We Are Proud of Our Vineyards
It has been a privilege for the Ilsley family to be located in the esteemed Stags Leap District appellation of the Napa Valley for more than 60 years. Within the boundaries of this small appellation, surrounded by lofty palisades, visitors will discover history and unmatched natural beauty.
The terroir, the combination of climate, soils and terrain, of the Stags Leap District is the natural gift of nature that allows us to capture the heart of substances that become our hand farmed fine wines. Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon is complex, fully textured and rich while our “Seis Primas” blending of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot offers elegance, balance and luscious fruits.
We are proud of our vineyards and the fruit that they bear.
Ilsley Vineyards 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
At Ilsley Vineyards, our philosophy is that a Reserve is not an every year thing. We choose a small portion of wine, usually one or two barrels from all the barrels made in great years only. The vineyard blocks and specific barrels chosen will have spoken to the wine maker as being special and distinctive. In 2013 she chose wine from one special, very small hillside block on the Downey Ranch, block A Cabernet Sauvignon. She felt that block A, in 2013, exemplified the best of Ilsley Vineyards and our little corner of Stag’s Leap; Fruit forward and assertive but also rich with power to age a very long time. Block A played a part in the 2012 Reserve but it shared the spotlight that year with block J. Block A is above the barn at the back of the property and faces southwest. Enjoy this single vineyard Reserve with its focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and hillside farming at Ilsley Vineyards.
This exceptional wine is made possible because of the continued support of our customers, thank you.
The Ilsley Family
By David Ilsley, Vineyard Manager
From the Silverado Trail, in the heart of the Stags Leap District, Ilsley Vineyards climbs east into the Vaca Mountains. Originally planted by the Downey family prior to 1900, the Estate vineyard now consists of 18 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 acres of Malbec, and 1 acre of Cabernet Franc.
The thin rocky hillside soils and southwestern exposure produce balanced fruit with structure, concentration and complexity. Malbec, Petite Verdot and 10 unique blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, each planted to different combinations of clone and rootstock, allow us to select only the finest lots for our limited production Ilsley Vineyards Wines. The remaining grapes, normally more than 80% of the Estate’s production, are sold to local wineries. Since 1966, our family has sold grapes to Robert Mondovi Winery. Today the list also includes Shafer Vineyards, Benessere Vineyards, and Salvestrin Winery.
The grapes we grow and the wines they produce exhibit the experience of three generations of our family farming this special vineyard.
Janice, Ernie, and I grew up helping our dad in the vineyard. We spent weekends and vacations learning how to plant vines, prune, and drive tractors. I loved being outside and watching how the plants grew and changed throughout the season. As I grew older, working in the vineyard was a good job with flexible hours that allowed me to play sports in High School. Football gave me the chance to attend at the University of Washington in Seattle where I graduated with a degree in Political Science and played in three Rose Bowls as a member of the football team. Seattle was a great city but I always new I wanted to move back to the Napa Valley and grow wine grapes.
When I moved back home, many of the vineyards in the valley, including ours, were dying due to the phyloxphera root louse. I was working at Pina Vineyard Management where I learned about phyloxphera resistant rootstocks as well as different grape varieties and clones. Our family vineyard was replanted and the new vines were planted closer together with new rootstocks and clones that would perform best in our vineyard. As the new vines matured we saw the potential to make really special wines and the only way to truly realize that potential was to create our own wines at Ilsley Vineyards. After years working in our family vineyard we have found the best vineyard blocks to select the grapes for Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and Seis Primas.
Ilsley Vineyards Winemaker
Heather Pyle, winemaker for Ilsley Vineyards, was born in Scotland and moved with her family to follow her father’s life-long dream to live, work, and raise his family in the U.S.
Heather found her passion for wine in college at U.C. Davis. In 1985, she completed her Masters in Winemaking at Davis and accepted a harvest internship at The Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. That internship was the beginning of a long learning, tasting, blending, and consequently rewarding career with the “first family” of California wine. “My time at Mondavi did more to shape my views on wine and food than anything else. In the 80’s and early nineties, Mondavi was the ultimate wine university where tasting the world’s wines and talking to world famous winemakers was an everyday occurrence,’ Heather says. Mr. Mondavi (Robert) was in relentless pursuit of wines that were “as powerful as a Pavarotti and as soft as a baby’s bottom”, Heather remembers. She caught that fever early on and still believes that wines should be balanced, seamless and above all drinkable.
In May of 2001 Heather started a new chapter of her career, applying her vast experience to boutique, family-owned wineries in Napa and throughout California. Ilsley is one. Heather’s role as winemaker at Ilsley is particularly sweet because of the nearly 30 year friendship has had with the family, starting with Edgar Ilsley, the second-generation Ilsley who infused David, Ernie and Janice with his passion for grapes and wine. Heather met Edgar at Robert Mondavi Winery in the mid-80’s when Ilsley fruit was sold exclusively to Robert Mondavi. Mr. Ilsley was always in favor of Heather joining the Ilsley’s as winemaker. That became a reality in 2009, with Heather’s first Ilsley vintage.
