One of our favorite local wineries is Monticello Vineyards, a small family owned and operated business located at 4242 Big Ranch Road. The winery was started by Jay Corley way back in 1969 and is now run entirely by members of the Corley family.
We recently caught up with Chris Corley, Monticello Vineyards’ winemaker, to discuss a variety of topics, including how he’s dealing with the severe lack of precipitation we’ve had in the Napa Valley so far this year, what the global economic climate means for the Napa Valley wine industry and more.
CB: It’s mid-February and the Napa Valley has seen very little rain so far this season. Talk to us about what a shortage of water means for the vineyards and for Monticello Vineyards in particular? We’ve heard talk that bud-break could happen within a couple weeks due to the weather we’ve had–what’s happening in your vineyards at present?
Corley: We would definitely like to see more rain this season. Last year was pretty dry too, so we’re a little concerned about the cumulative effect. Right now we’re pruning in the vineyard and are about halfway through. Because we use sprinklers to protect against frost on our Home Ranch, water is critical to us to protect during the frost season. We’re pruning the earlier budbreak varietals last, such as our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, in the hopes of delaying budbreak to avoid any potential frost problems.
CB: Talk to us a bit about 2009. What’s in store for Monticello Vineyards this year? How do you see the overall economic situation impacting the overall wine industry and the Napa Valley wine industry specifically?
Corley: We’re concerned and watching closely the state of economic affairs not only in our industry but with the economy as a whole. When our dad, Jay, started Monticello Vineyards in 1969, he was a grapegrower. The winery was built 12 years later, in 1981. To this day we continue to sell grapes to many well-respected wineries and have intentionally maintained our production level at around 15,000 cases, which is a comfortable level for us. We feel that this diversification and our well-established relationships which we’ve made over the years will help us to get through what will likely be a difficult time for many.
CB: When we visited the winery we were a bit surprised to learn that you had some Pinot Noir planted at the Oak Knoll site. Talk to us about that–most Pinot is grown further south in the valley (Carneros). Does the location present any unique problems and/or characteristics to the end product?
Corley: We’ve been growing Pinot Noir at the winery for almost 40 years now. When our dad, Jay, was looking for a site to plant these varietals in 1969, our location was the cooler, southern end of the Napa Valley. There weren’t too many growers out in Carneros, and he was interested in settling in Napa Valley proper. Our location is warm during the growing season, and we this allows us to develop nice ripe fruit flavors and aromas in our Pinot Noir. We’re able to get the seeds and tannins nice and ripe, which is important to me with Pinot. We have a light wind that blows through the vineyard like clockwork every summer day around 4:00 or so, which cools things a bit in the afternoon, without being so strong that it dries the vineyard. All of our grapes on the property maintain good natural acidity levels, even at full ripeness, and this is particularly important with our Pinot Noir.
CB: Monticello Vineyards is a family-run operation. Talk to us about what it’s like to have a family owned and managed business in the Napa Valley. Are there certain benefits? Challenges?
Corley: This will be my 19th harvest at Monticello. I’ve worked here at the winery with my family for most of my adult life. Currently, family members working at the winery include my dad Jay and two brothers Kevin and Stephen and our Uncle Brian. Equally important is our extended family of staff, several of whom have worked at Monticello for more than twenty years, many of whom have been with us for at least ten years. Employee retention and satisfaction is an important metric for our company, and we’re very proud of our accomplishments and ability to work together successfully for so many years. In our situation, the benefits and satisfactions of family ownership and management outweigh the challenges by such a large margin that the challenges seem almost non-existent.
CB: Finally, for some time now you’ve been running the Corley Blog, which provides details and insights into the happenings at the winery. How did the idea for the blog come about and what have you learned so far?
Corley: I’ve had a lot of fun running the blog. It gives a forum for us to share ideas and current happenings that may not necessarily warrant a press release or newsletter. We enjoy keeping up to date on the industry and the proliferation of all the new wine blogs has been a lot of fun to observe and follow. We thought adding a blog to our site made a lot of sense. We’ve had a very positive response. The biggest lesson I’ve learned about the blog is that a lot of people are reading the blog posts even if there aren’t a lot of comments posted.
CB: Cheers Chris–thanks for taking the time and best of luck with everything!