Many wineries include the term “Family” in their name but few have as much family involved in the day to day operations as Monticello Vineyards – Corley Family Wines. Founded 40 years ago by former translator for the National Security Agency, Jay Corley, Monticello Vineyards is now in the capable second generation hands of Kevin Corley (Vineyard Operations), Chris Corley (Winemaker) and Stephen Corley (Sales & PR).
As one drives toward the property, the beautiful replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home commands your attention. The Corley family has its roots deep in Virginia soil dating back to the mid-1600’s. Thomas Jefferson, himself a renowned viticulturist and wine lover, once said “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” For these reasons and more Jay Corley says, “I felt that Mr. Jefferson’s love of good food and fine wine and hospitality was a suitable for my family to dedicate our life’s work honoring his lifestyle and his ideals.” The 5000 sq ft building serves as the office and special events center while housing the elegant Wine Library in the cellar.
Corley Family Wines produces about 15,000 cases of wine a year with the vast majority of its fruit coming from 90 acres of estate vineyards. The wines are bottled under four labels, Monticello Vineyards, Corley, Corley Reserve and Domaine Montreaux Sparkling Wine. Varietals grown include, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay. Many wines are priced under $40 with the Reserve Cabernet offered at $72.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog had a chance to sit and chat with Kevin and Stephen in the Wine Library. The atmosphere is warm, the guys are very friendly and the Library itself is the perfect place for experiencing the extordinary wines from this extraordinary family winery. Read the Interview Below
B&B Wine Blog: Your father, Jay Corley, was an early pioneer of Napa Valley wines. What was his motivation to grow Napa Valley grapes and make wine as early as 1970?
Stephen Corley: Dad became passionate about wine and food in the early 1960’s through Wine & Food Societies in Southern California, particularly IW & FS and The Jonathon Club. Red and White Burgundy really caught his attention.
B&B: The 1970’s must have been a romantic, adventurous and promising time in Napa Valley. Give us a feel for what the valley, wineries and winemakers were like back then. Were there any winemakers of note that were particularly helpful in the early years of Monticello Vineyards?
SC: It was a great time in the valley. Everyone was helpful and extended a warm welcome. Dad often talks about Stu Smith (Smith Madrone), Chuck Carpy (Freemark Abby) Justin Meyer (Silver Oak) and Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers. Andre Tchelistcheff advised on the selection of the original vineyard location (our main estate) and on varieties and budwood selection.
B&B: Obviously from both the winery name (Monticello Vineyards) and architecture (a beautiful replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello), Thomas Jefferson has been a big influence on your family. Please explain.
SC: Our family lived in Virginia for many generations before moving to the Midwest where my great-grandfather, grand-father and father were born. Co-incidentally having studied Italian at the Monterrey Language school,our Dad served the government in the 1950’s in VA where he also researched our family history in VA and traced the Corley Family to the original settlers in Bedford County, VA in1640.
B&B: Now there are now three second generation Corleys involved at the winery. How do you split your duties?
SC: Growing, Producing and Selling. Fortunately it just worked out naturally for Kevin, Chris and me. Kevin was our General Manager in the early 1990s when we started replanting all 5 vineyards due to phylloxera, by the end of the process he understood all the whats, whys and hows of the vineyard. In the meantime Chris was working his way up the winemaking ladder – from cellar rat in 1989 to cellarmaster, ‘crushmaster and asst winemaker’ to Winemaker in 2000. I joined in 1997 just as our Father was retiring so I hit the road to let Dad rest and let Kevin focus on the vineyards.
B&B: You father retired in 1996. However, in many family businesses all that means is that Dad takes more vacations. Is Jay still involved with the winery? If yes, how so?
SC: So true for many family business. Dad said farewell in Dec 1996 and we didn’t see him again until the rains had stopped and summer was almost upon us in May 1997. For the last 14 years he has been our cheerleader and sounding board but he has no responsibilities, no reports or reporting. It is great because his time is free to read and his mind is free to roam strategic and tactical thoughts that we might not.
B&B: Did you always know you wanted to join the family winery or did you pursue other professional opportunities first?
SC: Life doesn’t really work this way very often but when I was 18 and headed to college I thought I would like to do three things professionally: work for a multi-national and live and work abroad; work with my family at Monticello Vineyards; and teach. I’ve got the first two down and if someone deems me worthy I’d love to make it down to the college and see if I can add some perspective to the circulam of the students.
B&B: What brought you back to the family winery?
SC: I loved my corporate career with KPMG in both Atlanta and London but I always felt a special attachment to the winery and what the family was trying to accomplish – it was always a matter of when, not if.
B&B: Knowing how boys will be boys, what are some of the challenges of having three brothers coming together to create bottled art? Any brotherly fights at blending time?
SC: Getting into the same room at the same time! Fortunately, we don’t believe in ‘Art by Committee’ – Chris is the Winemaker, we are his sounding board and reference points as he takes the grapes from picking bin to bottle.
No fights – But past results are no guarantee of future performance. 😉
B&B: Your grapes come from five estate owned vineyards, tell us a bit about these properties.
