When penning a story about El Molino winery, it is difficult to determine where to begin: There’s its history as one of the first wineries in the Napa Valley, dating to 1871. There’s the historic label, a version of the original, depicting the Bale Grist Mill (“El Molino”), which is located next door to the winery. There’s the naturally beautiful Lily Berlin, who began learning to make wine at the tender age of nine. There’s Lily’s husband Jon, the ruggedly handsome South African surfer-turned-winemaker with perpetual stubble and a knee-weakening accent. And there’s the titillating tale of how Lily and Jon annually jump into the steel tanks in nothing but their underwear to help press the Pinot Noir grapes during the first week of fermentation.
But no, even given all that marvelous fodder for a good opening paragraph, this story must begin by discussing the provenance of the grapes from which the unique El Molino Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines are made.
If you know the Napa Valley, you know that the intersection of Highway 29 and Rutherford Cross Road is Ground Zero for Cabernet grapes. Some of the best-known and most historic vineyards in the valley are found in this neighborhood, including BV (Beaulieu Vineyards) and Inglenook. The warm climate and ideal soil conditions in this part of the valley are perfect for making world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the last place anyone would ever think of growing Pinot Noir.
Well, almost anyone.
Lily’s parents, Reg and Marie Oliver, purchased the winery, which is located in St. Helena, from the estate of Reg’s late Aunt Nancy Haven in 1978. They packed up the family and moved from New York City to the property in 1981, at which time Reg started making wine while they remodeled the winery. In 1987, the Olivers and some investor friends purchased the 68-acre Star Vineyard, on the south side of the Rutherford Cross Road, which was planted to about 55% Cabernet and 45% Chardonnay vines. Ignoring warnings to the contrary, Reg replanted six acres of vines with Pinot Noir. Despite the fact that BV’s Andre Tchelistcheff had made award-winning Pinot from a nearby plot of land in the 1940’s, it was now generally assumed that this area was far too warm to grow these finicky grapes. According to the Rutherford AVA website, these are now the only Pinot Noir grapes planted in Rutherford.
Most (but not all) Napa Valley Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are made from grapes grown in the Carneros region. Located in the southern-most part of the valley, adjacent to the San Francisco Bay, the Carneros region sees much cooler temperatures owing to the daily fog that arrives early and departs late in the summer months, compared to up-valley AVAs (growing regions). Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes thrive in these cooler temperatures, and growers generally prefer the lower sugars and higher acidity created by these conditions.
When I first heard about these cool-climate wines made from grapes grown in the Rutherford dust, I had to search them out. One night I encountered half-bottles of both wines on the menu at a Yountville restaurant, and ordered them. They were delicious, and so different from most Napa Chards and Pinots. To me, they were a cross between Burgundian-styled wines (more earth, minerals and acidity) and California-styled wines (bolder, fruitier, riper, oakier.) The Pinot, for example, gives wonderful cherry expressions on the nose and palate, but not in an overwhelming “Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drop” kind of way. The fruit is balanced with nuanced earth and minerality to create a soft mouth feel with nice complexity and round tannins. Likewise, the Chardonnay is a wonderful mix of acid and fruit, without being over-oaked or buttery. I was immediately determined to learn more, and soon arranged a tour and tasting at the winery.
Compared to the many Napa wineries that have been built with amassed fortunes by wealthy tech entrepreneurs, El Molino is spectacularly rustic. As we pulled up the driveway I half expected Laura Ingalls Wilder to greet us. The small, wooded plot of land features oak and madrone trees, manzanita bushes, a chicken coop, the family residence, a small winery building, and evidence of tiny inhabitants—the Berlins’ three young children.
Jon welcomed my group of eight at the parking area and began explaining the winery’s history to us. A moment later he briefly introduced us to Lily, who was busy shipping bottles to awaiting customers. As the winery’s only two employees, Jon and Lily do all the winemaking, sales and marketing for El Molino, while also raising their kids–a challenging task to be sure.
Jon first took us to a small covered area on the side of a hill where the Pinot grapes are processed during harvest. He explained that whole berry clusters are dumped in the steel vats and only natural yeast is used for fermentation. This is the point where Jon explained that he and Lily strip down and enter the vats three times a day during the first week of fermentation to gently press the grape clusters with their feet in order to extract the juice, and also to break the crusty cap which forms as the sugar turns to alcohol. After the first week they resort to more standard methods of punch-downs with normal winemaking tools.
When fermentation is complete, the contents of the vats are put into a basket press and then flow via gravity to mostly new French oak barrels waiting in the small cave below. The juice stays on the lees (“sur lie”) for 11 months before being racked and blended and spending 7 more months back in barrel. Once bottled, the wine spends another full year aging before being released. Production ranges from only 600-900 cases of Pinot, depending on the particular harvest year.
Leaving the Pinot production area, we walked to the newer winery building, which is where the Chardonnay is made and stored. Unlike the Pinot, the Chardonnay uses more conventional production processes—no punch downs in their underwear—including the addition of commercial yeasts. Unlike many California Chards, the El Molino wine does not go through malolactic fermentation, which means the wine does not take on the “buttery” characteristic so often found in similar wines. And by only using 50% new French oak for aging, along with 50% once-used barrels, the resulting wine has a more Burgundian feel while still showing full fruit development. As with the Pinot, only 600-900 cases of Chardonnay are made per year, meaning that El Molino is one of the smallest wineries in the valley in terms of overall production.
In a valley full of prominent female winemakers, Lily Berlin flies under the radar a bit, but her pedigree is solid. Born in Manhattan, Lily moved with her family to St. Helena in 1981 and was soon learning the art of winemaking from her father. When the college years arrived, Lily went south to Pepperdine for a Liberal Arts degree. Then, seeking a taste of city life, she returned to New York City to work for Sherry Lehmann Wine & Spirits before eventually returning to the quietude and sanity of the Napa Valley and the family business. When she and Jon are not making wine or tending to winery business, Lily volunteers for Canine Companions for Independence (www.CCI.org) where she helps breed and train service dogs.
While young Lily was learning to make wine in California, young Jon was learning to surf in South Africa, where he eventually opened a surfboard manufacturing business that struggled to stay afloat. Having long been attracted by wine’s siren call, he followed some opportunities in the famed Stellenbosch region of South Africa and soon found himself making wine at Flagstone. Searching for more wine experience, he took a harvest position at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma Coast of California while it was winter back at home. He hopped between hemispheres for a few years making wines in South Africa, California, New Zealand and Australia. On one of those California trips he met Lily, and decided to put down permanent roots in the Napa Valley, where he took a position as winemaker at Viader. When Lily’s father passed away just prior to harvest in 2005, Jon joined Lily to keep El Molino going.
Since my original visit I have been back to El Molino several times as I enjoy taking visitors to my “best-kept secret” winery here in the Napa Valley. Jon and Lily are two of the most sincere and grounded wine people around these parts, and their wines are, in my opinion, outstanding. The Chardonnay, at $60 a bottle, is in a league with Kistler and Flowers, to name but two. And the Pinot at $70 is on par with many higher-priced selections from Russian River, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and even Burgundy itself.
Next time you visit the Napa Valley, make a note to schedule a visit at El Molino. They don’t accept many visitors, because it’s just the two of them, but Jon and Lily would be happy to welcome you if they are available.