Power, Finesse and Fun from Napa’s Elyse Winery

rayNow here’s a New Year’s resolution I can get behind: “Resolve to drink more wine in 2011.”

That quote is right upfront and center on Elyse Winery’s homepage, and it tells you something about the spirit of this winery. Owner and winemaker Ray Coursen is a big, fun, talkative guy who’s happy to share theories and stories about wine, food and life. Here’s another quote from their homepage:  “Winemaking is cooking without a flame. Our winemaking philosophy at Elyse in Napa Valley is similar to the approach of a great chef who carefully prepares artisan grown ingredients to bring each layer of flavor to the table.”

Ray learned winemaking from the ground up, working hard in the vineyards and cellars of wineries including Whitehall Lane. He learned to love fruit: “When I make a wine…what’s most important is the fruit. The fruit dictates what the wine will be.” To be able to use the best fruit, Ray doesn’t limit himself to a single estate vineyard. He’s one of the new breed of winemakers who depend almost totally on growers with whom he has long-term contracts and long-time friendships. Most of the vineyards are in the heart of Napa Valley, including the Morisoli Vineyard, which has given him fruit for award-winning Cabernets and Zinfandels.

We recently listened to Ray tell stories while we tasted four of his wines, including the Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel 2007. This is classic Napa Zin, not that jammy, soft, fleshy stuff you get from California’s warmer regions. There’s structure and acid to this Zin, along with plush raspberry fruit, coffee and spice notes. And did I mention that Ray loves to blend? This Morisoli Zin is actually a blend of 87% Zin and 13% “other.” That 13% is comprised of eight Rhone and Italian grapes that only wine geeks have heard of. It’s called a Field Blend, because those grapes are all picked and fermented together instead of being blended just before bottling. However he manages it, Ray makes a killer Zin that’s powerful but elegant.

“Powerful and elegant” also describes Elyse Tietjen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. This is classic Rutherford Bench Cab that’s like a fist in a velvet glove. The heavily concentrated fruit and massive structure are clothed in velvety tannins, delivering power along with finesse. The nose offers blueberries, chocolate and something deep and dark, leading to a palate with highly extracted dark berries, vanilla, and spice, and more of that deep, dark whatever. The 2005 was drinking beautifully — too bad you can’t but it anymore!

We switched gears with Elyse’s Rhone varietal wines, which come from a vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. The C’est si Bon 2006 is a food-friendly, crowd-pleasing field blend of seven Rhone varietals. Its name is a nod to the French, and roughly translates to “It’s So Good.”  Indeed it is. This is the jammiest of his wines, with rich raspberry and pomegranate fruit, hints of mocha and leather. There’s still decent structure behind the fruit, and a finish that’s long and creamy.

Elyse Nero Misto 2007 is another field blend (its name translates to “Mixed Black”), but this time the predominant grapes are Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Carignane and Primitivo. There’s more structure and acid to this blend, but plenty of strawberry, plum and cherry fruit with a hint of spice. Toasty oak comes through on the finish, along with that acid that makes this a great wine with red sauces, spicy foods, and just about anything else you can dream up.

From the Elyse website again: “Ray makes wines that he wants to sit down and enjoy – juicy, rich, voluptuous wines. “I love wines that pair well with food. A meal without wine is eating; a meal with wine is dining – it’s a conversation, an event. It’s what wine is about.”"  Sit down and enjoy his wines, and you’ll think so too.


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