I first met Christi Coors Ficeli in 2015 when she launched her re-imagined Goosecross Cellars in Yountville. In the two years since Christi purchased the property from the Topper and Gorsuch families (founders and longtime proprietors of Goosecross since 1985), she worked diligently to lend her mark on the vineyard and winery along with developing a welcoming hospitality venue. However, it was only recently I learned of her “secret” vinous dream.
Christi (part of the fifth generation of the Coors brewing family) began her professional career in the late 1990s at Gallo by marketing Wild Vine, essentially a wine cooler in a 750ml bottle. At Gallo she met her future husband, Dave Ficeli, who was marketing director of their brandy division.
After leaving Gallo, Christi joined the family business representing Coors in Northern California, while Dave joined Beringer in their marketing department. They lived in Napa from 2001 to 2004 developing a sense of community and love of fine wine. Though leaving to pursue other career opportunities in Chicago and Denver, they knew they would eventually return to the Valley where they both felt a sense of community.
Dave always shared Christi’s vision of one day producing their own wine. They planned to name it “C. Elizabeth” and vinify it in a style mirroring the bold personalities and pioneering spirits of generations of women in the Coors family all named Elizabeth. It is the first name of Christi’s mother and daughter, her middle name (hence C. Elizabeth) as well as her grandmother’s.
Christi and Dave returned in 2012 to make Napa their home and seek new career paths. At that time, the Coors family was encouraging the fifth generation to independently embark on select small business opportunities. So while Dave was involved with his own “négociant” wine company, Christi set out to find the ideal vineyard property to follow her path toward producing quality wine from an estate vineyard.
In 2013, Christi purchased Goosecross and embarked on a multi-year program designed to express her model for the wines, vineyard and property. The following year, she brought Bill Nancarrow on board as winemaker who also oversaw the construction of the new wine-making facility and rejuvenation of the estate vineyard.
Bill (a native of Hawkes Bay, New Zealand) honed his winemaking skills on four continents and over several decades, including a 12-year stint with Duckhorn and its sister brand Paraduxx. While with the Duckhorn group he gained a deep knowledge and sense for the unique terroir exhibited by many of Napa Valley’s individual growing areas. Bill’s zeal, talent and commitment proved the perfect fit for Christi to pursue her path forward.
With Bill’s arrival at Goosecross in 2014, the dream of launching C. Elizabeth finally moved from the “back-burner” to reality. As Dave says, “When Bill hears an idea, it’s a go!” And that’s what happened.
The creation of C. Elizabeth was the culmination of Christi and Dave’s shared “17-year dream.” It was founded as their personal project completely separate from Goosecross to create a legacy for their children. With this in mind, C. Elizabeth wines are available via direct-to-consumer at www.celizabeth.com.
Bill shared their enthusiasm as this was his first “start-from-scratch” endeavor and immediately suggested the precise vineyard source to produce a wine of superior quality in the flavor/structural profile envisioned by the Ficelis.
Just a stone’s throw from Goosecross, Bill (from his days with Duckhorn) was well acquainted with Alex Vyborny’s Game Farm Vineyard that he refers to as “Its own little wonderland.” Within a day or so, Bill arranged a handshake agreement with Vyborny to source fruit for C. Elizabeth.
Game Farm is located on the southernmost edge of the Oakville AVA on the banks of Rector Creek and has two distinct parcels with each lending its own personality to C. Elizabeth’s final blend of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
Rock Pit is reminiscent of the famous “galette” stone-laden vineyards found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape of France’s Southern Rhone. There is no visible topsoil, only large fist-shaped stones and decomposed rock thickly set above the subsoils. Given these stressful growing conditions, the grapes are smaller with thinner skins resulting in wines possessing great intensity and bountiful aromatics.
The other parcel just to the north is Trailside. It’s also rocky but has a layer of ferrous loam topsoil yielding wines a bit plusher in style displaying an enhanced texture and broader flavor profile.
The stylistic interpretation envisioned by the Ficeli’s called for American oak in the barrel aging regimen. Generally, American oak from the Midwest is better known for its larger pores than the French oak normally used with Napa Cabernets. It can also create the predominant aromatics/flavors of vanilla, coconut and dill. To avoid these unwanted characteristics, Bill has gravitated to tighter grained Pennsylvania oak (more like French oak) to control respiration and the use of well-aged water-bent staves to circumvent excess toasting.
Christi and Dave always envisioned a bold wine to express the personality of the “Elizabeths,” but they were not willing to sacrifice elegance and grace. Bill’s focused criteria on Pennsylvania oak, specific coopers and barrel construction led to a rich mid-palate without extracting excess wood flavors, preserving the wine’s balance, structure and texture, while inviting the pristine character of Game Farm fruit to shine.
Total production of C. Elizabeth varies from vintage to vintage and is about 10 barrels (roughly 200 cases). However, based on the vineyard yields, Bill typically vinifies twice that. Then the rigorous and exacting selection process begins. The goal is to create the best blend possible given the vintage characteristics using fruit from both Rock Pit and Trailside. While the rejected lots remain high in quality, they do not fit the vision of C. Elizabeth and are sold on the bulk market.
When tasting the 2014, 2015 and 2016 with Christi, Dave and Bill, I was delighted to observe the overall appeal of the wines and the intricate stylistic development of the program through its first three vintages. Across the vintages, I observed intense aromatics that simply exploded from the glass. A rich and texturally appealing palate with finely grained tannins, balanced acidity and expressions of red and blue fruits. A lengthy, complex and layered finish completes the journey.
2014 was the first venture and the resulting wine demonstrates brightness on the nose and palate. It seems like the infant of the group. The 2015 is richer and offers more complexity while continuing to express the Game Farm terroir. It represents the program’s adolescence and teenage years.
In the 2016, I found a profound expression of the vineyard and a maturing program with ever enhanced complexity and intrigue from nose through finish that left me pouring a second glass. It was the “adult in the room” and a positive indicator of what’s yet to come as C. Elizabeth continues to develop.
All three wines displayed a combination of power and elegance that is expressive of the classic “iron fist in a velvet glove” analogy. For Christi, this is the culmination of a long and dedicated journey that demonstrates its greatest gift: “Every taste brings a different expression on the palate and forms a legacy for the next generation.”