Word reached me late last week that the California wine world had lost one of its pioneers earlier this month. Jay Corley of Monticello Vineyards in the Napa Valley died on Jan. 11 at the age of 84.
Folks in town who frequent wine dinners at various restaurants may remember Corley, who came to town to promote his wines. Over a bottle or two of his Cabernets and Merlots, he formed lasting friendships with more than a few locals who treasure the time they spent with him as well as his wines.
I first met Corley at one of those dinners. It was at Las Canarias, and he was surrounded by friends old and new. During his talk, he was quick to issue invitations for one and all to come see his winery. That was all I needed to seek it out on my first visit to California. Having some sort of connection always helps when you have a seemingly unlimited array of choices, and there are hundreds of wineries in Napa.
Corley’s Napa Valley winery is indeed modeled after its namesake, Thomas Jefferson’s home. More than being beautiful, it proved to be a haven of peace in the wine-tourist crazed area. While walking around the place, I was able to enjoy the sounds of nature on an overcast afternoon and take in its agricultural beauty. It was here that I really came to understand that for as elevated a treat as wine is, it is the product of farming.
The tasting room was having a sale that day, and I remember sending a case of older Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs back to San Antonio to grace several holiday meals after that.
I next encountered Jay Corley in New Mexico, where he was attending the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta. I was traveling with friends Mickey and Glenn Drown, who are among the friends Corley had made over the years. Jay and his wife, Joan, had an annual party that the Drowns and the others in our group had attended for years. Once there, everyone seemed to fall back into each others’ company as if they had seem each other the previous week. Jay was especially proud that year of his Syrah, which showed off the best that his estate could produce and which was a grape that he had managed to continue to produce despite public tastes at the time.
During the evening, Corley mentioned to Glenn that he wouldn’t be able to make an exclusive tasting that had been set up for the governor’s mansion on the following day. He gave the tickets to Glenn, who invited me to accompany him. (It was there I met Douglas Murray, who invited me to visit his winery, Montes, in Chile. But my trip to his winery is another story.)
The day after the tasting, we went to a Corley wine dinner, which, if I recall correctly, was somewhere on the compound of the Museum of International Folk Art. During the winery owner’s presentation, he handed out several gifts. As my birthday was the following day, I received a gift of a DVD about Jefferson and the pioneering work he did with wine in this country. Corley was a part of the documentary and he was in his element, talking both about his hero and about winemaking. I treasure that gift more now than ever.
I have been holding on to a bottle of Monticello Vineyards Pinot Noir for a few years. What better way can I honor Jay Corley’s life than by lifting a glass of one of his finest to his memory? Join me.