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Ilsley Vineyards Celebrates 60 Years of Farming in Napa

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.

Ilsley VineyardsThe 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.

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.

ilsley plantingDavid 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.

Ilsley VineyardsThen 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.

Ilsley grapes 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.

by Diane DeFilipi, Columnist / Features Writer - Napa Register