLO Estate Pinot Noir entirely from the 'new' plantings in Blocks 2 & 3 on our Home Ranch. After four vintages (2002-2005) of bottlings from the Home Ranch (and copious amounts of quality control on our parts, mind you) we felt comfortable in 2006 to produce a special Pinot Noir that carried the family designation.

Meanwhile ... the success of our CORLEY bottlings of Proprietary Red Wine, and Heirloom and Dijon Clone Chardonnays got us thinking. The CORLEY designation presented itself as an outlet for the smaller, family designated wines that we love to produce, but for wines that don't necessarily have the history of the CORLEY RESERVE moniker going back to the early 1980s, such as our CORLEY RESERVE Cabernet Sauvignon and CORLEY RESERVE Chardonnay.

You will have already begun to see some exciting new wines being released under the CORLEY banner - CORLEY State Lane Cabernet Sauvignon (first vintage 2004), CORLEY Yewell Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (first vintage 2006), CORLEY Pinot Noir (first vintage 2006).

Specifically as it relates to the Pinot Noir - we'll likely continue to bottle specialty Pinot Noirs in given years under the CORLEY label for the foreseeable future, as it gives us a little more flexibility to produce clonal bottlings, individual blocks, barrel designates, etc.

In a small way as well, it is also a show of respect to the CORLEY RESERVE Cabernet Sauvignon and the CORLEY RESERVE Chardonnay, which have histories going back to the early 1980s, and have earned their prime space on the mantle ...

Time Posted: Sep 15, 2008 at 10:56 PM
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