Quail Ridge Winery
Napa Valley AVA
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.
Anthony Bell - Producer, husband of the winemaker
Perhaps it’s fate that has kept Quail Ridge Winery so close to Anthony Bell. Or maybe this noted winemaker simply knew the potential of the winery and was determined not to let it out of his sights. Whatever the explanation, Anthony Bell has been an intricate part of Quail Ridge Winery’s history since its inception 20 years ago.
Anthony hails from South Africa where he grew up living on a vineyard and winery that his dad managed. ‘Even as a young boy I distinctly remember I wanted to do the same sort of thing my dad was doing,” Anthony says. To broaden his life experience, after high school he traveled and worked at wineries in both Spain and France, then spent a year’s duty in the South African Navy. In the early 1970s he entered Stellenbosch University in South Africa to follow through on his study of enology and winemaking.
After graduating, Anthony came to the United States to earn his Masters degree in winemaking at the University of California Davis in northern California. While writing his thesis to finish his Master’s in 1978, he met fellow classmate, Elaine Wellesley, who would soon start Quail Ridge Winery. The two remained friends through the years as Quail Ridge gained considerable fame for its critically acclaimed Chardonnays, and through the rough days when Elaine’s husband passed away and when the winery fell on hard times.
Anthony decided to stay in this country after graduating instead of returning to South Africa. His wine career began with a short stint at LaMont Winery in Bakersfield where he was hired in 1978 as quality control manager. The following year, with the help of one of his college professors, he found himself at Beaulieu Vineyards, hired on as their assistant winemaker. This move proved to be key for Anthony, for it was at Beaulieu that his wine career began to fly.
Even after Beaulieu Vineyards was purchased by Heublein Corp., Anthony held a variety of positions on his way up the corporate vine. A few of his responsibilities included Operations Manager, Director of Operations & Winemaking, Vice President of Production, and General Manager, as he developed and fine tuned his wine production acumen. As V.P. of Operations, he was in charge of winemaking, production and viticulture operations at Heublein’s Inglenook-Napa Valley, The Gustave Neibaum Collection, Christian Brothers and Rutherford Estate Cellars. And for Beaulieu Vineyards, Anthony was responsible for the many great Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernets for which they are widely known. His vast accomplishments are well documented and respected in the wine industry.
Here comes that fate thing we were mentioning earlier. During Anthony’s tenure at Beaulieu, parent company Heublein acquired Quail Ridge Winery. But as the sands invariably shift in the wine industry, particularly with the large corporations, Quail Ridge became expendable in the early 1990s and was put on the market.
Anthony of course, was already intimately familiar with Quail Ridge and understood the potential of the operation, as did several other Heublein executives. In 1994, Anthony Bell, Brent Simpson and Dick Connaughton bought Quail Ridge Winery from Heublein and formed their own wine group called Rutherford Benchmarks. Under this umbrella they successfully brought in a number of other small but significant wineries under their wing, including Monte Volpe, Van der Kamp, Moonshine, Monterey Peninsula and Saint Gregory.
Anthony is co-owner and responsible for the quality of all wines produced for Rutherford Benchmark’s wineries. He works with the various winemakers of each winery entity and has also created his own limited production, world-class, Bell Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon wine. ‘Quail Ridge is the flagship of our wineries,” says a proud Anthony Bell. ‘I believe your members will enjoy the soft, open, easy-to-appreciate style in which we make our Quail Ridge wines.”
Dear Platinum 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,