Napa Valley AVA
A rarity among modern winemakers by adhering to classic traditions
If one word could describe Cathy Corison, it would most certainly have to be resolute, an idiom that most accurately portrays the woman who has forged her way into Napa Valley’s wine hierarchy with grit, determination and unceasing spirit. Cathy Corison was a Southern California native (Riverside) and opted to attend Pomona College in the early 1970’s with a goal of earning a degree in biology. During her sophomore year, she happened to take a wine appreciation course that changed her life. “I will say that the course grabbed me by the chin,” Corison recalled. “It started a keen interest in me that has never waned nor stopped.”
Corison completed her biology studies and within days of graduation, found herself standing in the middle of Napa Valley. While Napa wasn’t then as internationally regarded as it is today, Corison somehow knew that Napa Valley was the place to be if she really intended to follow the path of the almighty grape. She started by selling wine at a small store in St. Helena and made the decision to head to nearby UC Davis for her masters in enology. In 1978, she graduated and accepted an internship with iconic Freemark Abbey and wine legend Chuck Carpy. When the internship was up, she became the winemaker for the smallish Yverdon Winery, a Spring Mountain job that lasted for two years.
Next for Corison was a long term stint with another Napa Valley pioneer, Donn Chappellet of the renowned Chappellet Winery, a stretch that occupied the entire decade of the 1980’s. “My time at Chappellet was wonderful,” Corison confided, “the 1980’s were considered the dry years and we were forced to make wines from all over the valley. Napa wasn’t yet world famous and everyone was working hard to make world class wines.” Additional stints at Staglin Family Vineyard, York Creek Vineyards and Long Meadow Ranch added substance to her resume.
As the decade waned, in 1987 to be exact, Cathy Corison made the decision to make her own wine and Cathy Corison Winery was born. “There was wine inside me that needed to get out,” she confessed. “So we decided to put what little money we had into grapes and barrels instead of cars and houses. It wasn’t easy, but I have absolutely no regrets.” Cathy Corison Winery’s first release was around 1800 cases, a hefty amount for a startup wine producer. Even though she had to use other people’s facilities, she considered herself a “lucky duck.”
Since their initial release, Cathy Corison’s wines have won numerous awards and garnered many accolades from the wine industry press. Such success has been sweet for the winery owner, but hasn’t changed her outlook one bit. “We only produce around 2500 cases each year, and I don’t intend to get any larger,” she states flatly. “After all, I do all the work myself and there is only one of me. The winery is my core existence and I can’t delegate much responsibility. If I get any bigger, then I wouldn’t be able to do it my particular way.”
Cathy also points with pride to the new winery facility that was designed by her husband William Martin, and is regarded as among the most tasteful structures in the Napa Valley. Begun in 1999, Corison’s first crush was completed without walls, roof or the availability of a permanent water supply. After a few years of hard sweat and toil, the winery was basically finished in 2003. One of the main features is the ten majestic mahogany doors that highlight the Victorian-style structure. The view looking out from inside the winery is certainly the equal of any in Napa Valley.
“Some might say I’m not a good business person,” Corison admitted, “but money is not why I’m in the wine business in the first place. I have some exacting standards and I’m just not willing to compromise.” Corison is also happy that her young children, Rose, 14, and Grace, 10, are around to share in the evolution of the winery. She laughs that her girls “made wine in utero,” but also hopes against hope that one or both will one day follow her into the business.
Cathy Corison is a rarity among modern winemakers in that she steadfastly adheres to classic traditions and refuses any opportunities to enlarge her operational production. She deserves a great deal of credit in this more than ever commercialized world.