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A Contrast in Styles
Visiting Miner and Elyse Wineries on the same day...

Last month Linda and I had an opportunity to spend a week in Northern California wine country. While we were there we visited a number of wineries and were lucky enough to spend some time with their winemakers, once again, making us realize how little we really know about winemaking. Not to mention how many ways there are to make wine, and the fact that no two winemakers agree on the techniques. Somehow most of it still turns out pretty well in spite of the incredible array of "vineyard voodoo" and "winery witchcraft" that gets practiced on it.

Our last day in Napa was truly a study in contrasts and proof positive that there is no one right way to make great wine. Our first stop was a visit at the Miner Family Winery, one of the newest wineries on the Silverado Trail, deep in the heart of Napa Valley. When Dave Miner left the presidency of Oakville Ranch Vineyards in 1998, he built a state-of-the-art facility with capacity for 100,000 cases and dug 20,000 square feet of caves into the mountainside. Since winemaker Gary Brookman only produces 23,000 cases of wine from a small group of selected vineyards, this is winemaking extravagance on a grand scale. Fortunately, Dave originally got into the wine business with his uncle, Robert Miner, the founder of Oracle Software. Sooo, I'm guessing mortgage payments are not a problem.

This is a facility with stainless steel for every eventuality... big tanks, medium tanks, little bitty tanks and acres of French oak barrels. The caves seem to stretch for miles, storing the oak barrels that hold the next 2 vintages. That's where we had our most graphic lesson yet in the role that blending plays in creating fine wines. The entire 2002 Chardonnay crop, over 6,000 cases worth, was resting there. Different tiers represent multiple vineyards, and different age barrels. We tasted our way through tier after tier, and those barrels were as different as night and day. New French oak barrels supplied gobs of vanilla while the one year old oak gave the wine mellower, more nuanced oak flavors. Each vineyard batch provided its own even more distinct flavor profiles with acid levels and fruit characteristics ranging from soft and round, to crisp and sharp, to "I don't think we'll use that one." When the time approaches to bottle, the real alchemy begins. Samples are taken from each lot and the winemaker starts to experiment with blending all the possible components into a finished product. The results at Miner speak for themselves, with a string of ten 90 point plus scores from Wine Spectator over their short history. The 90 point 2000 Chardonnay and 92 point 1999 Cabernet we currently have in stock are about as big and impressive as California wine gets and I have included their reviews at the end of the article.

However, just and big and impressive are the hand crafted wines of Ray Coursen, even if his facility is somewhat more modest. Our second stop of the day was for a BBQ at Ray's Elyse Winery, on the other side of the Valley. Ray began his wine career at Whitehall Lane in the tasting room and wound up the winemaker. In 1987 he opened Elyse in a converted barn where he is content making about 9,000 cases a year of mostly red wine, in lots as small as one barrel. Ray is a "larger than life" kind of guy. He stands well over 6'4'', is built like an ox, has an unruly head of snow white hair and makes wines as big and distinctive as he is. No glycol cooled stainless steel fermentation tanks here... Ray ferments his grapes in the large plastic picking tubs in the driveway, cools the process by tossing in dry ice, and punches them down by hand. This insures that his arms are usually stained almost black for the entire months of September and October. There is no cave to hold Ray's barrels, but what comes out of them is truly amazing stuff. A peek at Wine Spectator's web site reveals that Ray also has ten wines with 90 point plus scores over the last 4 vintages, including a 95 point Cab in the 1996 vintage. These are some of the most extracted, rich, voluptuous wines you are likely to find anywhere. Here is what we thought of the new releases we tasted with Ray's grilled sausages and lamb loin...

Elyse Petite Sirah 2001 Napa Valley, California $35 A Wine Guy Selection - Over the top Petite Sirah... This is the wine that James Laube of Wine Spectator describes as "taking no prisoners." Inky black fruit bursting with blueberry, blackberry and black cherry flavors all accented with spicy black pepper in a viscous full-bodied package. Drink it now after a good decant or wait 10 years...

Elyse Zinfandel 2001 AKA Napa Valley, California $35 A Wine Guy Selection - Another monster from Ray Coursen. A massive, inky dark wine with a full-bodied brambly palate of black raspberries, plums and black pepper all supported by equally impressive tannins that promise a long life in the cellar. I think a 12 year bell curve. 585 cases made.

Elyse Mon Chou 2000 Napa Valley, California $35 A Wine Guy Selection - A huge, expressive and complex Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot. Full-bodied, smooth and filled with cedary, blackberry scented fruit and enough tannic structure to justify a few years of cellar time. But, very drinkable now.

Also in stock...

Elyse Syrah 1999 Napa Valley, California $35 What the Wine Critics thought: Wine Spectator 91 Points An immense, intense, concentrated wine with layers of blueberry, spice, leather, earth and dusty berry flavors. Shows plenty of depth and complexity. Drink now through 2009. 650 cases made.

And from Miner...

Miner Family Chardonnay 2000 Napa Valley, California $32 And, proving that no one is immune to the Chardonnay glut... Vintage Closeout $19.99 What the Wine Critics thought: Wine Spectator 90 points Wonderful richness, depth and complexity, with layers of tasty fig, apricot, pear and spice and hazelnut. Turns smooth and silky and the flavors linger on a long complex finish. Drink now through 2005. What we thought: Waves of butterscotch, ripe pear and vanilla dominate both the nose and palate of this decadent wine with hints of spiciness joining on the finish. The mouthfeel is full, round and soft... just dripping with buttery richness. Don't bother with food, it won't work! And, don't serve this one too cold. We opened it at about 45 degrees and were amazed at the changes it went through as warmed up 10 degrees. By the time it hit 55 degrees it was a butter bomb with an almost syrup-like viscosity.

Miner Family Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Napa Valley, California $59 What the Wine Critics thought: Wine Spectator 92 points Beautifully defined fruit, with layers of ripe, rich currant, black cherry, plum and wild berry. Shows a remarkable measure of finesse and harmony for its size, with pretty floral and minty aromas. Best from 2003 through 2012. What we thought: This is a monster, displaying waves of blackberry, black currant and cedar aromas and flavors on the nose and full-bodied palate. This robust wine strikes a nice balance of oak and fruit along with a firm enough tannic structure to make it eminently cellarable. Decant this guy... we had an open bottle left over after Ray's BBQ (we were comparison tasting) and drank it with delivery pizza at the Airport Marriott Courtyard the next night. Not only was it even better the second night, the pizza was great... once again proving that it's hard to buy a bad meal in northern California.