It was back in 1987 that Ray and Nancy Coursen crushed 4.5 tons of Zinfandel from the Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford to craft 286 cases of their first wine. While the portfolio has grown over the last 25 years, the focus remains on creating vineyard driven wines that pair well with food. Total production is currently 10,000 cases and the wines are nationally and internationally distributed.

Elyse's founder, Ray Coursen and his wife, Nancy had quite the varied life before starting their winery in the Napa Valley.

Ray grew up on a dairy farm in northwest New Jersey and tended various crops before tiring of milk and leaving the roost. After a two year stint in the army and extensive travel in Europe and Africa, he returned to the states and attended Stockbridge Agricultural College at the University of Massachusetts. While at school, he worked at a fine wine shop in Boston, and it was here that he discovered fine French wine. With Coursen's background in farming and his new appreciation for wine, the idea of making wine took hold. 

Nancy is a third generation Californian and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Following her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Occupational Therapy, she worked with special needs children in the educational systems of the Boston area.  It was in Boston in 1982 that Nancy met Ray and shortly thereafter his interest in the wine business brought them to the Napa Valley.

In 1983, Ray and Nancy Coursen arrived in California ready to turn their dream into reality. Ray’s first industry job was working a harvest at Mt. Eden Winery in Saratoga. Looking back on this first winery position at Mt. Eden, Ray notes, “Thirty years later, I can still smell that vineyard when I drink their Chardonnay.”

The next stop for the Coursens was Napa Valley.  Upon moving to the valley, Ray and Nancy became innkeepers for a bed & breakfast – perhaps only because they were allowed to plant a vineyard in the back. Ray then spent a formative amount of time at Tonella Vineyard Management, where he gained philosophical perspective and practical knowledge of working in the vineyards.  

The year 1986 saw the arrival of a daughter, Elyse Sarah.


Michele Duckett

Next up for Ray was nine years at Whitehall Lane Winery in Napa Valley's historic Rutherford appellation. His dedication took him from tasting room to cellar to head winemaker. It was with owner, Art Finkelstein that he honed his skills in the art of blending. Ray calls Finkelstein the inspiration for his winemaking style today and says "Art’s theory was simple – fruit first, and then wine is a collection of nuances and balance."

88 zin

In 1987, Ray and Nancy were ready to start their own wine label.  Elyse Winery began with 286 cases of Zinfandel from the Morisoli Vineyard, which is still a cornerstone vineyard source for the winery. After a decade of nomadic winemaking at various custom crush facilities, the Coursens purchased a small winery and vineyard on Hoffman Lane in 1997, the home of Elyse Winery and Tasting Room today.  

Soon after, the Elyse portfolio expanded as Ray met more of the area's growers and learned of all of the wonderful fruit that was available. Elyse Winery began to produce Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone Style Reds. He freely admits, " I just can’t say no to wonderful fruit."

In 1990, Ray and Nancy welcomed their son, Jake. It wasn't until 1998, that he realized that his sister had a wine label and he did not. Hence, there was the creation of the Jacob Franklin brand.

nancy and kids

wine spectator

Wine Spectator, June 1996, included Elyse as one of their Hot New Wines from California. “Some of the best new wines are made by moonlighting winemakers. Ray Courson (yes, they spelled the name wrong – but it was still a feature in Wine Spectator!) worked at Whitehall Lane Winery for several years before he and his wife, Nancy, started Elyse Wines, with the blessing of the owners of Whitehall Lane… Elyse's easy-drinking style of Zin is the type of wine that diners in local bistros love to drink young with a dish of pasta or grilled quail.”

fine wine