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Corley Family Napa Valley

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
Chris Corley
September 13, 2008 | Chris Corley

A Question from Stephen Townsend : 1999 Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

"I have one case of Tietjen Cabernet 1999 vintage. What can you tell me about this wine ? Did it get any rating and how much longer can I hold on to it. Is it 100% cab ? Should I drink it now ?

Stephen Townsend - Saygatuck, Michigan

Thanks for the question Stephen. You're sitting on a great box of wine. Tietjen Vineyard is located on Niebaum Lane in Rutherford. We've been producing excellent (IMHO) single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons from this site for many years. With no exceptions that I can think of in the last decade or so, our Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from that vineyard. We also use the grapes from this vineyard in our CORLEY RESERVE Cabernet Sauvignon and our CORLEY Proprietary Red Wine.

The 1999 vintage produced some excellent Cabernets in Napa Valley ... most wines are displaying plush ripe fruit and the tannins had a nice chewy firmness at bottling that has mellowed out beautifully now.

If you haven't opened any of the bottles, I'd like to commend you on your patience and trust that it will be rewarded soon. I'd recommend that you open a bottle tonight. You should decant it gently and let it sit for an hour or so, and I think you'll be a happy man. If you plan to drink all of the case, consider opening  a bottle every six months or so for the next 6 years. This can be a fun way to drink a wine, as you can taste its evolution over the long run !

Coincidentally, I was just up at the TIETJEN vineyard yesterday to sample the 2008 grapes and walk the vineyard. With the cool weather we're having, I'm excited about the opportunity to let the grapes hang for another couple of weeks. The plants are healthy, and the grapes look good. Now it's our time a sproducers to exert patience ...

Cheers ...

Time Posted: Sep 13, 2008 at 1:52 PM
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
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
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
Chris Corley
September 4, 2008 | Chris Corley

FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 2 Pinot Noir Clone 777

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 harvested 3.9 tons of Pinot Noir Clone 777 from Block 2 on August 29. Psychologically, it always feels a little funny to be picking your red grapes in August, but if the flavors are there then you're good to go. In general, our Pinot Noir this year is about a week ahead of "normal", so the Pinot Noir season isn't really all that much shorter for us this year.

The fruit was crushed to 3/4 ton bins, where we cold-soaked for 3 days before inoculating with yeast on Monday morning. A lot of color is extracted during these first 3-5 days of skin contact, and this Pinot Noir was already showing a nice vibrant ruby glow at inoculation.

With this fermentation, I'm trying to keep the temperatures from getting too high, so I'm aiming for ferment running in the low 80s. We've left the lids off the bins the whole time so the ferment can expel its heat. We also used a slower fermenting yeast at a very low inoculum rate so that the ferment wouldn't run away. When I was punching these bins down this afternoon the aromas of berries, spice, and tea leaves was invigorating. As they usually do at 15 brix, this juice is tasting great and today I'm starting to sense some of the tannins picking up. Tomorrow, we'll likely cut the daily punchdowns from 2 per day to 1 per day.

I'll decide in the morning over a cuppa juice !

Time Posted: Sep 4, 2008 at 9:28 PM
Chris Corley
August 31, 2008 | Chris Corley

And They're Off !

Posted By : Chris Corley

On Friday, we picked our first red wine batch of the year. Although we've picked some small lots for sparkling wine, harvest never quite feels underway until you've got a batch of red grapes in the house.

We picked about 4 tons of Clone 777 Pinot Noir from Block 2, which is up towards the front of the property, nearest to Big Ranch Road. The grapes looked great, and we're growing accustomed to Block 2 being the inaugural batch each vintage. Typically, the Pinot Noir in this front block comes in ahead of everything else, and usually about a week to ten days ahead of our Pinot Noir in other blocks.

After the cellar crew, Bacchus and I shared a bottle of Domaine Montreaux on the crush pad to herald in the year's bounty, we ran the grapes through the crusher and got them inside the cellar as quickly as we could to keep them cool.

The berries were fully ripe, with brown seeds, velvety skins and pulp in the berry that slides easily off the seed when you smush the grape in your fingers. We've allowed this batch to cold soak over the weekend and will inoculate with yeast Monday morning. It has already picked up nice color, and I'm excited to be 'elbows-deep' in bins of cool red grapes. It's where my arms belong.

I'm anticipating that our four clones of Pinot Noir in Block 3, on the south side of the estate, will be ready pretty soon. The fruit tastes good, and now that we've got last week's heat spike behind us, we're hoping to have another week or so of  'hang time' with this block.

We'll keep you posted ...

Time Posted: Aug 31, 2008 at 8:09 PM
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
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
Chris Corley
August 19, 2008 | Chris Corley

You Never Forget Your First ...

We had a lot of fun with our kids this weekend. We took both Jackson and Ruby to the Ringling Brothers Circus at the Oakland Coliseum on Friday night, and Jackson and I went to the 49ers-Green Bay preseason game on Saturday night at Candlestick ("we" the 49ers won 34-6). As I was driving home on Saturday night and Jackson was snoozing away in the back seat, I got to thinking about how much fun they had at their first circus and Jackson's first big NFL football game.

That got me to thinking how much fun we're having with some of our firsts at the winery. Our family has been growing grapes for nearly 40 years, and we've been making our own wine for 28 of those years. We've had our share of successes and pitfalls along the way, but for 40 years we've avoided the worst scourge of all - complacency. We are constantly reaching out for new goals and keeping things fresh. We're still getting excited about 'firsts' ...

This week, we celebrated our first few days of harvest, bringing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to be used for sparkling wine. We also brought in some Syrah, which we'll use for a Rose, to be made in a dry, crisp, low alcohol style. We're looking forward to making a sparkling Rose, which will be a first in a long time.

This year, we celebrated the bottling of three new wines. Earlier this summer we released our 2007 ROSE. Although we've bottled Roses in the past, this was the first that we've blended multiple varietals to create a non-varietal 'Rose'. It is dry, crisp in acid, bright in fruit and is great for a warm summers evening. We also bottled a CORLEY PINOT NOIR from the 2006 vintage. This is the first 'specialty' Pinot Noir we've bottled since the 1999 vintage. The Pinot noir is dense in raspberry, strawberry and cola flavors and has a beautiful integration of seductive new oak. Last, but not least - we bottled our 2006 YEWELL VINEYARD CABERNET SAUVIGNON, the first bottling under the Yewell moniker and the first off that vineyard to be bottled since we replanted the site after the 2000 vintage. This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from St. Helena is rich in texture and dark fruits and has a long finish that won't quit. Appropriately, the first magnum of this wine to leave the winery building went to the Yewell Family themselves.

Over the last few years, we've released our first ever 100% Cabernet Franc and 100% Syrah bottlings, both of which have been exceptionally well received.

A multi-generational family business like ours is steeped in important and meaningful traditions, but it also requires the freshness of 'firsts' to thrive. It requires stability from a solid foundation of traditions and vibrancy from active and creative minds. In a word - balance ... but that's a word for another blog post ...

Time Posted: Aug 19, 2008 at 4:16 PM
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