This past Friday morning, while the wind blew so hard it was rattling windows and the rain pelted the already soaked ground in a seemingly never-ending downpour, we ventured out to do a bit of winetasting. This time, our stop was not at all far from home–we pulled off at 4242 Big Ranch Road, which is the site of Monticello Vineyards, a small, family owned and operated winery.
Monticello Vineyards is one of those places so close to home you almost forget it’s there. Having enjoyed the winery’s cabernet sauvignon in a number of restaurants over the years, we decided it was high-time we drop by for a tasting and to learn more about the operation. First things first, we got the official word on how to properly pronounce Monticello, which should be said monti-chello (should sound like the instrument) vs. monti-sell-o as so many people tend to say.
The winery: After driving down a long, straight driveway surrounded by barren grapevines, we made a left into the visitors parking lot. Upon exiting the car, we headed east toward two large buildings that were surrounded by trees, some with picnic tables under them for use during better weather. We quickly learned that the Jefferson House was the building on our right (shown in the picture here) and the winery/tasting room was on the left.
The story of Monticello Vineyards is one of family. Jay Corley had a person interest in Burgundian-style wines and after a bit of a search, found the land that is now home to Monticello Vineyards in the heart of the Oak Knoll district and purchased it in 1970. Corley initially focused on producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and over the years has expanded to other varietals. Today, Monticello Vineyards produces about 15,000 cases of wine each year under three labels: Monticello Vineyards, Corley Reserve and Corley. The winery’s website has a nice timeline showing key milestones over the years. Mr. Corley is still involved in the winery operation and shares management duties with his three sons, Kevin (winegrower and president), Chris (winemaker) and Stephen (director of wine sales).
The buildings on the premisis are largely done in red brick with white facades in order to closely mirror the home of Thomas Jefferson. We were told that Mr. Corley is a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, which is how the winery got its name (Monticello was the name of Jefferson’s home) and why one of the buildings is called the Jefferson House.
Our apologies for not taking more photos of the grounds, but the rain was absolutely relentless.
The tasting room: The word that first comes to mind when thinking about how to describe the tasting room is quaint. Upon entering, you’ll find the tasting room bar on the left and various items (chocolates, magnets, etc.) available for purchase on the right. The room is virtually all wood-paneled, including the open wooden beams above head, making it slightly dim. It’s easy to see why, on nicer days, the winery utilizes its beautiful outdoor grounds and the space in the Jefferson House to do many of its tastings. The formal tasting room would likely be quite cramped with just 15-20 adults.
The staff: From the moment we arrived, we had a very pleasant experience with the on-site staff. Now granted, we visited on a Friday morning, in very bad weather and therefore happened to be the only people tasting from the time we arrived until the time we left. That said, in the customer service business it’s sometimes easy to allow the slow times to compromise the quality and level of service provided. This was not the case.
The woman who poured for us was extremely attentive, knowledgeable and willing and able to answer all of our questions. She was good about providing the history and context for each wine and made us feel right at home. All told, we saw a total of two staffers, which for the time of day was more than enough.
The wines: For $10/person you get a four flight tasting consisting of wines chosen by the winery. If you call in advance and make an appointment, you can book a reserve tasting and tour. Seeing as we’re not the planning types, we opted for the former.
Our first tasting flight was the 2005 Monticello Vineyards Estate Grown Chardonnay, which retails for $26 per 750 ml bottle. This was a soft chardonnay, which was aged in new oak and underwent malolactic fermentation. We got pears and peaches on the nose, both of which carried through to the palate and lingered just a bit on the finish. This crisp wine was not showing like a typical, buttery, over-the-top chardonnay, which we appreciated.
Up next was the 2006 Monticello Vineyards Estate Grown Pinot Noir, which retails for $38 per 750 ml bottle. This pinot showed ripe berry flavors on the nose and palate and its soft tannis helped it to a long, lingering finish. What makes it somewhat unique is where the fruit for this wine is grown–right out in front of the Jefferson House, which sits directly opposite the tasting room. Why is this unique? Well, most Napa Valley pinot is grown in the Carneros region, much further south. In fact, this just might be the furthest north we can recall seeing pinot planted in the valley. We were also told that this was the owners favorite.
After the pinot we moved on to the 2005 Monticello Vineyards Estate Grown Merlot, which retails for $34 per 750 ml bottle. A blend of merlot and cabernet franc, both of which are also grown on-site, we found the wine to be smooth, with a long finish. We got subtle hints of raspberry and cherry and enjoyed the balanced, medium-bodied structure that’s not always present in a young merlot.
We then moved on to the 2004 Monticello Vineyards Jefferson Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon, which also goes for $38 per 750 ml bottle. Made up of 75% cabernet sauvignon and a mixture of merlot and cabernet franc, the Jefferson Cuvee had strong hints of black fruits, like berries and plum. We’d describe it as a rich cabernet that’s not over-the-top and has a smooth finish that showed hints of spice. Overall, a solid, very drinkable Napa Valley cab that won’t break the bank.
As an extra added bonus, we were treated to a taste of the 2005 Monticello Vineyards Estate Grown Syrah, which runs $38 per 750 ml bottle. This vintage represents the winery’s second year doing syrah, which comes from fruit grown on the premises. On the nose we got subtle hints of black pepper, which on the palate were more pronounced and danced quite nicely with the hints of dark berry fruits. This was a full-bodied wine that we could see ourselves enjoying alongside our favorite spicy homemade pizza.
The Cork Board rating: 3.5 corks (out of 5 possible). Monticello Vineyards has a slogan that really sums up what it is all about: “small winery, big reputation.” A family owned and operated winery that produces a range of solid, drinkable wines, a friendly staff and beautiful grounds made this a winetasting experience we’ll be sure to tell our friends about.
Have you visited Monticello Vineyards lately? Leave us a comment and tell us what you thought of the experience. Also, be sure to check out our previous winetasting reviews.