From a dying vineyard in the 1800s, Ehlers Estate in St. Helena has transformed into a renowned winery encompassing the legacy of Jean and Sylviane Leducq and their Leducq Foundation, as well as their predecessors, Bernard and Anne Ehlers. For Laura Diaz Munoz, General Manager and winemaker, the estate exemplifies a dream come true.
The Legacy of Ehlers Estate
It began in 1885 when Bernard Ehlers, a Sacramento grocer who made money selling prospecting equipment during the gold rush, discovered the property known at the time as Mound View. In 1886 Bernard finished the stone barn, which is now the main winery building. During that same year, in France, the Leducq family started their linen business. The winery was one of 140 wineries in Napa until Prohibition came along. The winery’s history took on a colorful, more dubious image during Prohibition when bootleggers Fred and Manny Domingos owned the property. The winery’s name changed to The Bale Mill Winery during this illustrious era, and it was one of 26 wineries that remained in the area.
In 1987, Jean and Sylviane Leducq purchased seven acres of vineyards on Ehlers Lane and enlisted the French enologist Jacques Boissenot to replant the vineyard with Bordeaux varieties. Over the years, the Leducqs purchased more contiguous parcels. Finally, in 2001, the Leducqs purchased the stone barn winery and a parcel, the property’s original portion, where the olive trees planted by Bernard Ehler reside. Today Ehlers Estate encompasses 42 acres, run by the Lequcq Foundation with winemaker Laura Diaz Munoz at the helm.
Jean and Sylviane Leducq created The Leducq Foundation to benefit international
cardiovascular research in 1996. Upon Sylviane’s death in 2013, longtime friend David Tancredi took over as President of the Leducq foundation. The foundation includes the Ehlers Estate.
The Leducq and Tancredi did not meet by chance. David’s father worked at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. His father treated Jean for heart disease since France did not have the technology that the Mayo Clinic offered. After surgery, the Tancredi’s developed a close friends, and for David, the Leducqs became his second family. David followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. When the foundation was established, David was asked to work with the Leducqs on the foundation. It was only natural that David would become the President of the foundation.
Winemaker Laura Diaz Muñoz
Laura Díaz Muñoz joined Ehlers Estate as the full-time winemaker and director of operations in 2018. Her focus is rooted in old-world traditions and practices. Laura aspires to create wine that reflects her European upbringing with the freedom she discovered living in the new world. She considers her wines a portrait of a place and a vineyard. With minimal intervention, Laura produces wine with texture, complexity, and expressive flavors and aromas.
Growing up in Madrid and visiting her grandparent’s farm in Avila played a vital role in her love of food and wine. She studied biology and food science, but after an internship working a harvest with consulting winemaker Jose Pascual Gracia, Laura was hooked. With the help of Jose Pascual Gracia, she entered the Polytechnic University’s enology department. Laura graduated with a master’s in enology and viticulture. Her degree came when the acceptance of women winemakers in the industry was still almost unheard of, especially in her community. Her career path took her to La Mancha, New Zealand, and finally to Napa, where she worked for Jackson Family Wines before joining the Ehlers Estate team.
The Vineyard lies at the narrowest point, between the Mayacamas Mountains and the Vaca Mountains. This location benefits from a unique local microclimate, allowing constant airflow through the vineyard. After the morning fog burns off, the vineyard illuminates with sun. The afternoon on-shore breezes spread across the vineyard.
Ehlers Estate vineyard is a mosaic of small vineyard blocks offering a diversity of soils, clones, and rootstocks. The vineyard is divided into five blocks based on soil type and 25 sub-blocks made up of a combination of clones and rootstocks. Eleven of these blocks, approximately 25 acres, are dedicated to six different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon planted on multiple rootstocks, allowing the winemaker optimal fruit choices during the blending process. The vineyard also features seven sub-blocks of Merlot, four of Cabernet Franc, two of Sauvignon Blanc, and a block of Petit Verdot.
Organic and Sustainable Farming
Ehlers Estate became 100% CCOF-certified organic in 2008. Socially responsibility is a big part of the winemaking process. The vineyard is farmed using earth-friendly organic farming methods that preserve the purity and character of the fruit. These methods include composting and the use of cover crops. Minimum intervention in the cellar reduces Ehlers Carbon footprint. This approach leads to outstanding wines reflecting a unique sense of place.
As part of the preservation of the ecosystems around the estate, the surrounding areas Ehlers planted a native and drought-tolerant garden. These plants attract bees, butterflies, and birds.
In addition, Ehlers is Fish Friendly Farming Certified and Napa Green Certified.
The Ehlers Estates Wines
The Ehlers Estate wines represent its legacy, especially 1886, which pays tribute to both Bernard Ehlers, who completed the winery in 1886, and the Lequcq family because their linen business began that same year. This endeavor ultimately brought the Lequcqs to Napa to create the wines Ehlers Estate produces today.
Sauvignon Blanc 2021
This variety is one of Laura’s favorites to work with because of her time spent in New Zealand and the grape’s versatility. The Sauvignon Blanc ferments and ages for six months in a percentage of concrete egg, once used French oak Puncheon, stainless steel, and used French oak. The result is an elegant wine with citrus melon and white flower aromas. The wine’s vibrant acidity delivers stone fruit, lemon, and lime flavors.
The label is a delightful rendition of florals that define the wine inside the bottle.
Cabernet Franc 2019
The Cabernet Franc comes from two blocks with rocky soil. The wine ages 22 months in 70% new French Oak. I found aromas of dry spices, herbs, and violets, while on the palate, I found dark ripe fruit with savory spices on the mid-palate. This full-bodied wine is well-balanced, rich, and velvety, with lots of layers and depth.
Portrait Red Blend 2019
Portrait Red Blend combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The wine ages for 22 months in 58% new French oak. Earthy and savory qualities enhance this well-balanced wine. I found a full-bodied wine with minerality with dark fruit flavors, especially plum, accented by hints of cedar and licorice.
Laura Diaz Munez’s philosophy carries a fresh outlook on both the farming practices and the Ehlers Estate wines. It brings to heart the old-world traditions of Spain and France with a new-world perspective.
Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer was hosted to the wine sampled. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.