Stories are told in many ways. For Ehlers Estate winemaker and General Manager Laura Díaz Muñoz, everything comes into play when she tells one.
The vintage, the vineyard and the winery all have unique tales. But when the 15-year veteran of Napa Valley winemaking started at Ehlers in 2018, she also assumed the general manager role.
Undaunted by the challenge, she found it furthered her chance to tell a story, while still turning out spectacular wines.
“I learned a lot about people and how to treat people,” Díaz Muñoz said during a recent Zoom tasting. “Winemakers depend on the community and employees. I can’t do a great job if the cellar crew isn’t in tune with me and everything I think.
“I need the sales team to care about a story I’m trying to communicate,” she said. “I learned how hard the business is, it’s not about making a wine or great wine, it’s about relationships. We need to communicate and connect. A lot of winemakers make their own wine and don’t want to live it. In (her native country of) Spain, winemakers do their jobs and go home and don’t talk about it. They do their own thing, and don’t want to know what’s happening in other countries.
“That’s what’s so great about Napa and other American wine regions, and why they’ve been so successful; we communicate and try to connect with each other and the consumer,” she said.
Even the labels, which Díaz Muñoz helped to redesign, are part of the Ehlers story. With pretty, warm colors and soft, rounded edges on the hills and mountains featured, they do more than convey a beautiful, peaceful image. They express the view one would see when standing in the vineyard.
They’re as stunning as the wine in the bottles.
“Part of my personality is to bring something else to the label, and I like the artistic side of making wine,” Díaz Muñoz said. “It’s fun to do the repackaging. In 2018, I spent a lot of time in the vineyard, but the labels didn’t show a difference between the wines. We make nine different wines, and I think each has a different personality and are very distinctive. I worked around that idea and wanted to highlight the wine’s sense of place with the packaging.”
The Ehlers Estate Merlot 2018 ($72) had an amazing nose. It’s an aroma that fits exactly what wine should smell like, with its loamy earth, cracked black pepper and red fruit. Tasted initially on Tuesday, the wine that remained on Wednesday was even better as the tannins, which were a little grippy, had smoothed out. Because they are on the valley floor, Díaz Muñoz said they “never have trouble getting ripe.”
But, the cherry and pepper flavors are never overpowering. There’s ideal balance paired with refreshing acidity. Even though she came on two months before harvest, Díaz Muñoz was able to make an impact on the 2018 wines, as she adjusted the canopy in the vineyard, and chose the pick date.
“My intention with the winemaking is to show the structure of the wine and be respectful of the grape,” Díaz Muñoz said. “Fruity and fresh is how it should be all the time coming from this estate.”
When it comes to cabernet sauvignon, Ehlers had wines that showcase the sunshine, the heat of the valley floor, brilliant fruit and bright acidity. What Díaz Muñoz mastered, and has always had a deft touch with, was to make wines that are loaded with fruit flavors and spice. They are always balanced, and never become too heavy or extracted. It’s refreshingly lithe, yet loaded with character.
Ehlers Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($72) had plum, cherry and currant fruit notes. There were dusty espresso notes and a cigar box expression with an iron edge of minerality. The Ehlers Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($72) was a bit more concentrated at first, had black cherry, lead pencil shavings and a touch of loamy earth.
Introduce cabernet franc (34%) to the blend of cabernet sauvignon (38%) and merlot (28%) in the Ehlers Estate Portrait 2016 ($65), and the depth of flavors the site can produce begins to show. The focus is on red fruit, and it is the star here, but a little herbal, mountain scrub note on the finish really provided a lift.
As Díaz Muñoz has grown familiar with the site, there’s a project underway to replant some blocks to varietals more fitted to the soil type in that area. The wines should continue on an upward trajectory. There’s also been the installation of 3- and 5-ton fermenters in place of giant tanks.
By fermenting in smaller lots, Díaz Muñoz can keep early- and late-ripening portions of the vineyard separate.
“For me, the future is in the vineyard and planting,” Díaz Muñoz said. “I want to be sure we have very healthy soils and vines to work with, that’s my main focus right now. We want to plant what we think is going to do best here. No real new varietals, I planted a little malbec for a red blend because I think just a tiny bit can make the wine better. We aren’t planning on growing in volume, we are just trying to make this site planted with vineyards that can last longer and keep making quality wines that I think we are capable of making.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.