Heather reflected, “Our winemaking philosophies and styles are very similar, in that both the Ilsley family and I pursue the perfect expression of the grapes they have grown for nearly 60 years.”
Thank you for enjoying our hand crafted wines!
Cooperage Choices Facing the Winemaker in Napa Valley
By Heather Pyle, Ilsley Vineyards Winemaker
Every wine enthusiast knows that the use of new oak barrels as aging vessels adds flavors to wine. The nuances and the breadth of these flavors are less obvious and vary by the choice of cooper (barrel maker), the source of the wood, and the choice the winemaker makes by choosing to which wine he or she applies these flavors. Also, what is often unknown or overlooked by the modern wine drinker is the original purpose of the barrel as a transport vessel but not actually as a flavor contributor.
A Little History
Since well before Christ’s time, barrels were originally fashioned as transport vessels to be put aboard ships and ox drawn carts for commerce. They replaced clay amphorae for a number of reasons: They roll even when full, they don’t leak or allow much evaporation and perhaps incidentally, they are good insulators, keeping the wine or whiskey at a relatively stable temperatures even in warm conditions like the Mediterranean Sea in summer. An added benefit is that they can last many, many years. So, through the ages barrels were not meant to add flavor probably but used to keep the wine safe on its way to a consumer near or far. Before transporting wine to its final destination in the days prior to the 20th century wine would have been aged in much larger containers, casks or vats, for efficiency and because oak flavor was not on the consumer or producers mind.
Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century up to the present day and particularly in wine producing areas considered “New World” like the US, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. Mechanization and advanced fabrication allows us to use just about any container we see fit for wine but winemaking is tied to history and the wine barrel and its distant relative, the wine cork, are still strong players in the wine industry today. Oak barrels are no longer necessary for their original purpose of transport but they make very handy aging vessels. Also, in the past 30 years at least, flavor from oak barrels has become a key factor in stylish and expensive wines. Indeed, we think of wine now as having oak flavors as part of its profile in many if not most cases.
So wine barrels add flavor, or at least new wine barrels do. Do they all add the same flavors? No, they don’t. The nuances that a barrel contributes to a wine is one of the holy grails of winemaking. The possibilities are endless owing to the variations in the oak itself and the wine aged in it. What is a winemaker to do then when wanting to add the best flavors to wine in their use of oak? Honestly, the choices are daunting and each winemaker finds his or her own way in pairing a given wine with a given barrel made by a given cooper and harvested from a given forest on a given continent. My personal viewpoint is that since the combinations of wine to wood are almost limitless and new barrels come on the market every year, now even from China, having a mentor and a professional playground on which to test many of the variations is very helpful. I’m happy to say that I had both and what I learned, tasted and observed in my early career about the effect of new oak on different lots of wine built the foundation for my use of oak today. Working for a large but experimental winery early in my career allowed me to select barrels from different coopers and different forests in different countries on a single wine to experience the effect of the barrel in isolation. In an average year we would use 30 different coopers and two barrels from each cooper would be used on a single wine. This wine would be aged and each pair of barrels would be meticulously kept separate until, after 18 months we would taste the wines blind. A group of 6-8 winemakers would discuss the merits of each barrel’s effect on this one wine. This process repeated for 10 or more years helped me to see the variation in barrels and how they affect one Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This built a useful foundation from which to build on by it was by no means exhaustive. The rest of how I have applied barrels to wine has been by instinct, practice and observation.
Now for some thoughts on how I approach the Ilsley wines when it comes to choosing oak types and the amount of new oak I think is appropriate to highlight the superb fruit grown at Ilsley Vineyards: First, I take stock of the very young wine just after harvest: dark, rich, tannic and relatively high in acid. Lots of personality but needing to be drawn out to bring fruit intensity to the finished wine. A little rounding of the tannins but very little is needed. These wines are big but don’t need to be fixed, hidden, supported or suppressed. The oak should never stand in the way of the fruit. The fruit aromas and flavors from the best Stag’s Leap vineyards has a purity and focus that I want to showcase. When I came to Ilsley I had my favorite cooper and barrel style: medium toast, center of France, cooper select, thin stave meaning the barrel is thinner than some and allows more air to the wine over time. I tried this favorite barrel on the most classic of the Ilsley vineyard lots. It didn’t work very well. It was too meek, lost in the boldness of the Ilsley Stag’s Leap style and concentration. It frankly would be a waste of money because it was lost in the fruit. But having tried it gave me some new ideas about what would work. Something bolder, usually more toasted but not much more, meatier, still French of course and still Center of France for a medium grain. Ilsley wines I know now work better with a thicker stave barrel for fruit preservation and I open the wines up over time by racking them (moving them out of the barrels periodically to breath and then putting them back). The vanilla of lightly toasted barrels is a bit too wimpy but medium plus is usually the ticket. I don’t want the consumer to say ‘nice oak’. I want the oak to lift the fruit, not appear oaky so roughly half the barrels in a given vintage are new, the other half are ‘once used’ which means they still impart oak flavor but less that when they were brand new. Then it comes down to the cooper. Each cooper has its own style of course. The variations from cooper to cooper can be vast and usually have to be tried to be understood. Some are wood fired for the toast inside the barrel and as a source of heat to bend the barrel. Some are steam bent and then toasted over a fire just to give a couple of examples of how each house differs.
