Ilsley in Retrospect

2024 marks 70 years of grape growing and 25 years of winemaking for the Ilsley Family. In a popular growing region like the Napa Valley where family owned and operated businesses are increasingly few and far between, these milestones are quite rare. Not only do they represent our family’s dedication to stewardship, but they are also indicative of our passion for this start-to-finish art form that, over the years, has become the “family business”. 

We thought this would be a fun opportunity to take a trip down memory lane – some stories you might have heard, and some you might not. You may also have some of these vintages in your cellar! Regardless, pick your favorite Ilsley wine, pour a glass, and read on.  

Ed with Ilsley Vineyards truck with boxes of grapes forklift in background


Our family has grown grapes on our land since 1954. With the addition of the Downey Ranch – the property you would associate with our wine brand today – the family holdings in Yountville and the surrounding Stags Leap district had grown to 122 acres by the mid 60’s. Thanks to a conversation with Robert Mondavi, in 1964 our grandfather decided to plant Cabernet Sauvignon on his property, a decision that would prove to be a fortuitous one. Not content with “just” farming, in 1978 that same prescient grandfather built a small cave on one piece of the property to make homemade wine for family and friends. 

Fast forward to….. 

The year 2000 – our inaugural vintage! We decided to start with the best fruit from our hillside blocks, creating the very first Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. The weather started off idyllic, with a warm, dry spring. Things really began to heat up in June, though, and stayed hot throughout the meat of that growing season. We were able to harvest everything in September, before the weather turned wet and cold in October. The inaugural vintage of Ilsley Cabernet turned out to be a very balanced wine – delicious upon release. It’s still one of our absolute favorites!

In 2001 the stock market was booming, and every winemaker, vineyard manager, and billionaire wanted to make their own 100-point wine from Napa. Ernie says it was the peak of the cult wine boom, and there’s a lot of evidence to back that up. We were having difficulty finding a custom winery here in Napa to crush our fruit, so we ventured to Sonoma County to find a winemaking home, where we happened upon a small winery with a single opening in their schedule to receive fruit. We took it gladly. We drew closer to our scheduled crush date, and our winemaker wanted to push off the harvest for another 3-5 days. As the winery had no other availability, Janice, David, and Ernie decided to move forward with harvest, and crushed our second vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon in Kenwood on September 11th, 2001. Obviously that date is a historic one for other reasons, but the benefits of the decision to pick and crush when we did are evident in the wine even today. It was (and still is, two decades plus later!) a huge wine. It had copious amounts of fruit, acid and tannin right from the start, and it needed time in the bottle to be properly approachable. In fact, the best part of 2001 is how well it aged. We just pulled a bottle out of the cellar, and it’s amazing – hands down one of the best aging wines we have ever made. 

2004 saw the family celebrating 50 years of grape growing in the Napa Valley. Additionally, it the year our parents, Ed and Sandy, transferred full ownership of the vineyard to us: Jan, Ernie and David. It was a beautiful growing season that started early and seemed destined for perfection… until a week-long heat spell in the beginning of September gave us a good scare! Fortunately, the blending varietals had hit their numbers early, and we were able to harvest just before the spike. The mature cabernet blocks held steady and gave us wonderful fruit – no shriveling, good acidity and mature fruit flavors that carried through to the wine. Our first vintage of Seis Primas was created in 2004 as well. As you know, this wine celebrates the fourth generation of the Ilsley family, cousins Kimberly, Julia, Alyssa, Analise, Kate and Olivia, and it has become the heart of the Ilsley lineup. Just like the girls!

For a vintage truly “made in the vineyard”, we turn to 2011, which produced one of our most challenging yet rewarding Cabernet Sauvignons. A wet winter continued into early June and affected fruit set, resulting in lower yields and uneven ripening.  Numerous passes through the vineyard to remove fruit that didn’t meet our exacting standards made a light crop even lighter. Cool summer temperatures required even more vineyard care, as we removed leaves from the canopy to aid ripening. Our summertime efforts paid off, though, as Mother Nature sent heavy rains in October. Harvest was disrupted, but our early fruit thinning and leaf removal allowed the vines to dry out, fully maturing the fruit in the blessedly moisture-free final weeks of October. Lest we succumb to all the doom and gloom of the critics, let us say loudly for the record that 2011 has exceeded all expectations. It’s holding up beautifully, and if you are lucky enough to have some in your cellar, pull a bottle or two and give it a whirl. 

2012 was a magical vintage. Always a beautiful wine, even in its beginnings; after challenging growing conditions in 2010 and 2011, the weather was idyllic. This was also our father Ed’s final vintage. Ed and Sandy’s last date was an evening jaunt through their vineyards on the ATV. “I’m leaving you one of the finest vintages I have ever seen in the vineyard,” he said on that fateful drive. And he was right! Amazing fruit, and lots of it. Ed passed away August 11th, 2012. Always wearing a button-up shirt and jeans, quick witted and unmistakable, our father left an indelible mark on everyone who met him. Family and friends of the vineyard who knew him still associate this vintage with Ed. 

Harvest of 2017 is forever etched in our minds, associated with one word – FIRE. It was our first real experience with a disaster of this magnitude, and one which has informed many of our actions since. Following several drought years, we had a wet spring with lots of vegetation, starting the season with healthy vines. We had been lucky, sidestepping any significant loss from a freak hailstorm in June, and initially harvest seemed like it would proceed at a leisurely rate. That changed with the annual Labor Day weekend heat wave, when a good growing season turned hot and stayed hot through the middle of September. Luckily, a cooling trend toward the end of the month gave us excellent hang time. Our final harvest of the season fell on Saturday October 7th, and by very, very early Sunday morning we were actively protecting our ranch and our homes from the Atlas Fire. The stress of finding pumps, hose fittings and fire equipment in the dark overshadowed one of our better vintages in memory. Despite the dire associations this year conjures in us all, it was one of the few vintages that produced very approachable upon release wines which continue to age amazingly well.

The following years added fan favorites to our portfolio including Rogue Rosé in 2018 and Sauvignon Blanc the following vintage. 

2019 was the year the eldest of our Seis Primas made the leap into a family life of their own. That August, Jan’s daughter Kimberly married her husband Rea (a winemaker) and in 2022 Ernie’s daughter Julia married her husband, Tucker A vineyard consultant). Both weddings occurred privately on the Downey Ranch, among the vines so near and dear to us all.  

If you are a member of our Founder’s Club, then you are intimately aware of the fallout from the infamous 2020 vintage. Fires again raged through the valley, and we (alongside many others) made the difficult decision to forego our red wine portfolio altogether that year. The silver lining has been our carefully curated library, built over the past 20 years. We are fortunate to have been able to share library wines with you, when so many have nothing to offer. 

With memories of 2020 still fresh in everyone’s minds, the idyllic summer and early, unhurried 2021 harvest that followed seemed like a gift from the Gods. As a drought year is apt to do, 2021 gave us smaller clusters and smaller berries with concentrated flavor profiles and thicker skins. The resulting wines are timeless, with seamlessly integrated fine-grained tannins and a silky-smooth mouthfeel. Critics and winemakers agree that 2021 could be one of the valley’s finest vintages, and we are certainly anticipating sharing ours with you! 

Our family is blessed with so many stories, and it has been an honor to share a few of them with you. As we enter this monumental year, we would like to say thank you for being the reason we get to do what we love to do as a family – grow grapes, make wine, and steward the land we hold in trust for future generations.