Army Black Hawk Pilot Juggles Two Roles: 5th Generation Napa Valley Wine Grape Grower & Assisting Underdeveloped Nations

The gusts of winds jolting the hoist created a slight dread in the man’s heart as he hung from the end of it, reaching for a tiny hand of a six-year-old girl hysterically crying. The girl was positioned on the top of a palm tree keeping her head above the flood surge caused by the hurricane that had just passed. Only a few minutes had gone by but it seems like a lifetime as the man reached for the girl for the tenth time as he couldn’t get a good enough hold of her and there was no way she would make it if he was only able to grab her hand. A paralyzing fear started to creep into his body as he envisioned dropping the girl as he tried to pull her towards him – he is always ready to face his own death but the loss of a child he couldn’t bear. Suddenly, screams from inside the massive helicopter, to which the hoist is connected, travel down to the man – they are a slap in the face he desperately needed in this horrible situation. Time was running out – the winds were fiercely picking up and the hurricane could be shifting back and either he grabbed the girl now or they would have to leave without her. Using his weight, the man swung with one of the gusts of wind and decisively clutched the small child as the hoist lifted them into the Black Hawk helicopter.

This was just a typical day for the men and women in the National Guard stationed in the underdeveloped country of Honduras to assist with various humanitarian efforts needed.

One of those men, an Army Black Hawk pilot named Chris Morisoli, is also a fifth-generation Napa Valley wine grape grower in the famous Rutherford section of Napa Valley in California. His property is surrounded by such illustrious neighbors as Scarecrow, Inglenook and Phelps, to name a few. His great-great-grandpa, Rocco Morisoli, emigrated from then northern Italy (now part of Switzerland) in the later 1800s and planted vines in Rutherford, Napa Valley, in 1910. His great-grandpa, Plinio, ended up running the local general store as well as helped with the farm. It is interesting how Rutherford was considered one of the most booming places in Napa with the largest population as it was a big mining town. Today, Rutherford is much less populated but has grandiose wineries and vineyards that are some of the most esteemed in the world.

Chris lives in that same house his great-great-grandpa put down roots in back in 1883 helping his father take care of their vineyards with only the assistance of a couple of full-time workers, all while juggling an extra part-time job in the National Guard, what he calls “Army Light,” still going to various places around the world that are in desperate need of humanitarian relief.

Morisoli Vineyard

The Morisoli vineyard first started as a Zinfandel field blend and so not only was Zinfandel planted – with some of those old Zinfandel vines still there – but there was also Mourvèdre, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Négrette and Black Muscat mixed in as well, a hodgepodge of sort. One of the top winemaking and viticulture universities, U.C. Davis, came out and took samples from that original Morisoli vineyard and found clones of grape varieties that weren’t in their database so they cataloged one of them as the “Morisoli” clone. Today, the vineyard is still dry-farmed and managed the “old way,” which includes Chris using their 1934 D2 tractor, or perhaps he will go with one of the “newer” tractors from the 1970s or earlier.

Today, Morisoli makes a small amount of wine from their highly prized vineyards under the winemaking leadership of Joel Aiken; the first release was their 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon. Joel was the winemaker for Beaulieu from 1985 until 2009, working with the great André Tchelistcheff, often known as the “Dean of American Winemaking.” But Morisoli cherishes their long-term relationships with eight other wineries who buy their grapes, one having a notable history in getting the Morisoli vineyard on the right track.

Elyse Winery

Ray Coursen, who founded Elyse Winery, convinced Chris Morisoli’s dad to plant more Cabernet Sauvignon in the early ’80s as they had a lot more Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc planted than Cab back in those days and today, most of the land is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and only a few acres of Zinfandel. There was a partnership between Elyse Winery and Morisoli from the inception of Elyse and Morisoli’s “first vineyard designate” was for an Elyse bottling in 1987. But Ray’s relationship goes further back than his Elyse days as he had been using fruit from Morisoli as the previous winemaker at Whitehall Lane, which always used Morisoli Cabernet Sauvignon in their reserve bottling.

Ray got to the point where he wanted to retire but he didn’t want to sell to a hedge fund that would strip it for parts; he wanted his legacy to continue with Elyse Winery. One fateful night when wine producer Josh Peeples was having a typical casual dinner out in Napa Valley, he struck up a conversation with Ray, which had happened numerous times in the past as they shared bottles of wine to drink with dinner and Josh ended up being the ideal person to buy Elyse Winery.

Josh was excited to add a winery such as Elyse with such a “great pedigree and great reputation” to his portfolio of wine projects that would not only give his winemaker, Russell Bevan, access to a top-notch winery facility but also some stellar vineyards… although securing the continuing relationship between Elyse and Morisoli was not guaranteed initially. And so, the first meeting between Josh and Russell with Chris’s father was the most important one, as although Russell has an impressive resume with being awarded 100-point scores as well as being picked as “The Wine Maker of the Year” a few years back, Chris’s father was more interested in a meeting of the minds when it came to character and intention. The meeting was successful as it was evident that Josh’s and Russell’s main priority was to keep Elyse’s legacy alive and keep Morisoli fruit an “important cornerstone” of that legacy.