Finally let me sum up with a list of the variations we winemakers consider in a barrel:
Country: French or American (or Hungarian but those are French-like for our purposes). French trees are sustainably farmed in managed forests, due to the cooler climate they grow more slowly and are tighter grained. They must be split, not sawn and there is much waste. American barrels grow in a warmer climate and are a different species. They can be split and have a wider grain which generally means you get more intense (and different) flavors.
Outward appearance: A barrel is most likely to be sound (not leak or have other inconsistencies) if it is well made so barrels I would be proud to have in my living room and which look perfectly smooth and evenly toasted inside are most desireable.
Air Dried vs Kiln Dried: Some cooperages age their wood before milling it for use in barrels outside. The best, most expensive barrels have had their oak aged for at least 3 years outdoors in the sleet, rain, sun and wind. Others, to save on expense, dry the wood in an oven. The difference in flavor is remarkable and the air dried is much preferred for its subtlety and ability to integrate with the wine.
American vs French: I touched on this before but American oak barrels give more flavor and it often tends toward a spice like dill. The affect is often very ‘in your face’. All of France’s oak is very tightly grained owing to the cool climate and this makes the flavor profile more subtle that barrels from America.
Forest differences within France: France prides itself on its (heavily subsidized) government run, sustainable oak forests for barrels. The flavor differences are subtle but can be noticeable and many winemakers choose to match a forest to each of their wines.
Stave Thickness: The thickness of the barrel used to depend on whether that barrel was used for transporting the wine (thicker) or aging it in a cellar (thinner) however New World winemakers, who want oak flavor, have learned that the thickness affects the oak/wine interaction by affecting the amount of air passing through the wood (more in thinner barrels) during the aging time. Thicker barrels often preserve more fruit but can leave the wines less developed and complex as well.
Barrel size: almost all of us use 225 liter sized barrels. This is about 59 gallons (25 cases of wine) but varies from cooper to cooper and wine stave thickness. 500L barrels (called puncheons) are desirable in some cases and even much larger casks but any variation in aging vessel results in adjustments needing to be made in the cellar to accommodate these different sizes. The larger the container the lower the wood to wine ratio and therefore the less impact the oak will have on the wine on a per gallon basis.
Cooper: By this I mean the cooperage house, not the individual artisan. First of all American barrels are coopered to a different shape than Burgundy barrels and Bordeaux barrels are different again. These names define the shapes in this modern age and not strictly where the barrel was made and the difference are subtle and really don’t affect the flavors at all but they can affect the chaos in the cellar. Coopers also have house styles when it comes to toast level and toasting technique which can strongly affect the wine it touches. One cooper’s medium toast might be more like medium plus somewhere else.
Mechanization: Almost all cooperage houses are at least partially mechanized these days. It is important to have some human intervention to be sure the barrel is sound and doesn’t fall apart or leak. Many of the most reputable houses use mechanization to speed up the process and avoid injury but balance that with a lot of hands on crafting to be sure each barrel is finished like a fine piece of furniture
Price: Naturally there are price differences among coopers and French barrels are almost double the price of American barrels in large part because they are made from split wood, not sawn wood and that process produces a lot of waste. That said, a French barrel will often cost about $1000 when new, more if it is from over 3 years air dried wood or has other embellishes like willow hoops on the outside. An American barrel is more like $400 when new. Except for barrels being made in a country not historically known for oak barrels (China for example but also Hungary) the pricing can be significantly cheaper. Surprisingly however, within France and the US producers price varies very little by cooper.
Wood Type: I have talked only about oak barrels because that is by far the predominant wood used for oak for wine. There are chestnut and cherry barrels out there and probably even eucalyptus but they would be few and far between and used more as a conversation point than for a technical reason. Oak is king for flavor, integrity and longevity.
