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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 Permalink to And They're Off ! Permalink Comments for And They're Off ! Comments (484)
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 (2408)
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 (131)
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 Permalink to You Never Forget Your First ... Permalink Comments for You Never Forget Your First ... Comments (6680)
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 (126)
Chris Corley
August 9, 2008 | Chris Corley

A Question from Don Sritong : 2004 Jefferson Cuvee

"What is the barrel regime on the 2004 Jefferson Cuvee Cab? Any additional methods such as punchdowns, extended maceration, etc used?"

Don Sritong - Chicago, IL

Don, thanks for the question. We've been really excited about the 2004 Jefferson Cuvee. I think a lot of people have as we sold through it a pretty fast clip.

As for the winemaking, the 2004 vintage was unique in relation to recent years. It was a hot growing season, particularly towards the end when we had some really hot days towards the end of August and in early September. As a result, most of our red wines from the 2004 vintage are showing very exuberant fruit and ripe rich tannins.

The 2004 Jefferson Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon (JCCS) is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon and 19% Cabernet Franc. This also is a unique blend for our JCCS, which typically has a fair bit of Merlot blended in. In 2004, our Merlot crop was down considerably due to a larger percentage of shatter than usual. Shatter is when the flowers don't set properly and the grape doesn't develop. It's an issue growers deal with some years with Merlot.

The Cabernet Sauvignon lots that we picked for our JCCS were harvested during the second week of September. All of the lots were fermented in stainless tanks and pumped over twice a day. I did not employ cold soaks or extended macerations in 2004. The wines were pressed at dryness and were aged in barrel for 22 months prior to bottling. Approximately 20% of the barrels were new, French oak.

I've been enjoying the 2004 JCCS over the last year and a half and think it should be drinking nicely through 2013-2014. We've recently released our 2005 JCCS and just bottled our 2006 JCCS last month. Stay tuned in the next month for tasting notes from a vertical of JCCS ...

Time Posted: Aug 9, 2008 at 8:08 AM Permalink to A Question from Don Sritong : 2004 Jefferson Cuvee Permalink Comments for A Question from Don Sritong : 2004 Jefferson Cuvee Comments (1085)
Chris Corley
August 5, 2008 | Chris Corley


"NOTE : VIGNETTES is a section for short fictional works.

Antenna Head


Informally known as The Panel, the seven wine critics met once a month to discuss events in the wine industry, share notes, etc. They all found these monthly meetings very enjoyable as it was a release for them to spend some time with other wine-lovers who knew as much about wine as they did. The Panel, although pretty nice folks away from their work, were incredibly knowledgable about wine, so much so that they found it almost insufferable to discuss the topic with people who didn’t understand wine as well as they did. The Panel’s monthly meetings were a welcome release for them to bestow upon their peers their fantastic understanding of the beverage.

From time to time, they would invite a young unknown winemaker to bring his wines for them to taste. Typically, these novice wines were of reasonable quality, rarely were they extraordinary. Most members of The Panel genuinely enjoyed seeing a young winemaker show his wares, as it gave them a chance to offer their advice on how he could do his job better – the irony, of course, being that none of the critics actually knew how to make wine, rather their talent was in identifying its strengths and weaknesses as a finished product. In actuality, the advice that they bestowed was more a lighthouse in the fog – only the winemaker himself could truly navigate the seas of oenology.

Unfortunately, there were a few members of The Panel who enjoyed the novice presentations for an entirely different reason. These three old dogs were stubborn and grumpy and longed for the old days. They disdained new technologies and advances in viticulture and winemaking, and as the world slowly passed them by, they became increasingly bitter. The irony, of course, was that these three old dogs didn’t seem to mind the advances in their own field – blogs, online wine ratings powered by robust search engines, podcasts, etc. As long as their opinions commanded the power, they really didn’t care the medium through which the information was delivered. With one exception – verbally.

