Houston Chronicle

January 12, 2009,
Excerpt from Dale Robertson's column in the Houston Chronicle
A Tale of Two Wineries

The Robert Keenan Winery is up above the clouds, near the top of Spring Mountain, which rises up behind St. Helena. The Honig Family Winery is on the Napa Valley floor, east of Rutherford on the riverbank. Although the distance between them is just a few miles, their microclimates vary greatly, and the grapes, accordingly, produce very different styles of wine. But the philosophies of the Michaels in charge — Keenan at the winery named for his father, who planted his first grapes there in 1974, and Honig, a third-generation owner — make them kindred spirits.

If they are the face of the California winemaking industry in the early 21st century, we should sleep well, knowing the future is in sane, responsible hands. Keenan, 50, and Honig, 46, treat their vineyards with considerable care while showing much kindness to the environment at large. Both deliver stylish, not ostentatious wines that work on every level, pricing included. They make perfect sense aesthetically, ecologically and commercially.

As high as Keenan sits on his beautiful hill, he’s nowhere near being over the top, in flavor, alcohol level or cost. His reserve cabernet sells for about $100 — not cheap but hardly “cult-wine” price, either. And Honig’s longtime winemaker, Kristin Belair, is as fresh a breath of air as her name suggests.

The wineries are leading advocates of sustainable farming practices. Keenan’s facility is fully solar-powered, and he’s especially proud of how the panels were mounted on pillars, squandering none of the precious soil below. He’d always taken as gospel that his winery faced due east, across the valley. But the guys who installed the solar equipment broke the news that he was actually looking south.

Whatever the orientation, the setting is marvelous, but the mountain fruit presents greater challenges than Honig’s. Keenan’s understated style, deftly translated by winemaker Nils Venge — the first to receive a perfect 100 score from Robert Parker for a California cabernet, when he was at Groth back in the 1980s — tames the tannins in his cabernets, merlots and cabernet francs while managing the hyper-important acidity levels in his chardonnays.

The Keenans are classic “food wines” that don’t crush what’s on the plate. As proof, the Napa Valley Merlot was recently voted one of the 10 most popular among U.S. restaurateurs, according to Wine & Spirits Magazine. Not bad for a former contractor-surfer dude who took over just a decade ago, when his father removed himself completely from the then-struggling winery’s operations.

Keenan père et fils enjoyed a tempestuous relationship. Its soap-opera elements would have been worthy of the old TV series Falcon Crest, the setting for which is nearby on Spring Mountain. But they made their peace before Robert died in 2006. His name will remain on the label in perpetuity, Michael promises.

“This was my father’s dream,” he said, “and he knew real estate. He found a pretty good spot for growing grapes.”

Louis Honig, Michael’s grandfather, bought their 68-acre property in 1964 and soon planted cabernet and sauvignon blanc vines, each well-suited to the sometimes scorching Rutherford microclimate. But he was a grower only, not a winemaker. After his death, the family made a few hundred cases of 1981 sauvignon blanc to honor him; the wine won a gold medal at the Orange County Fair.

Sauvignon blanc remains Honig’s sentimental flagship varietal, but the cabernets, first bottled in 1987, are at least as well-regarded. Like the Keenans, the wines are restaurant favorites.

“They might not be as flashy as those that get written up at 98 points,” Belair concedes, “but they are typically well-balanced, and in 10 years they will still taste very good. But you can drink them right now, which is important. This is the now generation.”

Michael Honig took charge of the winery in 1984 at the age of 22 and worked tirelessly to promote the brand.

He has recently become one of the valley’s leading proponents of earth-friendly production methods, serving as the first chairman of the California initiative to shape a “Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices.” He has also involved himself in a most intriguing pest-control project: using Labrador puppies to sniff out vine mealy bugs.

Honig is proud of the scale and mission of his operation, saying, “We drive around in pickup trucks. We’re regular people, farmers. We’re selling wine here, not a lifestyle.”

KEENAN WINES IN HOUSTON
• Chardonnay: Spec’s, Brix, Pesce, Corkscrew, Truluck’s
• Cabernets: Copperfield Liquors, Costco, Spec’s, Whole Foods Market, Au Petit Paris, Brix, Del Frisco’s, Ibiza, Le Mistral, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
• Merlot: Spec’s, Whole Foods, Woodlands Liquor, Hubble & Hudson, Brix (The 2005 Reserve Merlot Mailbox Vineyard arrives this month.)