Ehlers Estate: at the crossroad of mindfulness and excellent wine in the Napa Valley

Just off Highway 29 in Saint Helena, in the midst of the prestige, showmanship and glitz that define many of the surrounding wineries, lies Ehlers Estate: a picturesque organically farmed 42-acre vineyard with a stone barn winery dating back to 1886, and a small, devoted winemaking and hospitality staff. At Ehlers Estate, a quiet presence and dedicated team speak loudly of its founding principles: a passion for wine, dedication to quality, and a commitment to family. If ever there were a buzz word of today, it would be “mindfulness,” and if ever there were a winery to embody that term, it would be Ehlers Estate.

The winery is owned by the Leducq Foundation, a trust established by Jean and Sylviane Leducq in 1996. The Leducqs’ love for all things food and wine brought them to the Napa Valley where they modeled the property after a traditional Bordeaux chateau. Since 2009 winemaker Kevin Morrisey has carried on the Leducqs’ legacy by maintaining the highest standards of excellence in winemaking.

All of the wines are 100% estate-grown and produced. The vineyards, which are planted to Bordeaux varietals, are all certified organic by the CCOF. At Ehlers Estate, where environment and relationships are valued as much as the quality of the wine, an incredibly warm tasting room staff greets guests with a genuine handshake and a smile as they enter the historic stone barn winery. If timed right, visitors may even get to meet Kevin Morrisey. That in itself is rare—not just a winemaker willing to share his story with anyone who steps over the threshold, but a winemaker at the winery and in the surrounding estate vineyards, nearly every day of the year. Morrisey is loyal to his vines and his wines to a fault—he can talk about them all day, but when it comes to himself, well, he’s far more modest, and would prefer people let the wines do the talking.

Vineyards & Winemaking
There is a holistic approach to every aspect of farming and winemaking at Ehlers Estate. Morrisey believes that this translates to a pure expression of terroir, unmarred by synthetics or outside variables. The farming at Ehlers adheres to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, and the sustainable practices in place at the winery extend far beyond organic to an agricultural approach that considers every living thing on the estate, from the gardens and the chicken coop, to each vine and employee. Attending to every detail is essential to nourishing the health of the land, and the entire estate.

The 42-acre vineyard is divided into five main blocks (based primarily on soil type) and 25 sub-blocks, which are largely defined by unique combinations of clone and rootstock. Eleven of these blocks (totaling 25 acres) are dedicated to six different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon planted on multiple rootstocks, providing the winemaker with an expansive palate of fruit during the blending process. The vineyard also features four sub-blocks of Merlot, four of Cabernet Franc, two of Sauvignon Blanc and a block of Petit Verdot.

Kevin Morrisey and cellar/vineyard foreman Francisco Vega work with an eight-person year-round crew, some of whom have been with Ehlers Estate for more than 17 years, and all of whom enjoy the same full-time benefits as the winemaker himself. For Morrisey, this ensures a level of quality and commitment at every stage of the growing and winemaking process.

The wines reveal an elegance and finesse found more commonly in Old World wines, reflecting the winemaker’s gentle touch. Wines are fermented with native yeasts by vineyard lot, aged in French oak barrels, and blended at the end of the first year so that they have a full year to “marry” in barrel before bottling. When it comes time to blend, Morrisey closes the door, blasts classic rock, and mixes and tastes and blends and tastes and tastes and blends for days, until he has exactly what his palate dictates to be the best representation of the place, time and varietal.

Ehlers Estate produces just seven wines: the 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), Cabernet Franc ($60), Merlot ($55), Petit Verdot ($60), Sauvignon Blanc ($28) and Sylviane Rosé ($28).

There is a saying that the greatest love creates not more love, but a new entity all its own, far beyond the grasp or even control of the original bearers of the feeling that brought it into being. This could be said of both children and great works of art. In certain instances, it can become a legacy, and in rarer instances still, it becomes all three. If ever there were a winery, or a wine representative of this kind of love, Ehlers Estate would be it. But this love legacy story did not blossom overnight.

In 1885, Bernard Ehlers, a Sacramento grocer who made his fortune selling tools to the miners who’d traveled to California in search of gold, arrived with his family and established the winery. He replanted vineyards that were on the property that had been ruined by Phylloxera. None of those old vines have survived, but the olive grove he planted is still in production, and the stone barn winery still bears his name. Following his death and prohibition the winery passed into the hands of a number of colorful owners, and produced wines under different names and labels no longer extant. The property may have eventually been divided or continued to pass unnoticed from one aspiring investor/winemaker to the next had it not caught the attention of two devoted wine and food lovers—devoted both to one another and to Bordeaux wine—in the 1990s by the name of Jean and Sylviane Leducq.

