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Quail Ridge Napa Valley Winery


Mysterious Chardonnay won a Gold Medal and Best of Class at the Fair!

On a lark (so to speak), home winemaker Elaine Wellesley had weeks ago entered her Chardonnay into the prestigious Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition. A wine writer for the L.A. Times was now on the phone anxious to find out more about this mysterious Chardonnay that had just won a Gold Medal and Best of Class at the Fair! Paramount to his article of course, was finding out the name of her winery. The wine writer had no way of knowing, but Elaine had no winery, let alone a name. So as the story goes, at that moment she looked out her window and spotted a covey of quail running over a small hill in her back yard. Thus the name, Quail Ridge. The rather serendipitous nature in which Quail Ridge Winery was started curiously has continued throughout its roller coaster history.

Elaine Wellesley and husband Jesse Corallo, who was a Hollywood director, were living in Los Angeles at the time. Elaine’s success at the L.A. wine competition provided the proverbial catalyst for the two to search for a vineyard site and start a real winery. In 1978, the only logical place to consider was Napa, so without wasting any time looking elsewhere, they bought 10 acres in the Mount Veeder district of the Mayacamas Mountains. The entire property was quickly planted to Elaine’s specialty—Chardonnay. The plan was simple. Live in L.A. and commute to Napa whenever they needed to spend time at the winery. Yeah, sure. Like those before them and many that followed, the wine bug struck and before they even finished planting the vineyard they moved to Napa full time.

After the initial jump-start provided by the L.A. wine competition, Elaine and Jesse continued to build on their success as a high quality Chardonnay winery. By 1983 they were producing 2,500 cases of Chardonnay, French Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc. In fact things were progressing so well that they purchased an additional 20 acres adjacent to the existing property to plant even more Chardonnay.

It appeared Elaine and Jesse were on their way to a solid and promising future with Quail Ridge Winery. An unfortunate series of events however, put the winery into a tail spin. Jesse was tragically killed when the tractor he was riding tumbled down a steep portion of terrain on their property. As if that wasn’t enough, things got tougher.

Believing the future was with other varietals, a decision was made to shift away from Chardonnay and move toward Bordeaux wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Whether this decision was right or wrong, it was a direction away from what had originally established Quail Ridge’s highly regarded reputation. It didn’t help either that in the mid 1980s wine sales were soft and the industry as a whole was falling on hard times. The back breaker though for Quail Ridge came after an ill-fated attempt to raise capital in the Canadian stock market. Out of money and out of options, Elaine sold the winery to Christian Brothers in 1988.

The intent of Christian Brothers was to upgrade their image by purchasing a small high-quality producer like Quail Ridge. They continued to operate their new acquisition as a separate entity and shifted more emphasis back to Chardonnay. In fact, 20 more acres of Chardonnay were acquired which helped to boost production from 12,000 cases to almost 30,000 within a year’s time.

The plan was good but the timing wasn’t. Christian Brothers was feeling the pinch too from a slowdown in the wine industry. Looking at the prospect of years of diminished returns, Christian Brothers sold their winery operations to Heublein in 1989.

Incredibly, throughout the upheavals Elaine remained as the principle winemaker of Quail Ridge wines. And to her credit, the quality of Quail Ridge wines never faltered. The changes that were implemented with each transition had mostly to do with where she made the wines, which varietals she made and how much.

Under Heublein, Quail Ridge was put into a group of other wineries they owned which among others, included Beaulieu Vineyards (BV). The head of this Fine Wine Group, as it was called, was wine industry veteran and South African native, Anthony Bell. Anthony was specifically in charge of production and during his successful tenure Heublein owned more vineyards and crushed more grapes than anyone else in Napa County.

Internal reorganizations within Heublein over the next few years left Quail Ridge dangling once again. Within the large corporate environments of Christian Brothers and Heublein, it seemed that everyone knew Quail Ridge was a good winery to own but no one knew quite what to do with it!

Anthony Bell was tired of all the changes too. He and two other Heublein executives resigned their positions in 1995 and formed their own company they called Rutherford Benchmarks. Their first order of business? Buy Quail Ridge Winery!

“The Quail Ridge wines were not getting the attention they deserved,” says Anthony Bell. “The wines were good quality and there was a tremendous imbedded distribution network already in place. I just don’t think they knew what they had.”

When Rutherford Benchmarks took over the winery, production had whittled down to just 10,000 cases. Anthony and company quickly brought it back to life, doubling the case production in just a year. “Our goal is to eventually reach the 50,000 case level,” says Anthony. “And at the same time ratchet up the quality even higher.”

Today, the wines in the Quail Ridge covey still include a Chardonnay which is a small part of the program but key none-the-less due to the winery’s heritage. Increased emphasis has been and will continue to be placed on Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon—all Bordeaux varietals. And long term grape contracts have secured the best Napa Valley fruit for many years to come. Case in point is the Volker Eisele Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the undisputed King of the Quail Ridge offerings. Elaine Wellesley began buying fruit from this esteemed 80 acre vineyard back in 1982. It is one of the premier independent vineyards in all of Napa and California. “It’s a fantastic vineyard, with incredible fruit,” Anthony concurs.

Anthony is unabashedly proud of his Quail Ridge acquisition. “My association with Quail Ridge dates back 20 years ago when I first met Elaine in a class at U.C. Davis,” recalls Anthony. (In fact he and Elaine were married to each other briefly.) “The winery has been a part of my life for many years,” states Anthony. “It’s been an interesting convergence of events that has resulted in me owning Quail Ridge Winery,” he says philosophically. It’s been a long and winding road, but it seems that at long last Quail Ridge Winery has found a permanent home in which to flourish.



Dear Platinum Series Wine Club Members:

For a number of years, the Volker Eisele Vineyard in Lower Chiles Valley has provided Quail Ridge with outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, from which we produce our award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Volker Eisele Vineyard.

Eight years ago, Volker planted two small vineyard blocks with an eye toward producing equally outstanding Merlot grapes. The Chiles Valley is located in the hills east of Rutherford at an elevation above the Napa Valley floor. This slightly cooler area seems well suited to the Merlot grape. These are the grapes used in the first vintage of our Quail Ridge Merlot Reserve 1997, Volker Eisele Vineyard.

The keys to understanding this wine are the excellent gout de terroir provided by the vineyard, Volker’s attention to detail with regard to his farming practices and the excellent quality of the 1997 vintage, one of the best in recent memory.

The 1997 Quail Ridge Merlot Reserve has a deep, rich red color with elegant ripe fruit and hints of cedar and spice on the nose. On the palate, the rich fruit flavors are amplified, with a concentrated center of blackberry and brambly fruits and hints of vanilla and toasty oak on the finish.

The wine was aged for 16 months in small French Oak barrels.

My staff and I enjoyed making this wine and delight in bringing it to Gold Medal. We trust you will enjoy drinking it as much as we did making it.


Yours very truly, Michael Lancaster Winemaker

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