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Elyse Winery - Rutherford, Napa Valley

91 Points - Steven Tanzer's International Wine Cellar

When Ray Courson met his future wife Nancy, both were working for restaurants in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. Both loved the business and in particular, the wine aspect that is so important to many successful restaurants.

Ray had already prepped at a couple of landmark Boston wine venues including a top restaurant and an established wine shop. His degree from the University of Massachusetts was in stone fruit (apples, peaches, pears) and he had always nurtured a strong feeling for wines. When he and Nancy married in 1983, one of the first questions Ray asked was when she would be willing to move to California. Nancy never hesitated in answering “tomorrow,” so the couple immediately moved to the Saratoga growing area of Northern California.

Ray was able to work his first harvest with Mt. Eden Vineyards but was soon convinced that the Napa Valley Region offered greater opportunities for a fledgling winemaker wannabe. They found a B & B in Rutherford that needed help and while Nancy ran the place, Ray planted a vineyard and tended the gardens. He also managed to secure a job with Tonella Vineyard Management, one of the top management companies in Napa.

“It was from the Tonellas (father and son) that I learned the ‘why’ of the vineyard business. It was from their excellent staff of Mexican workers that I learned the ‘how’,” Courson confided. “They were really good at what they did and I really learned a great deal.”

Courson’s next stop was at the well respected Whitehall Lane Winery and its winemaker Art Finkelstein, who moved Ray into the cellar from the tasting room. Finkelstein saw great promise in the New Englander and promoted him to assistant winemaker in 1986. A year later, Courson’s mentor advised him that he should begin thinking about making his own wine in case of any potential ownership changes at Whitehall Lane.

Ray Courson saw the handwriting on the wall and immediately began the project that was to become this month’s Platinum Series selection, Elyse Winery. He and Nancy named the winery after their daughter and, in 1987, released the first 286 cases of their new wine.

To Courson’s surprise, the winery’s first offerings were met with great critical acclaim. “I never really thought we could be so lucky,” Courson revealed. “I guess it was just a matter of getting some really great fruit.”

Modesty aside, Courson believes steadfastly that it takes superior fruit to produce top class wines. “We can do something about the end product with our blending, and apply some winemaking techniques, but the real truth is that if you don’t have it from the vineyards, you won’t have it in the bottle.”

Over the next two decades, production has risen at Elyse Winery to over 10,000 cases, a level that Ray Courson, now 61, has started scaling back. He said that he expects to level out somewhere in the 8,500 – 9,500 cases each year, depending on the fruit quality of each vintage.

He has also scaled back his number of growers, from twenty-two to the present fourteen that supply him with most of his fruit. He has a smallish 2 ½ acre planting at the winery on Hoffman Lane, a vineyard that Ray works himself and brings him a great deal of satisfaction.

“I simply love the vineyard end of the winery business, and there’s nothing I’d rather do than be out working among the vines. Nancy is the beauty of the operation and also the brains. She runs the entire business and leaves the vineyard end for me,” he stated flatly.

It is Elyse Winery’s aim to have mostly single vineyard designated wines in the near future, with three Cabernet Sauvignon and three Zinfandel selections as the trendsetters.

The winery’s namesake, Elyse Courson, 23, is finishing her college work but wants to become a teacher in the future. The Courson’s other child, son Jacob, 19, (better known as Jake), also has a winery named after him (Jacob Franklin) that deals with Rhône varietals. Jake seems to be leaning toward following his family into the wine business, a fact that brings smiles to Ray Courson’s rounded face.

“I’d love for him to get into the business,” he finalized. “I think he would enjoy it as much as his mother and I do. As I told you before, there is absolutely nothing I’d rather do; it has been the best for our lives.”

  1. Elyse
    2006 Petite Sirah
    Napa Valley
    Napa Valley


    91 - Stephan Tanzer
    id: 354