One of the Best -Spring 2009
by: Dan Fost
photography by: Deanne Fitzmaurice
Ray Coursen did not have the kind of culinary or oenological upbringing that would have tabbed him for a future as one of the top wine producers in California’s fabled Napa Valley.
He grew up on his grandparents’ farm in New Jersey – yes, New Jersey has some rural areas – eating menus of “meat and potatoes, and if not that, then potatoes and meat. And you had fish on Friday and chicken on payday.”
And his first wine? “We were hippies,” says Coursen, 61. “We were drinking labrusca – rotgut wine.”
Yet Coursen had a few things going for him. The local wine-shop owner taught him a few things about the beverage – whites and reds, Burgundies and Bordeaux, Spanish and German vintages. And not least of all, “I love to cook,” he says, “and winemaking is cooking without a flame.
“Yeast is my fire,” he says. “That’s really the whole thing to it.”
So he says. But spend a few hours with the man, and you realize there’s a lot more to good wine than yeast and sugar. Coursen’s Elyse Winery, named for his daughter, turns out a wide variety of vintages grown all over the Napa Valley, reflecting both the gregarious Coursen’s ability to strike deals with nearly anyone as well as his shrewd nose for good grapes.
Wine Advocate founder Robert Parker tabbed Coursen as one of the 10 best winemakers in the United States. Coursen, a former denizen of Cape Cod, will be honored as the Luminary of the Year at this year’s Nantucket Wine Festival.
“Ray is a master of the sensory,” says Denis Toner, who runs the festival. “Wine is not a formula, but it’s a sensory experience. Ray picks up on that. He reminds me of a Burgundian farmer. He’s an outsized personality. His wines are like that too – outsized but balanced, with a larger-than-life elegance.”
Toner tells a story that shows how well Coursen knows winemaking. “I was a sommelier, when he tasted a ’91, a Michel Ogier Côte-Rôtie, at the Chanticleer, a Wine Spectator Grand Award restaurant,” Toner recalls. “Ray said, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ I went over the nature of wines from the Rhone Valley with him. He was new to it, but he was taken with the wine.”
“Two years later he came back to Nantucket, put a bottle of syrah on the table, and said, ‘I want you to try this wine’,” Toner says. “I said, ‘God damn it, you have captured the profile of a wine that’s 3,000 miles away.’ You would have thought it was the same wine. That’s the level that he has.
“For me, it was an object lesson about Ray, mostly his fascination with learning.”
Coursen has always been learning, although the career path was never obvious. As a child, he was a geography buff, and he names Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake as heroes, and although he says he never circled the world, he sure saw a lot of it. He served in the Navy in Vietnam, spent a year in college in Las Vegas but left because he couldn’t stand “the bright lights and flash,” knocked around Africa for a couple of years, and then earned a degree in pomology – the branch of horticulture dealing with pitted fruits like peaches and plums – at UMass Amherst. Jobs along the way ranged from a South African mining company to tending bar in San Francisco.
He went to work in some fine restaurants, and took a gig at Bauer Wine and Spirits on Newbury Street in Boston, where he got to know Toner. He ultimately married his wife Nancy, a third-generation Californian. In 1983, they were living in a shared house on the ocean in New Seabury, Massachusetts, with Ray running a raw bar and Nancy a pasta house, when he set his life’s path.
“I said, ‘What would you think about moving to California? I want to make wine.’ Nancy didn’t need to think about that one. ‘Tomorrow,’ she said,” Coursen remembers.
Did Coursen know wine at that point? “I knew a couple of things about it,” he says, his florid face breaking into a smile. “I knew how to drink it.”
He got a job picking grapes and digging ditches, and started learning the ways of Napa. He planted a vineyard at a bed and breakfast that he ran, and ultimately found a job at Whitehall Lane. “I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the tasting room,” he says, “imparting the knowledge I acquired and trying not to lie and get myself in a corner.”
He gradually took on more assignments, on the crush pad, in the bottling room, then in regional sales, then in national sales. By 1986, he was assistant winemaker, and the next year he was named head winemaker.
At that point, Whitehall’s owners said, “We’re not going to be here forever. We think you should start your own brand.”
He launched Elyse that year, when his daughter was 1, and Whitehall was sold the next year. (He later added a Jacob Franklin label, when his son complained that he wasn’t getting his due).
With his outgoing nature, Coursen was already becoming what Toner calls “the mayor of Yountville,” and he could usually be found holding forth at a local watering hole. He cemented many relationships in those days, including one with a neighbor, Hugh Tietjen, that continues to bear fruit today.
Coursen buys cabernet grapes from Tietjen, chairman of Wine Communications Group, which owns Wine Business Monthly and Wines & Vines, and Tietjen is an investor in Elyse.
“The guy really knows the wine business and has taught me a tremendous amount,” Tietjen says. “He’s a good friend and a good coach.
“In the local restaurants and bars, he towers over everybody else. He is larger than life.”
Tietjen recalls one night that has passed into family lore. “Coming back from a little partying one night, Ray and I were navigating the ditch here on Niebaum Lane. We were keeping each other standing up straight. About a month later, Ray and his family came down to San Diego, where we live when we’re not here, and we went to the zoo. Ray’s little boy Jacob bought a postcard of two baboons holding each other up, and said, ‘That looks like my dad and Mr. Tietjen’!”
Coursen’s friendliness has served him well in business.
“He makes friends with vineyard owners,” Tietjen says.
“He has tremendous sources of grapes. He knows where there is good fruit out there. He’s a not-by-the-book guy when it comes to everything, both his marketing and his sourcing of grapes.”
His knowledge of the land, and the grapes, is vast. His favorite time is harvest, when he gets up before dawn and walks through the vineyards in the half-light, tasting grapes.
“I probably eat 150 grapes a day,” he says.
He sizes up some vineyards next to each other, Tietjen’s on one side and Morisoli’s next door, both of which supply him with grapes. To an untrained eye, they look the same. To Coursen, “They have their own personality.” One has a slightly higher elevation, and is closer to “the mountain,” the hills of the Rutherford Bench. “It’s just like it was with my grandmother in the summertime, picking raspberries and strawberries and eating until you get a rash,” he says.
“She’d say, ‘This side is fresh berries. That side is preserves.’ One gets morning sun, one gets afternoon sun.”
“I’m not an enologist,” Coursen says. “I believe in magic. The magic of yeast. The magic in the soil. The magic in the palate.
“There’s a phrase, and it’s true of great art, great music, great food, great wine and great sex: ‘It stoned me.’ It took me out of time for a thousandth of a second. That’s what we aspire to in winemaking,” he says. “When we get to do it, we’re usually amazed.”
Dan Fost is a freelance writer living in Marin County, and a former reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. He writes frequently for Nantucket Today.