Wine & Corks
The Wine – Cork Relationship
by Heather Pyle, Ilsley Vineyards Winemaker
Corks, are natural and, therefore, each one is different. Here’s is what you should expect and look for in a cork:
• A cork should not have wine seep up it beyond the bottom 25% at most. If wine has crept up the side either due to undo pressure or a cork fault it may not be very good or it may be fine. The capsule over the cork tends to hide this problem before it is opened. The volume of the wine in the bottle (the level in the neck) may also give it away. A small line of wine up the cork very often has no negative effect in my experience but it is best to note the integrity of any red wine cork when it is removed, whether in a restaurant or at home as a clue to what you might expect or give you clues if the wine is not as you expected. Wines that have compromised corks are often oxidized (think the smell of sherry or a cut, browning apple). If you are in a restaurant, these wines can be sent back.
• Wine under cork should last at least 20 years in ideal conditions (55-60 F consistently with the bottle on its side or upside down). As time passes, the cork loses its flexibility and shrinks in diameter. This sometimes allows air and even liquid pass over time. The constant wetting of the cork from the wine inside helps keep it plump and stops air from passing back and forth with temperature changes.
More - Wine & Corks
• Consistent temperature is as important as actual temperature for wines aged under cork. Cork breathes just a tiny, tiny bit. Air passes by the cork over time. This is greatly accentuated if the bottle is stored upright and/or if the bottle is subjected to wide temperature swings. Changes in temperature change the level of the wine, pushing air out during warming and pulling air in during cooling. Air pulled into the cork advances aging.
• Wines aged on their sides age better over long periods because they restrict the airflow, whether passive or active, past the cork.
• Old wines should be opened with a pronged opener (an Ah-So) so that if the cork has lost its firmness, you can still extract it in one piece. Old corks often break because the cork itself has lost it integrity over time. The better the coating on the cork initially, the longer it will last. French Chateau hold recorking events for consumers to bring their very old wines to be recorked to avoid this and resulting wine problems. However, opening a bottle and recorking it has its risks as well.
• Older wines, except to separate clear wine from sediment, should not be decanted. Decanting wine helps with clarity when needed but the large amounts of air introduced to the wine during decanting can often make the wine seem older than it would have if enjoyed directly from the bottle. For Ilsley Cabernets I’m referring to wines more than 20 years old so this is not a problem for you quite yet. When an older wine has sediment, I prefer to pour the wines into my guests’ glasses at the time of enjoyment, moving from glass to glass without tipping the bottle back, which would mix up the sediment. This requires enough guests to empty the bottle. Otherwise, careful, not splashy, decanting will work but just before consumption. Then the decanter should go into the frig until needed again.
• Decanting is best done to young wines. The slight misconception about decanting older wines comes from the desire to get rid of the sediment. However, it is the young, tannic reds that benefit most from the air that decanting introduces to the wine. The alternative practice of removing the cork to let the wine breath is a half-step at best. Given the small diameter of the neck, a wine is not really ‘breathing’ when left on the counter with just the cork removed. A better practice would be to pour the wine into glasses ½ hour before you want to drink it to allow the air in the bowl of the glass to contact the wine and help the wine open up aromatically.
• If the waiter hands you the cork after opening the bottle, it is customary to sniff it. Rarely does this tell us anything but every now and then a musty smelling cork will lead us to a musty smelling wine. Sniff away but while you are at it, take a good look at how well the cork has held up and whether it seems to have kept the wine in the bottle. Look for staining up the cork but wait to taste the wine before making judgment on whether it is okay or not.
Who We Are
By David Ilsley and Meg Shea-Chiles
Family and tradition have always been the definition of Ilsley Vineyards. Their Napa family roots go back over 100 years when their grandfather, Ernest Ilsley was born in 1912.
Grandpa Ernie and his wife June, decided to purchase the 40 acre Stag’s Leap vineyard in 1954, his plan was to farm, plant a few acres of vineyard and perhaps someday, establish a small winery. His dream was to start a family business that he could pass on to future generations. In 2018, they had their 64th harvest and the dream of a family winery has come true.
The First Generation – Ernest and June Ilsley
Grandpa Ernie started the journey as a Napa native and raised in downtown Napa. He started his career at the Basalt Rock Company, which would later become Kaiser Steel of Napa. There was nothing he could not build.
The Napa Valley in the 1950’s was a quilt of mostly small ranches where walnuts, prunes and cattle competed with grapes. It was in this era that Grandpa Ernie and his wife Laura “June” Ilsley, began growing grapes after purchasing the initial 40 acres as his retirement project and then acquired an additional 114 acres in 1963, The Downey Ranch. They named it after the gentleman who sold them the parcel, John Downey. His family had planted grapes on this site before 1900!
Farming was his hobby and Grandpa Ernie became intimately involved with the wine making community, selling grapes to Charles Krug and the Mondavi’s. In fact, Robert Mondavi and Grandpa Ernie discussed what grapes should be planted, and then started growing Cabernet grapes at his suggestion. A wonderful historical footnote, some of the grapes for Robert Mondavi’s first Cabernet Sauvignon were from the Ilsley Vineyards. Grandpa Ernie was also instrumental in establishing the Stag’s Leap AVA.