The Panel was accustomed to submitting reviews, whether positive or negative, to their respective magazines, to be presented in type, which now included postings on the web. Rarely did they honestly review a wine in person. If wines were tasted with the winemaker, notes were taken, and reviews were written later to be published. Never did the critic tell the winemaker to his face his true impressions. One time, when two members of The Panel addressed a group of local winemakers, they stuttered and stammered through their presentation. Their discomfort was all over their faces as they talked to the dubious group whom they’d been rating the work of for years. It was clear they felt much more comfortable dispensing their critiques from behind closed doors.

Having a young fresh winemaker in their office, eager to please and hoping for his big break, was just too irresistible for these three old dogs. The wines were usually not that great, the winemaker not very confident. It was a lamb going to the slaughter and these three critics relished the opportunity to verbally unleash on these poor young people, who were just trying to do the best they could to get a start, usually with meager funds and not the best grape sources at first. It was one of the few opportunities for three old dogs to get out from hiding behind their printed words.


* * *

This particular winemaker had been in their office before, about a year and half earlier. They all remembered him vividly. He had brought all of his wines in an old leather sack and was eager to take a few pictures so he could remember this as his big break. He was so proud to be in the room with such great and knowledgable wine reviewers. He never saw it coming. They had really let him have it. He had brought in all of his barrel samples from his first vintage. The critics had railed on him for the lack of fresh fruit, the effervescence, the imbalanced oak and the chunky finish. These wines will never amount to anything, they said. You may want to consider another vocation. Vinegar maker, shouted one, to rambling chorus of laughter. He would never forget the mouthfuls of shiny fillings in the group as they leaned back in their chairs and roared in jest.

He realized at that first tasting that these people were not experienced in tasting wines at that early stage. They were only adept at judging a finished product. so arrogant. Of course the wines were all those things, he thought at the time, that’s not the point. When tasting a wine this young in barrel, you’re not tasting for what you taste now, you’re tasting for what you’ll taste then. They didn’t get it, and weren’t capable of foreseeing what the wines develop into. Disappointed, he packed up his sample bottles and left, never once rebutting the ugly comments hurled at him and his wines.

Yet here was again. A year and half after that first tasting and with the very same wines, he sat before The Panel. This time his experience was to be very different. The wines had completed their aging in barrel and had been bottled for about 6 months. He was getting close to releasing them and had been invited back to their tasting presentation because their reputation now preceded them, and The Panel was having a tough time finding young winemakers willing to come out to them for a thrashing. He didn’t care, he was proud of his wine regardless of what anyone said.


* * *


This time, there wasn’t a single member of The Panel at the table that wasn’t deeply entranced by the wines he was tasting. All seven of them were well respected professional wine tasters and writers in one capacity or another, although not one of them had ever been affected so deeply by a group of wines.

The wines danced on their palates and provided them pleasures beyond any that they had known before. They closed their eyes and swirled the glasses under their noses. The wines were so beautifully bursting with aromas, that the room was actually filled with a mélange of all the wines’ aromas. Swirling like clouds, rainbows, thunderstorms and sunbeams through the room, an intoxicating blend of fragrance and hedonism – alluring, dangerous, irresistible and refreshing. But the real magic was on the palate. These wines were operatic - literally singing in their heads. They thought they were going crazy with joy as the wine burst into song inside their heads. The rhythms and melodies were almost too much to bear, they thought they were going mad! The three old dogs fainted in their seats and needed to be assisted over to the floor where they could lay down for a few moments, before being taken away by an ambulance. They were nearly hysterical with joy, shouting of the most beautiful melodies which played in their heads. Where was this beauty emanating from ? It must be the wine, they screamed. Everyone thought they had surely gone mad.


* * *


About a week later, The Panel called a special meeting. They had much to discuss. These wines that they had tasted had shattered all of their notions of what a great wine was or the heights of pleasure that a wine could provide. These wines made them question every score or review they had ever written because their whole subjective scale was now warped. Their previous hazy notions and definitions of what defined 100 points meant nothing now.

