“There’s no better expression of who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, my experience, passions and practice than what goes into our bottles,” says winemaker and general manager Kevin Morrisey. He may be right. Looking at his life through the lens of these lovely, rich, and incredibly complex, full-bodied reds, and juicy and bright Sauvignon Blanc, it seems indeed as if every step along Morrisey’s journey to, and landing at, Ehlers Estate in 2009 were absolutely essential to making Ehlers Estate wines what they are today.
Long before the possibility of making wines crossed his own consciousness, Morrisey was a junior Hollywood cameraman,—intent on not just capturing light and shadow, but just like the rest of us, making a living. Following graduate studies in film at New York University, he found work as a cameraman in Paris. The move didn’t seem so unnatural for a young man who’d spent nine months in a VW camper traveling the European continent as a child with his parents, teachers who combined their sabbaticals in order to show their children the world. Living there as an adult, he came to know, and enjoy, French wines, which appealed to his love of food and cooking. Two years went by, and, despite having worked on a couple of feature films, commercials, music videos, and a few shorts along the way, the work—and his visa to work abroad—dried up.
He returned to the States, settling in Los Angeles, where he slugged it out to make a living behind the camera. All of his film contacts were abroad, and he was ready for a change.
He'd traveled on and off to the Napa Valley with “wine friends” and his soon-to-be wife Karin, an actor and daughter of French and German parents, who shared his taste for good meals and old world wines. At the age of 35, after a decade-long career in film, Morrisey enrolled in graduate school for a second time, to study enology at UC Davis. This was not a decision he took lightly. This was life. And he wanted to spend the rest of it making wine.
As he practiced the craft of winemaking, it became clear that nothing he had been doing along the way had been in vain. It turns out that the art, soul, and process that goes into making movies is a perfect parallel to the passionate, committed teamwork behind making great wines from the land where they’re grown. Managing a crew, mastering a lot of expensive and highly specialize equipment, working to a tight and demanding schedule, obsessing over the details, laboring for over a long term to finish a project, all to deliver a very precious product from the original vision that can’t be re-made. And finally there’ll be an audience and professional critics who will ultimately judge your work. Morrisey took to it right away.
An international spirit with French – American dual nationality, he was determined to finish his wine studies with an internship in France. He set his sights on Chateau Petrus and called up the the vigneron and offered his services. And he kept calling, and e-mailing, and faxing—until the answer was finaly “Oui! Come work for us this harvest. But please, stop calling me."
Following his graduation and return from Pomerol in 1998, he worked at Stags’ Leap Winery, apprenticed under experienced winemakers, and learned to manage a sophisticated vineyard and winery operation. He rose up quickly at Stags’ to become the associate winemaker. After 5 years there, he was recruited to lead the winemaking for long-time mentor Tony Soter at Etude Wines. In 2005, winemaker Robert Brittan retired from Stags’ Leap Winery, and Morrisey returned as head winemaker and general manager. He very well may have stayed on there had he not been approached by a recruiter looking to place a terroir-focused winemaker at the helm of a little winery just a bit farther up-valley in St. Helena. He’d known of Ehlers Estate, and he was very familiar with a vineyard right next to the property, and had long thought it produced some of the finest Cabernet fruit he’d ever tasted.
He and his wife and young daughters went up and poked around after hours when no one was around. It was a lovely place; an old stone barn winery built in the 1880s, first class winemaking equipment, and extremely well tended vineyards. The next day they returned and bought a bottle of each of the wines. “Those wines were a revelation,” he says. The quality of the terroir was obvious across all the varietals, and made in an international style from a Napa Valley vineyard. Powerful, balanced, elegant, complex.
Morrisey had been working to take the Stags’ Leap vineyards organic at the time of his departure, so finding that Ehlers Estate was 100% organic and biodynamically farmed was extremely attractive. His daughters had been raised in Waldorf schools, and being able to work at a company that embraced his same values and high standards was a very interesting prospect.
Much like the owner-vintner-winemakers in the old world who open up their cellar doors to travelers seeking to discover something beyond the typical tasting experience, Morrisey too, is at the winery more often than not, greeting customers in the tasting room and cellar, and right there in the vineyards every day. He’s rarely on the road as are so many California winemakers, preferring to make the most of time with his wife and two daughters and keep a healthy work/life balance. He picks at his guitar in his free time, takes his family camping as often as possible, and gravitates toward everything that oozes quality vision and sincerity, be it wine, food, music, spectacle, or art, as evidenced in the wild, varied, but always thought-provoking paintings that rotate on the winery’s old stone walls.
“Making wines that express our terroir is the goal,” he says. “You can’t always articulate it exactly. But when you taste it, you know it. Just like hearing the accent of someone who grew up within a few miles of you. It’s distinct and recognizable, and it’s the sound of home. It strikes you and cuts through the mix, singular and individual, and intensely and familiar. And there’s no possible way to mimic it. It’s either there, real and recognizable, or it’s not.”
Francisco grew up working in the fields of his family farm in Michoacan, Mexico. He left home at 14, and traveled to Los Angeles, where he spent two years learning English. At 16, he visited friends in Calistoga, and quickly decided to join them there. “The terrain reminded me of my home in Mexico,” he explains. Francisco began working on one of his friend’s vineyard crews, learning the business through the daily vineyard work of pruning and picking, experience that would pay off when he took first prize at the annual pruning competition held in Yountville. At 23, after five years of vineyard experience, he was promoted to foreman. He joined Ehlers Estate in 2001, and now manages the vineyard and physical plant of the winery, and assists Kevin with winemaking operations. Francisco says of his work, “It’s part of me, of my life. I grew up in the field picking tomatoes with my dad. For me, it’s almost the same.” Francisco lives on the estate with his family. He has three sons, the eldest of whom aspires to be a winemaker.