Since Grandpa Ernie was a builder by trade, he decided to build a first class wine cave in the side of the hill on the original property. The Cellar became one of his favorite places. It was temperature controlled, fit 8 barrels, had a beautiful basket press from the Cirocco’s, and of course, a place to enjoy a bottle or two of wine. It was also the perfect place to learn the winemaking process and produce “Valon de Napa”. This was his home grown and homemade wine from the estate to be enjoyed by all of their family and friends. An early memory is Grandpa Ernie and his friends in the Cellar swapping stories and drinking wine.
Second Generation – Ed and Sandy Ilsley
Grandpa’s enthusiasm for farming was passed to his son. Ed and Sandy Ilsley are the second generation of Ilsley’s with a love for the land. “Big Ed” was born in 1936, in a house in downtown Napa and raised in Napa. Ed developed his passion for farming on his grandparent’s farm and he learned to drive a tractor when he was 5 years old!
He met his wife Sandy in high school; they fell in love and were married in 1960 with a reception at the Silverado Country Club. Ed went to work for Kaiser Steele Corporation. Together they raised their three children, Janice, Ernie and David on the Ilsley Family Estate. Sandy, the backbone of the Ilsley family, worked in the Napa and St. Helena school districts.
Ed and Sandy epitomized the values of hard work, integrity, and always doing the best possible in whatever they did. Sandy and the family still talk about the spring of 1971. It was a long frosty spring where many farmers lost their crops. Ed spent 19 of 21 nights in the vineyards working to protect the vines from the damaging frost. Then at his day job, Ed was working on building the Transamerica Building!
Big Ed had a passion for farming and expanded by purchasing the Yountville Ranch in 1960. He worked the vineyard and was very proud of the fruit the land produced. Ed was a traditional farmer, but he also embraced new ideas like developing new canopy management to focus on quality of fruit over quantity. This was very forward thinking back in the 1990’s.
Ed was known to do “Research & Development in the Vineyards” along with the help of his sons and friends, like “Big John” Piña. His hard work paid off. The family’s hard work and dedication resulted in providing Robert Mondavi Winery with fruit from their vineyards for decades; today an ultra-premium vineyard neighbor, Shafer Vineyards, purchases their grapes. They have also had a lot of help from great friends and mentors such as Manual Barboza, Frank Perata, John Pina Jr. and Charlie Wagner.
Third Generation – Ernie and Ginette, David and Lorrie, Janice and Al
Over the years, Ed and Sandy passed on their passion for grape farming and their values to their children.
On the wine making side, Big Ed would admit that he was not the expert. Ed helped Grandpa make his wine, but not actively. Grandpa passed away in the winter of 1986 and in the summer of the next year, Ed’s oldest son, Ernie, told his dad that Grandpa’s homemade wine, Valon de Napa, needed to continue. So that year, Big Ed enthusiastically got involved in wine making. He asked for help from his friends Charlie Wagner, Doug Shafer, Elias Hernandez, Heather Pyle and the folks at Mondavi. The family wine making tradition continued.
Everyone came to realize just how good the home grown, homemade wine was, and in 2000, the third generation of the Ilsley Family started a new wine making venture.
Today, this third generation of Ilsley’s are at the forefront of continuing the Ilsley Family wine making tradition. They transitioned Grandpa’s homemade wine activities. Now they produce small lots of wonderful wine from their estate vineyards that can be shared with the ever expanding family and friends.
The Ilsley’s are proud to say that the family is involved in all aspects of the production of their wine.
Ernie and his wife Ginette, head up the winery operations. Ernie manages Ilsley Brothers Farming Company. They are raising three daughters Julia, Alyssa, and Olivia on the family estate.David and his wife Lorrie handle vineyard management for the Ilsley Estate Vineyards. David is also Director of Operations at Shafer Vineyards. They are raising their two daughters, Analise and Kate, on the family estate.
Janice Ilsley defines hospitality and customer service. Janice and her husband, Al Carravajal, manage direct sales for Ilsley Vineyards. Janice’s daughter, Kimberly, has been working in the wine business for a few years, and is currently furthering her wine education internationally before she comes back home.
Together, with the support of their partners and families, they create the Ilsley Vineyards wines.
Fourth Generation – Six Girl Cousins
The Ilsley’s have also prepared the way for the next generation to carry on the farming and wine making traditions. In 2007, Ilsley Vineyards introduced a second wine, Seis Primas which in Spanish means “six girl cousins”. This wine is named after the 4th Ilsley generation, Kimberly, Julia, Alyssa, Analise, Kate and Olivia. Appropriately sourced from 6 separate estate vineyard blocks, Seis Primas is a very unique blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since 1954, Ilsley Vineyards has been growing grapes for premium wines, and then in 2000, they introduced their first wine under their own label. The traditions and passion for farming and wine making have been passed along. Each generation has learned from the previous generation and continues the growth of the family business. At Ilsley Vineyards, the label of “Family Winery” isn’t a marketing strategy; it’s a way of life.