SC: Each is a treasure in its own right (as I’m sure most winegrowers around the world would say). They are all on the valley floor. 2 are in the Oak Knoll District on Big Ranch Rd where we grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Oak Knoll is relatively cool for Napa so it is great for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but with the longest growing season we have the time to fully ripen the reds – The success of our CORLEY Proprietary Red Wine which is dominated by Cab Franc and Merlot is a testament to the District.
Our 3 slices of Cabernet Sauvignon paradise up valley in Yountville, Rutherford and St Helena are outstanding. The fact that we have been farming these vineyards since 1982, 1989 and 1982 respectively means we have a lot of experience with the vines and the site – helps tremendously with our quality and consistency in the more challenging (for Napa) years.
B&B: How would you describe your winemaking philosophy and what is your overriding winemaking goal?
SC: The short answer is ‘Sunshine to Wine’. We have committed our resources since the beginning with the wine in mind before any other decisions were made -so before our dad purchased a square foot of earth, he envisioned the wine and set out to purchase the land; plant and grow the grapes; and build a winery, as best as we could to deliver the flavor and style of wine he envisioned. Many, many wines and 5 vineyards later we think the last 40 years proves he made some good decisions.
Winemaking-wise, I often describe Kevin’s role as to deliver ripe fruit flavors to Chris on the crushpad. Chris’ efforts are focused on delivering those ripe fruit flavors to the glass while protecting the aromatics and making sure the resulting wine is balanced and ‘feels’ great in your mouth. A pleasure to drink, to serve, to share!
B&B: What should we expect from your labels, Monticello Vineyards, Corley and Corley Reserve?
SC: The majority of the wine we produce is designated Monticello Vineyards. We consider our Monticello Vineyards wines to be distinctive representations of Napa Valley wine, styled to be rich, full bodied, yet well-balanced and elegant – ‘The classic varieties, classically styled’.
Corley/Corley Reserve wines represent the very finest expression of Napa Valley wines, produced by our family. They are rich, ripe, complex and full-bodied. The wines are the truest representation of the variety and are only produced in years when the wines are especially outstanding and age-worthy – Most years but not all.
B&B: Monticello Vineyards and Corley make wines from many grape varieties. Which of those do you consider your flagship wines?
SC: Certainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay which we’ve made the longest, amounts to about 2/3rds of our production and are family favorites.Having said that, the addition of our CORLEY Proprietary Red Wine in 1999 has garnered a lot of attention and critical acclaim.
B&B: Do you make a sparkling wine, too?
SC: We do – Domaine Montreaux – a labor of love, not profit! Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Barrel Aged Chardonnay and Pinot Noir before Tirage. Everything about it is by hand: the filling, riddling, disgorging, labeling, etc. Typically a Brut – 60% Pinot/40% Chardonnay but occasionally a Brut Rose (my favorite) and from the 2008 vintage our 1st Blanc de Blanc.
B&B: We had a chance to share a couple of glasses of your wonderful Cabernet in the elegant wine library, located in the cellar of the Monticello building. Tell us a bit about the library contents and the ways the building is used.
SC: For us, The Wine Library is both a place and a concept. Dad always wanted to have a library of wines from which we would be able to share our properly stored and aged wines but also for us to continue to learn from as we would see the results of our efforts and how they played out over time.The Wine Library rooms showcase every vintage of every wine we have ever produced since 1980, about 200 bottlings. It also contains wines we’ve produced for Auction Napa Valley and Première Napa Valley or purchased at Auction, especially in the 80s as well as some family wines we’ve gathered or been given from around the world over the last 30 years.
B&B: This is a pretty spectacular property. What can our readers expect when they visit?
SC: Hopefully beautiful Napa Valley sunshine, a peaceful stroll through the garden to the tasting room and a smiling, informative staff or family member to welcome them to our ‘home’. For a private tasting in the Wine Library we just need a call in advance to schedule a Reserve, Single Vineyard or Food Pairing Tasting.
B&B: When big family holidays roll around, what wines are we most likely to find on the Corley family dinner table?
SC: Great question. Bubbles, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir make most every holiday meal as well as CORLEY Proprietary Red Wine and from there dealers choice – aged wines, just bottled wines and certainly other wineries wines.
B&B: What does the future hold for the Corley brothers and Monticello Vineyards?
SC: Pushing quality forward while maintaining our style and production of 15,000 cases. We enjoy the luxury of being small because it allows Kevin to be able to walk every vineyard row, Chris to be able to taste every barrel of wine and all 4 of us to know our faithful customers.
B&B: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about the Corley family or Monticello Vineyards?
SC: We’ve just celebrated our 40th Anniversary and our Dad’s 80th Birthday. It has been a great few weeks for the family and we honored our Dad by making a wine for him – Tribute. The wine was our Tribute to our Father for having the vision, dedication and perseverance to make it 40 years. More importantly, it was a Tribute to the manner in which he did it – as a true Gentleman, classy. A manner in which we can only strive to emulate.