Originally from France, the couple came to the Napa Valley in search of a contiguous estate to create a winemaking legacy much like the great chateaux of Bordeaux. When they discovered the Ehlers property, it was love at first sight. Tucked on a loamy bench nearly equidistant between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges, the property receives the very best of the northern Napa Valley microclimate: cool fog in the mornings, burnt off by bright, full sun at mid-day, and breezes in the afternoon to ensure slow, steady and even ripening for the grapes.

Under the supervision of enologist Jacques Boissenot, the vineyards were replanted to selected clones and rootstock for each parcel of the property over a period of several years. They also committed to organic and sustainable farming practices, and to ensuring that the vineyards were tended to by the same crew year-round. Finally, they needed a winemaker who would cherish the land as much as they did. In 2009, they got their wish in the form of Kevin Morrisey, who had thrown his heart and soul into making terroir-driven wines. He’d risen to head of winemaking at Stags’ Leap Winery, and while the wines he made reached great renown, he preferred to stay quietly in the background. His gentle nature and experience working in France, first as a young filmmaker, later as an intern at Chateau Petrus, immediately resonated with Sylviane—as did the note on his resume that he was, in addition to many accomplishments, a devoted husband and father of two daughters.

A Unique Ownership
While Jean Leducq was an enormously successful businessman, he and Sylviane preferred that their legacy be one dedicated to the causes that they each cared for deeply. They were active and devout philanthropists, and established a foundation and trust that supports international cardiovascular research. As an asset of the trust, the mission of Ehlers Estate, at the behest of the Leducq Foundation, is simply to make the finest wine possible with utmost care for the land, the people that tend to it, and the generations that will follow them.

Many of the worlds’ great producers took generations to establish the renown they have today—despite, like Ehlers Estate, keeping production levels small, and selling out of each vintage, year after year. Jean and Sylviane knew that the only way to guarantee Ehlers Estate was given that same luxury of time to mature (both in the vineyards and in the market) was to confirm that nothing—be it barrel prices, a year-round vineyard and cellar crew, and even the demands of the business to return a profit—would stand in the way of making the absolute best wine possible.

One of the benefits of working under such a mission is that Morrisey is free to run the winery and the business according to his values, and the farming and winemaking are always top priority. From the vineyard to the bottle, the production is at once state-of-the-art, and hands on and artisanal.

Tasting Room
Wine club members at Ehlers Estate are given first priority for tastings appointments. Much of the increasing popularity of the Ehlers Estate wine club is credited to Director of Hospitality (or “Happiness”) Maria Newman. At the helm of the tasting room since 2010, Maria is responsible for fostering the affection for Ehlers Estate in visitors. She believes strongly that true hospitality cannot be mass-produced: it must be tailored to the individual desires, tastes and interests of the guest. It’s her management style that insists every visitor be greeted warmly and that the tasting room staff find out from each guest what it is they’ve come to the Napa Valley to accomplish—and then set about doing everything they can to make that happen.

Upon entry, guests are given a comfortable seated tasting on one of the colorful sofas or chairs, with water glasses, wine glasses and breadsticks set in the middle of a coffee table. The ambiance at Ehlers feels like a good friend’s living room, signaling guests to slow down and stay for a while. A rotating art exhibit graces the stone walls, the original high wood beamed ceilings bring added warmth, and an eclectic patchwork of vintage furniture signifies the soulfulness of the estate, and its wines. Outside, a bocce ball court and tables and chairs plead for guests to enjoy the beauty of the Napa Valley.

The tasting room is open from 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. seven days a week, and by prior appointment for parties up to six. Tastings are $35 per person, and complimentary for Wine Club members and up to three guests. For a limited time, Ehlers Estate is conducting a “Start Your Day” morning opportunity for early birds. These breakfast tastings, which include a croissant from Bouchon Bakery a personalized tour of the winery and vineyards, and a portfolio tasting are $35 per person. Reservations are required.

Getting There
From St. Helena take Highway 29 North and proceed north about 2.5 miles. Make a right turn onto Ehlers Lane, the next street after Lodi Lane.

From Calistoga take Highway 29 South and proceed south for about 6 miles. Make a left turn onto Ehlers Lane.

For more information, or to schedule an in-person visit, please contact Jarvis Communications at 310.313.6374