By Ernie Ilsley, Operations Manager
The idea of producing an Estate wine from the Ilsley vineyards started to formulate during the mid-1990s. Our family was selling most of our fruit to the Robert Mondavi Winery at that time. They had always been extremely progressive and they understood that involving growers in the winemaking process would help them advance to a higher level. Before that time, it was very unusual to see winemakers spending large amounts of time in growers’ vineyards. In 1989, my father started working very closely with both the Mondavi viticulture and winemaking team. First he worked closely with Karen Culler and then later with Heather Pyle. The Mondavi Team was experimenting with new strategies such as aggressive leaf removal, canopy shading, fruit thinning, and shoot positioning. The joint work with the winery representatives in the vineyard coupled with regular tastings of the wines showed my father what was possible.
As my father started involving David and me into the process, we embraced his goal of farming grapes at the highest possible level. We also knew that the only way our family’s vineyard could reach its greatest potential was if we controlled it from vineyard to bottle. We felt that we could put extreme care into small lots of fruit having a family member involved in every step of the process. With our long history of farming, one of the best vineyards in the valley and a great winemaker, we were confident we could make a very special wine.
In 1999, we hired Craig MacLean to be the first Ilsley Vineyards winemaker and set out to make the best wine possible. In the first few vintages we brought in many small lots of cabernet fruit from different sites to isolate the best clones and hillside areas in our vineyard. Later, we started harvesting other Bordeaux varietals to see if that would further improve the wines. Over the past two years, with the help of our new winemaker, Heather Pyle, we have put a great deal of focus on barrel selection and overall hillside vineyard canopy management. The past 12 years have given us a great education on crafting high level small production wines. We are happy with the evolution of our wines- each vintage building on the one before.
As we look forward we have a clear vision for our family winery. We will continue to make small lots from our estate vineyard. We will look for ways to improve the quality both in the vineyard and in the cellar and we will do our best to have a personal relationship with the customers who enjoy our wine.
The wines we make today represent the best we can do. We have and will continue to passionately strive to make the finest wine our property will allow us to make.
Thank you for supporting Ilsley Vineyards.
60 Years of Farming
Ilsley Vineyards Celebrates 60 Years of Farming in Napa
by Diane DeFilipi, Columnist / Features Writer – Napa Register
Ilsley Vineyards is many things to many people. A way of life and a labor of love for the Ilsley family, an example of the “American Dream” and a large piece of Napa Valley History.
The roots of the Ilsley family were planted in Napa Valley some 100 years ago. The roots of Ilsley Vineyards were literally planted 60 years ago by Ernest and June Ilsley when they first began growing fruit in the Stags Leap region in 1954.
The roots of the Ilsley story intertwine through the years with names and places that have long been associated with prominent members of this community, relationships and events.
Ed and Sandy Ilsley made their home in the Valley in 1962 and began to grow grapes, as well. As the grapes grew, so did the third generation of the Ilsley family, David, Ernie and Janice.
Janice’s “career” began on a Sunday ride sitting on her Dad’s lap as he cruised the vineyards on his 1944 Ford Jubilee tractor in 1966. She was 2 years old.
Ed involved Ernie and David early on and instilled the importance of farming grapes at the highest possible level and having family members involved in every step of the wine making process. The clear vision Ed had for the family winery continues on today.
Ernie’s thoughts and memories of growing grapes go back to his youth in the mid 1970’s. This was a time when the small towns of St. Helena and Yountville were traditional farming towns and they grew more Chenin Blanc than Cabernet. Most of the vineyards were head pruned without trellis wires or irrigation. They began learning how to grow world class grapes in the Napa Valley.
More – 60 Years of Farming
The farming practices used today were developed over the past thirty years testing and running trials on canopy management, row direction, rootstocks, clones as well as many other viticulture practices. To look at the family vineyard today, it’s sometimes hard to remember the past. Now growing only Bordeaux varietals, Ernie, David and the field crew make fifteen to twenty passes annually. Today, the irrigation and nutrition is carefully monitored and delivered using state of the art technology. It’s been extremely gratifying for Ernie, personally, to be part of this evolution and he can’t wait to see what the future will bring.
David reflects, “I think one thing I value is the friendships that I’ve made and people I’ve met because of the ranch, vineyard and winery. When I was young it was people I met while working here with dad and now it’s friends we share our home with. Also, watching my girls play and grow up here, like I did, is special to me.”
Today, David farms the Ilsley estate vineyards. Additionally, David serves as the Director of Vineyard Operations at Shafer Vineyards. David and wife Lorrie are raising their daughters Analise and Kate on the estate.
Ernie not only supervises the daily operations of Ilsley Estate Wines, but also is Sales Director for Novavine Grapevine Nursery and lives with his wife Ginette, and daughters Julia, Alyssa and Olivia, on the estate.
