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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 Permalink to Red, Yellow and Green Lights Permalink Comments for Red, Yellow and Green Lights Comments (164)
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 Permalink to If You Love Something, Set it Free ... Permalink Comments for If You Love Something, Set it Free ... Comments (5393)
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 Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK : Knollwood Vineyard Merlot - Clone 181 - Godzilla Block Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK : Knollwood Vineyard Merlot - Clone 181 - Godzilla Block Comments (95)
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 (24)
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 Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK : The Natives are Getting Restless Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK : The Natives are Getting Restless Comments (2837)
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 Permalink to A Question from Leslie Burma : 1999 Corley Reserve Pinot Noir Permalink Comments for A Question from Leslie Burma : 1999 Corley Reserve Pinot Noir Comments (1793)
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 Permalink to A Question from Stephen Townsend : 1999 Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Permalink Comments for A Question from Stephen Townsend : 1999 Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Comments (344)
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 Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 1 Chardonnay - Heirloom Clone Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 1 Chardonnay - Heirloom Clone Comments (49)
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 Permalink to FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 3 Pinot Noir - Dijon Clones Permalink Comments for FERMENTATION CHECK: Home Ranch - Block 3 Pinot Noir - Dijon Clones Comments (65)
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 Permalink to Seasons Permalink Comments for Seasons Comments (125)

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