The question they were all asking of themselves was – Can we tell anyone about this ? If they were to review these wines honestly, they would need to elevate their rating scale to 110 points. That would eliminate all accuracy of any wine they had previously judged over their entire career, all of which would have been based on a lower relative scale. Wines previously rated at 95 would be dropped to 86 under a new system. A coveted 90 would be a mere 82. This would be the scandal of the century. Once the numbers were shown to have no fixed meaning, the reviews would be revealed as mere opinions, which unfortunately for The Panel is what they were. The collapse of the 100 point scale would not be good for their business, careers or their magazine sales.

Their dilemma was clear – rate these wines highly and honestly and risk the collapse of the 100-point scale and the reevaluation of their lives’ reviews, or sweep the kid’s wines under the rug when they formally review them upon release. What a mess …


* * *


The young winemaker was working back at his small run-down winery. It was bonded in the early 1900s so his wine license was grandfathered in – it would never be permitted under the current rules. He had a small shed off to the side that he used as his workshop. He pondered over the stainless steel wires protruding from the barrels and reveled in the sweet strains of Vivaldi’s “Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione” (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.).

From the outside, the small shed looked like it was about to fall apart. Ramshackle, it had a slight lilt to the side and you got the sense it wasn’t quite built to square in the first place. The boards were bleached from a century of sun, and you wondered what may be lurking within those dark knotholes. Once you walked through the door, however, you were in a different world. The door itself was much heavier than imagined from its old appearance on the outside. It was heavily reinforced and insulated on the inside, as were the other interior walls of the workshop. The small room was bright, fresh and amazingly clean, the interior walls covered in 3 inch thick metallicized insulation board. Under that the walls had been stuffed with encapsulated insulation. The room was easily 55 degrees even though it was well over 90 degrees outside. In the center of the room were 12 barrels on the floor, each with two thin stainless steel wires emerging from the bung. The wires ran across the room to the stereo where the music was coming from.


* * *


He had been experimenting with musical infusion of his wines for about a year. Some time ago, he had visited a winery in the next valley over where they played classical music in their barrel room. According to the tour guide, the music was soothing the wine, and they played it 24 hours a day. Just a gimmick, he thought, but what if you really could enhance the wine by infusing it with music. The possibilities could be endless. He wanted to make it real.

He immediately began his experiments back at his workshop by running stainless steel speaker wires direct from his stereo to the barrels, removing the speakers and allowing the wine to absorb the musical energy. Over months, he played with different music and wine combinations, infusing his Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs with Metallica, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Beethoven, Van Morrison, Mozart, Sly Stone and myriad other artists. The different genres all had varying impacts on the wine. Ultimately, his trials convinced him thet Vivaldi was the touch for the entire vintage, so he settled in on the Opus 8, a set of twelve concertos, one for each barrel. The first four barrels were designated as The Four Seasons, correlating with the opus. This inaugural vintage would be his masterstroke.

Through experimentation, he had observed that the musical infusion effect in the barrel lasted about 2 weeks then faded out as thought the volume were being turned down. In his experiments with bottling the wine within that two week window, he had discovered that he could capture the musical energy in the wine, especially if he used the new glass stoppers that were on the market as opposed to corks. He needed to seal the music in the bottle before it escaped.



* * *


The wines he had infused with music had evoked intensely emotional responses in him during his experimental trials. At times, it was overwhelming. The winemaking technique was groundbreaking, it opened never before conceived avenues in the complexities of wine, expanding the tactile, olfactory and visual pleasures of wine to include the entire aural spectrum – true rhythm and harmony in the glass.

He thought back to that first day in front of The Panel when they were all laughing at him and he noticed the abundant shiny fillings in the mouths of the three old dogs as they reared back in their seats. Those would make great antennae, he thought …. "

Time Posted: Aug 5, 2008 at 1:22 AM Permalink to VIGNETTES - Permalink Comments for VIGNETTES - Comments (1009)

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