Managing sales and hospitality are Janice Ilsley and Al Carravajal. Janice balances her role at Ilsley alongside her position as a Montessori teacher in Napa. Janice’s daughter, Kimberly, a recent college graduate, is the first of the fourth generation of Ilsley’s to step into the world of wine in her current position as Hospitality Specialist for the historic Beringer Winery and as she also often co-hosts with Janice and Al, presenting Ilsley wines.
The property in Stags Leap increased in 1963 when Ernest and June purchased the “Downey Ranch” from John Downey. At this time the vineyards were planted with Zinfandel.
Then enter Robert Mondavi, who in 1964 suggested to Ernest that he plant Cabernet Sauvignon.
By 1966 the Ilsley’s were selling fruit to the historic Charles Krug winery and in this same year would sell fruit to Robert Mondavi. The first Cabernet Sauvignon made by friend “Bob” Mondavi contained Ilsley grapes.
Ed and Sandy Ilsley began managing all of the Ilsley vineyards management in 1975. Sandy thinks about how times have changed, and remembers a time when Ed said he hoped they would make enough profit on the vineyards to pay the property taxes of $240.00. As the wife of a farmer, Sandy was kept busy running the house and caring for 3 children, and remembers the frustration of having an 8 party line, each with a different ring code. “Back then”, says Sandy, “contracts weren’t written on paper, they were discussions that were sealed with a handshake”. Times have changed.
One of the things Sandy truly admired about Big Ed was the way he was able to adapt to the changes in farming, while many of his counter parts resisted these changes and how he realized that the best crop is not always the biggest crop. When it came to premium wine grapes it was really quality and not quantity. Many farmers, who’d previously grown other crops, were mostly focused on being paid by the weight at that time.
In 1985 Ernest Ilsley was involved with what would later become the Stags Leap District American Viticultural Area.
Between 1986 and 1997 Merlot vines were planted, followed by Sangiovese and then Malbec.
The working relationship and friendship with Bob Mondavi was enjoyed for 47 years. As the world celebrated the millennium, the Ilsley’s experienced their own step into the future as the third generation of Ilsley’s took the reigns. David, Ernie and Janice began managing the growing operations and new wine making explorations. David took on vineyard management, Ernie headed up winery operations and Janice became the definition of customer service. The new wine making explorations included the planting of Petit Verdot vines.
It was at this time that winemaker Craig McLean joined the Ilsley team and together they created the Ilsley Vineyards Stage Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, which was first released to the public with a limited production of less than 500 cases.
Another big year for Ilsley came in 2004 when and a new and important relationship began with Shafer Vineyards. This was the year Ilsley began growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot fruit for Shafer. This relationship continues today, as the 60th Anniversary is celebrated.
In this same year a new wine was created. This wine was crafted to honor the fourth generation of Ilsleys, the six girl cousins, Kimberly, Julia, Alyssa, Analise, Kate and Olivia. Named “Seis Primas” (six girl cousins), this wine, with it’s subtle pink label, premiered in 2007.
One of the talented winemakers of Robert Mondavi Winery, Heather Pyle, came on board as the winemaker for Ilsley in 2009. This is also the year Cabernet Franc vines were planted on the ranch. With similar wine making philosophies and styles, Heather works hand in hand with the family in creating skillfully crafted wines with TLC from vineyard to bottle.
Always the backbone of the Ilsley family, Sandy, carries on for Ed and invites you to join her, David, Ernie, Jan, Heather, their families and the entire Ilsley team in raising a glass to an amazing “60 Years of Ilsley Vineyards Farming” and to it’s future.
1966 Ilsley Vineyards had a contract to sell grapes to Charles Krug winery. Later, they chose to sell grapes to the Robert Mondavi Winery. The first Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon contained Ilsley Vineyards grapes.
1968 Cabernet vines were planted to replace the Zinfandel vines on the Downey Ranch.
1971 The Downey Ranch, experiences a long frosty spring. From mid-March to mid-April, Ed Ilsley spent 19 of 21 nights in the vineyard working to protect the vines from the damaging frost. Many farmers lost their fruit. Water sources were pumped dry and farmers were so tired they slept through their frost alarms. With the help of family, friends and neighbors, the crops were saved.
1975 The second generation of the Ilsley Family, begins managing the grape growing operations in the vineyards.
2000 The third generation of the Ilsley Family begins managing the grape growing operation in the vineyards and they start a new wine making venture. Ernie Ilsley heads up the winery operations, David handles vineyard management and Janice defines customer service. Together, with the support of their partners and families, they create the Ilsley Vineyards wines.
Craig McLean joins the Ilsley family as their winemaker and begins producing an Ilsley Vineyards, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is introduced to the public in 2003.
2000 – 2001 More Cabernet vines are planted on the Downey Ranch hillsides.
