If you've come to read my articles, you've probably noticed that I'm an ardent supporter of small production, family owned and operated wineries.

That's not to say there is anything wrong with the large-scale production wineries of the world, but for my personal consumption, I just seem to gravitate toward the uniqueness and passion that one generally finds in these types of smaller wineries. There's something about the care and love of their land and vines, as well as the painstaking craftsmanship and effort that these families place into every bottle that is compelling and always rewarding.

In California, while many of these families are relatively new to grape growing and wine production, there is an "old guard" that has been doing it the same way for 25-plus years. Ray and Nancy Coursen, owners and winemakers of Elyse Winery, are these types of people.

In 1983, Nancy and Ray arrived in California from Cape Cod to fulfill Ray's dream of making wine and Nancy's taste for adventure. Ray spent formative time at Tonella Vineyard Management, where he gained philosophical perspective and practical knowledge working in the vineyards. After that, Ray had a nine-year tenure at Whitehall Lane Winery under the tutelage of Art Finkelstein, first as a cellar worker and then as head winemaker. At Whitehall Lane, Ray honed his skills in the art of blending, and this was the inspiration for his style today.

In 1987, Ray and Nancy started Elyse Winery 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, in 1997 they purchased a small winery and vineyard on Hoffman Lane, the home of Elyse Winery and tasting room. 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."

One of the things I admire about Ray and Nancy is that they are true "salt of the earth" type people. They are not in this for glory or greed, but rather to make great wines for you and your family and friends to enjoy together, spending quality time making great memories.

I remember hearing a story about Ray's relationships with his grape growers, and a statement was made that Ray does not believe in contracts and signatures. A firm handshake is what he requires to make his deals and if that is not good enough, then he will head on down the road.

Ray purchases fruit from some of the finest vineyards in California, including the Morisoli Vineyard in Napa Valley. This area has a worldwide reputation for growing great Cabernet Sauvignon.

The light, dusty, gravelly soil here produces grapes with vibrant flavor and impeccable balance. The resulting wines express equal parts power and finesse. An Elyse wine from this vineyard will have great longevity but is also very drinkable when released.

Elyse also makes wine from the Black Sears Vineyard on Howell Mountain, in the eastern range that defines Napa Valley.

Biodynamically farmed, the Black Sears Vineyard boasts gravelly red soil and a 2000-foot elevation. The beautiful Zinfandel from this vineyard yields rich fruit layers and elegant aromas. Elyse is thrilled to have been working with this fruit since 1991.

Ray also has an estate vineyard at Hoffman Lane in Napa Valley located just southwest of Yountville. The long, cool growing season of this micro-climate yields fruit with vibrant berry flavors.

They also make wines from outside of Napa Valley, and the featured vineyard is Naggiar Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. This meticulously farmed, high-elevation vineyard is their favorite non-Napa Valley source. They produce two delightful Southern Rhône-inspired wines from this Sierra Foothills' site, including their C'est Si Bonne wine, which is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Counoise and Viognier.

Ray likes to say that winemaking is cooking without a flame. His winemaking philosophy at Elyse is similar to the approach of a great chef who carefully prepares artisan-grown ingredients to bring each layer of flavor to the table.

Douglas Snyder is a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. He has more than 20 years' experience in the wine, spirits and hospitality industries. He is the wine director and general manager at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Savannah. Contact him at dsnyder@rcsavannah.com.