Josh and his winemaker Russell certainly have had their hands full with Elyse Winery as despite only making a total of 10,000 cases, they work with 42 different vineyards yet no other vineyard is more important to them than Morisoli. And Josh even took their commitment to Morisoli to a greater level by making a reserve bottling of a vineyard-designated Zinfandel from Morisoli that comes from a section they call the ‘Zieger’ block.

Defining Moments

As Chris Morisoli walks the vineyards on his family property and looks at the displays for the various rows that indicate which particular wine producer those grapes are designated for, he comes to the vines that are sold to Elyse Winery, which happens to be near the vineyards for the cult wine Scarecrow, known as the J.J. Cohn Estate, and a sound in the sky abruptly captures his attention. He looks up towards the distance and recognizes it as a Black Hawk helicopter helping to put out a fire and he lightly smiles to himself, knowing that is how juggling these two different worlds started with him.

Years ago, he was a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire and one day, he, with a couple of others, had to go down into a little valley to put out a “spot fire,” which was very dangerous as the fire came up as they were climbing down. Before he knew it, a Black Hawk with a big red cross on it came in and put the fire out and as Chris saw the helicopter fly away, he knew he wanted to be the pilot in that helicopter.

He went into the Army to attend flight school and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. “That was the defining moment in my life,” noted Chris, and he continued, “absolutely crazy times but I got a lot of life experience there real quick.” When he looks back, he wonders, like so many others, what it was worth and why was he and many of his fellow Americans there yet he feels good about his job during that time as he was “helping folks in their worst hour” by flying his injured compatriots to the nearest medical facility. After his time at war, he continued to serve in the National Guard on humanitarian efforts such as the assignment in Honduras and after 12 years in the Army, he came back to his family’s vineyards. When things are slow in the vineyards, he can continue helping out in the National Guard but all year round, he volunteers at the local Rutherford fire department.

As it is getting harder and harder for parents to pass down family businesses as costs have increased a lot more than the revenue that most small family businesses bring in, especially farming, there is a horrible choice that needs to be made: either the family sells, adding to the unsettling reality that the U.S. is no longer a place where many family businesses can thrive or the children who take over have it worse off than their parents. A third option is to get a part-time job. Chris’s Army Light part-time job not only makes it possible for the line of multi-generational wine grape growers to continue in his family but his experiences in the National Guard have made him grateful for his lot in life, even when times are tough. In Honduras, Chris witnessed poverty that is unheard of back home with families walking eight hours with their six or seven kids to simply get some soap, dewormer and other essentials.

Breaking the Cycle of Duality

Sometimes it is hard to see how much one has until he experiences those who genuinely have nothing. As Chris walked around his vineyards taking it all in, he exclaimed how “lucky” he was to be there regardless of the backbreaking work and escalating costs – hopeful about the future. He is so optimistic that the Morisoli family is making their own wines for the first time in over 100 years.

It is a lesson for many that one does not need to get caught in the duality of life, of having only two options with both being horrible. Finding a third option not only helps him to continue a family legacy while keeping a decent quality of life but he has gained experiences that make him appreciative instead of resentful of the responsibilities that he has taken on to continue the family business.

Maybe the American dream hasn’t died but just shifted. It is time to stop being trapped in a mindset of thinking that there are only two options… the ideal path could be so outside the box that when it presents itself, it seems out of reach, such as that day fighting the dangerous fire in the little valley as that massive helicopter, like out of a movie, came and saved the day. At that moment, Chris decided to take his life in another direction for a time, returning to his family vineyards not only in a better position to handle the financial ups and downs of farming but as a better human being.

2019 Elyse, Zinfandel, Morisoli Vineyard, Rutherford, Napa Valley: 100% Zinfandel from Zieger block on the Morisoli estate. Rhubarb compote, red cherry tart and a touch of black pepper in the background with a lush texture and lovely balance between earthy and fruit-driven notes on the palate. Delicious!

2018 Morisoli Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Morisoli estate. The slowly sauntering aromas are elegantly captivating from the start with stony minerality, blackcurrant leaf and a faint touch of violets that enchants the palate with a beautiful texture reminiscent of delicate lace that gently caresses along the long, expressive finish.

2019 Morisoli Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Morisoli estate. An intriguing nose with crushed rocks, wildflowers and toasted anise seeds with a multifaceted palate that includes graphite and cigar box balanced by plush black cherry sauce flavors with velvety tannins that are finely sculpted to give an elegant shape to the long, flavorful finish.

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