2001 Cabernet vines replace the Sangiovese vines. Petit Verdot vines are planted.
2003 The inaugural release, Ilsley Vineyards, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley, 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon. A limited production of 489 cases were offered to the public.
2004 The Ilsley Family celebrates 50 years of grape growing in the Stags Leap District.
For 47 years, Ilsley Vineyards grew grapes for the Robert Mondavi Winery. In 2004, Ilsley Vineyards began a new relationship. They are now growing cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes for Shafer Vineyards.
1954 Ernest and June Ilsley begin growing grapes in the Stags Leap region.
1962 Ed and Sandy Ilsley purchase a home and vineyard in the Napa Valley and begin growing grapes.
1963 Ernest and June Ilsley purchase an additional 114 acres in Napa’s Stags Leap District. John Downey sold the ranch to the Ilsley’s and continued to live there. This property has always been known as “The Downey Ranch.”
1964 After a discussion with Robert Mondavi, Ernest Ilsley planted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in his vineyard.
1979 Ilsley Vineyards has been growing grapes in the Stags Leap District for 25 years.
1980 Cabernet vines are planted to replace the old Carignon vines that were no longer a desirable grape for winemaking.
1985 Ernest Ilsley is involved in the effort to designate the Stags Leap District an American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is approved in 1989.
1986 – 1988 Merlot vines are planted.
1988 Cabernet vines are planted on the Downey Ranch hillside.
1994 – 1997 Sangiovese vines are planted.
1996 Malbec vines are planted.
1997 Ilsley Vineyards Sangiovese grapes are chosen for the La Famiglia Di Robert Mondavi Winery “Bless the Grapes” ceremony.
1999 Ilsley Vineyards Sangiovese grapes are chosen once again for the La Famiglia Di Robert Mondavi Winery “Bless the Harvest.”
1999 La Famiglia Di Robert Mondavi Winery chooses Ilsley Vineyards Sangiovese for the Napa Valley Premiere (barrel) Auction.
2004 A new wine is created, Seis Primas. This wine celebrates the forth generation of winemakers in the Ilsley family, the six girl cousins: Kimberly, Julia, Alyssa, Analise, Kate and Olivia. It’s offered to the public for the first time in September 2007.
2007 Ilsley Vineyards introduces their new wine, Seis Primas (the six girl cousins).
2008 This year, Napa experienced the most serious spring frost since 1971. Fortunately, David and Ernie had the experience and information they needed to care for the vineyards to avoid any frost damage.
Later in the year, the Cabernet Sauvignon on the hillside vineyard was replanted.
2009 Heather Pyle joins Ilsley Vineyards as their winemaker. She has a long history with the vineyards having started working with the family in 1988 while at Robert Mondavi Winery.
2009 Ilsley Vineyards prepares its first Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2011 In order to maintain a quality crop with good yields, older vineyard blocks are removed and new cabernet sauvignon vines are planted.
2012 Living in Napa Valley for the past 100 years, the Ilsley family is celebrating an American dream.
2015 Vineyard changes began by removing the Petit Verdot then planting Merlot. Later the Sangiovese was removed and Cabernet Sauvignon was planted.
2017 The Napa wildfires did damage some of the hillside vineyard blocks, however, most of the vines were saved. Fortunately the last grapes were harvested and delivered to the winery before the fire broke out.
2018 New Cabernet Sauvignon vines are planted to replace the vines lost in the fire.
Food & Wine
These are a few of Ilsley Vineyards favorite recipes. They have been developed to be made at home and enjoyed with our wines.
Elegant Cheese Platter
This is a quick and easy appetizer that pairs nicely with a glass of Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon or Sies Primas.
Baked Brie with Cranberries
Melted Brie and Cranberries baked in a pastry is perfect for the holidays and with a glass of Ilsley Vineyards wine.
Beef Wellington Appetizer with Bleu Cheese
These little Beef Wellingtons are a hearty appetizer for any festive gathering. Enjoy with a glass of Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon or Sies Primas.
This spinach salad is great as a light meal or as a side dish with a steak. Enjoy with a glass of Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.
These seasoned meats will pair very nicely with a glass of Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.
It’s the Balsamic-Blackberry Glaze and Spicy Peanut Sauce that makes this recipe so delicious and it pairs nicely with Ilsley Vineyards Seis Primas.
Great as a light summer meal or as an appetizer, these mini-burgers are delicious with Ilsley Vineyards Seis Primas and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Trade / Press
Wine Information Sheets
The 2018 American Fine Wine Competition Awards Ilsley Vineyards
2013 Seis Primas, The Double Gold Medal
2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, The Gold Medal
(Read the complete article)
The SOMM Journal
The Occult of the Rocky Outcropping
Stags Leap, Napa’s Most Elegant Address
Stags Leap District
CONTACT ILSLEY VINEYARDS
Ilsley Vineyards is not open to the public
6275 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
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