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Monticello Cellars - Napa Valley


This month’s Platinum selections bring us back to one of our favorite Napa Valley wineries, the highly regarded Monticello Cellars. Monticello is the producer of the fabulous 1988 Domaine Montreaux Brut sparkling wine featured in the Gold Medal Series in late 1996. This sparkling wine was one of the most popular Club selections of the entire year.
We follow up that great selection with two appropriately superlative wines for the Platinum Series. The 1993 Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and 1993 Estate Pinot Noir exemplify the quality offerings that have made Monticello a highly sought-after label year-in and year-out. Both of these beautiful wines were made with fruit from the winery’s own small Napa Valley vineyards and hand-crafted in extremely small quantities. In fact, with total production at less than 500 cases, the 1993 Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is currently available only through Monticello’s tasting room and through the Platinum Series. The Pinot Noir too, is sold primarily in the winery’s tasting room and is distributed on a very limited basis.
Some of you may already be familiar with the Monticello story, in which case we encourage you to enjoy these two wonderful selections without further delay! For those of you who are not, we submit the following . . .
Monticello (mont eh ché low) Cellars is a small, family owned and operated winery that has very capably managed to carve out a respectable niche in the ever-crowded Napa Valley wine scene. They have a near cult-following for their big, rich, age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignons and their lush and elegant Chardonnays. They also produce a superb limited production sparkling wine under the Domaine Montreaux label.
Monticello owner, Jay Corley, comes from a long line of ancestors involved in agriculture. The Corley’s have traced their ancestry back to the mid 1600s in Virginia, where the family owned a plantation. In the mid-1700s a neighboring plantation was established by a popular, young statesman named, Thomas Jefferson. As you may know, Jefferson was an avid wine enthusiast and culinary expert. Throughout his life and even during his Presidency he experimented in growing dozens of varieties of domestic and imported grapes.
The agrarian way of life continued for the Corleys from generation to generation. Jay Corley brought that heritage to Napa Valley in 1970. Upon purchasing property in Napa, Jay had made a major career and lifestyle change from his financial and venture capital dealings in southern California. “I felt it was an opportune time to act on a latent desire to farm grapes and make wine.” he recalls. “My goal at the time was to create an estate-type setting and implement the newest agricultural and winemaking innovations possible.”
The 90-acre property he bought consisted mostly of prune trees that he quickly cleared. He first planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and at the suggestion of André Tchelistcheff, also planted Gewurztraminer. “I had lots of help starting out,” Jay remembers. “Napa back then was basically a farming community, very fraternal and very eager to help the neighbors. There were consultants, agricultural services, and information from University programs available too—you just had to know how to tap it.”
The first harvest from the property was in 1975. For years he sold 100% of his crop to wineries such as Mondavi, Christian Brothers, Domaine Chandon and Schramsberg. In 1980 Jay made his first wines under the Monticello label–Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Until his own winery was built in 1982, he used the facilities of Rutherford Hill to make his wines. The Jefferson/Monticello theme tie-in was completed with the construction two years later of a 6,000 square foot administration building closely resembling the Thomas Jefferson estate.
Over the next decade the Monticello vineyards increased in size by the acquisition of several other nearby parcels. With the financial help of friends and acquaintances eager take part in this promising venture, today Monticello farms over 200 acres of vineyards. Although a small portion of grapes are purchased from other Napa growers, most of the Monticello wines are made from estate grown fruit.
In the early 1980s Jay began to see how well the famous sparkling wine producers like Domain Chandon and Schramsberg were doing with the Monticello estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit he had sold to them. So he started experimenting with his own sparkling wine that resulted in the Domaine Montreaux label.
In addition to the Brut sparkling wine under the Domaine Montreaux label, their “other” winery, Monticello Cellars, produces two different bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.
Annual production of Domaine Montreaux is roughly 2,000 cases. The Monticello Cellars brand hovers between 15,000 to 20,000 cases. Although the winery capacity is around 40,000 cases, Jay prefers to remain at current levels. “Bigger is not better, better is better,” he says resolutely.
The winery team includes Jay’s son Kevin, who runs the day to day operations as General Manager and Geoff Murray who was recently appointed the position of winemaker for Domaine Montreaux.
John McKay has been the Monticello Cellars winemaker for several years and brings over 20 years experience to the winery. John began his wine industry sojourn in 1972 as a quality control supervisor for Charles Krug. He worked his way through the ranks to become Winemaker and Production Manager in 1977. Wanting to work in a smaller, more hands-on environment, he left Krug in 1980 to become winemaker at start-up winery, Vichon. Another big winery caught up with John again when in 1985 Vichon was sold to Robert Mondavi. Opting once more to have a greater personal involvement, John left Vichon to consult for several other start-up wineries such as, Swanson, Pahlmeyer, Merlion and Shadow Brook. He ultimately settled in with Shadow Brook in 1991 as their General Manager and Winemaker.
In the summer of 1993 John was contacted by Jay Corley to consult with him regarding the wines and staff at Monticello. Later that year Jay offered him the position of Winemaker and Production Manager, to which John promptly accepted.



Monticello Cellar’s owner Jay Corley

‘I used to spend summers at my grandfather’s farm in southern Illinois,” says Monticello Cellar’s owner Jay Corley. ‘He was also the county doctor and let me make the rounds with him whenever I was visiting,” he recalls fondly. Jay’s grandfather was doing what the Corley family had done for centuries before him—farm. It was those memorable summers on the farm that instilled in Jay a love and appreciation of the land.
Born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, a community outside of Chicago, Jay’s folks ran a successful company that manufactured food processing equipment. Jay’s thought when he entered Stanford University was that he would enter the family business after graduating. Instead he joined the National Security Agency, the hush-hush arm of the U.S. Intelligence service. While working there he became an Italian linguist for the agency, living in Virginia. It was during this period of time in Virginia that Jay became an avid fan of Thomas Jefferson and his life as a viticulturist. Sometimes he would hike the Virginia countryside and feel a desire to someday follow his family’s farming heritage.

After several years in the N.S.A., Jay moved to southern California to pursue other career interests. He started his own company that dealt in a variety of financial and venture capital projects. While in California he became involved in several food & wine appreciation groups. This active interest served to further fuel Jay’s desire to be a part of agriculture and delve further into his appreciation for food and wine.

Jay began to put those thoughts into action by obtaining an MBA at Pepperdine University. His thesis, by no accident, was a study in starting up a small winery. Shortly after finishing his graduate work he discovered the 90-acre property that launched Monticello Cellars.

While he prepared his vineyards in Napa, Jay continued to work in southern California, commuting back and forth. In late 1977 he moved his family permanently to Napa to run Monticello Cellars full-time.

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