This collection of secrets of a family owned estate Napa winery comes directly “From the President’s Desk.” These writings from Michael Keenan covers the winery goings-on and insights of a family estate winery owner from the Summer of 2002 through the Summer of 2006. When read in unison, these Keenan Winery Newsletters, paint a colorful and compelling picture of life in a family owned estate Napa winery. Here you will find thoughtful and touching tales of how Michael Keenan’s relationship with his father took an about face, the challenges acquiring the winery and facing weather and wine journalists’ misconceptions, and how he has been working with his outstanding team to produce award winning wines adored by the most prestigious wine critics.
Going Solar on a Family Owned Estate Napa Winery
Tribute Part 2
Four years ago my father had a solar powered electrical generating system installed at his home in San Mateo. He loved the idea of generating his own power and even more, loved bragging about the fact that he no longer had to pay the utility company anything for it. And though my father would certainly never be accused of being a fan of Al Gore, installing this system pleased his natural conservative sense of protecting the environment.
So with system installed and his meter spinning backward he began to regularly bug me about installing a system at the winery. “Too expensive,” I replied, “and unlike you, I have to worry about my budget and have too many other pressing issues to address right now.” When I looked at my end-of-the-year expenses and saw what a small percentage my utility bills were of my overall costs and combined that with what I thought it would cost to install solar it seemed unfeasible at best.
When my father got a good idea (or thought he had!) he could be very persistent. So he kept bugging me. I knew he would not stop until I did something about it. So last summer I had two companies give me a proposal to install a system at the winery that would meet all our power needs for the winery and the houses on the property. I was convinced that when I had these proposals in hand I could then show my father in writing how expensive and therefore unfeasible his “great” idea was.
Imagine my surprise when, after meeting with Katrina and Rob from Sunlightelectric last July, installing a photovoltaic system suddenly seemed not only do-able but a darn good idea to boot. Not only did all the numbers make sense, but also Sunlightelectrics’ pole-mounted design was an inspired solution as to where we could locate the solar panels.
Well, with Dad’s all to pleased blessing last July I signed the contract with Sunlightelectric and now the system is complete and we are spinning the meters backwards!
Cheers Dad, good one.
Generational Hand-off on a Family Owned Estate Napa Winery
Encarta World English Dictionary defines “tribute” as something said or given to show gratitude, praise, or admiration. This definition describes pretty accurately how I feel about my father who passed away on November 17th.
Ten years ago this was not the case, in fact, it could not have been further from it. We were not speaking to each other and he had even taken the time to put in writing his desire never to see me again and to insure that I would have no part of him. Harsh times emotionally.
To say that things have come full circle in the last ten years is just a beginning. Many things and many circles have been made.
Thirty years ago when I was completing my first circling of the globe, the last city I stopped in was Hong Kong. A month later, I was working the first harvest at the winery. Thirty years later, weeks after the conclusion of our thirtieth harvest, I was again in Hong Kong, this time, celebrating the fifth anniversary of our Hong Kong distributor.
The first night there I co-hosted a winemaker dinner at a restaurant aptly named “Tribute,” the name, according to the owner, being attributed to winemakers. I couldn’t help but think what an amazing coincidence this was, and how it seemed to me these last ten years have in some ways seemed like a “journey” to tribute.
Nine years ago, mostly at the wise urging of my wife, Jennifer, I reached out to my Dad when he really needed some support. To make a long story short, we were able to reestablish our relationship. He asked me to take over his affairs as he felt that he was really ready to retire and I agreed.
For the first several years, I had to focus on the structural problems that the winery was suffering from and I noticed that I was quite eager to assign these various problems to my perceived shortcomings of my father’s personality and I was energized by the thought of succeeding where he had come up short.
With the passage of a few more years and the indispensable help of the crack team at the winery of Matt, Randy, Laura, Nils, Art, Jeanne, and Jennifer, all those old problems seem like ancient history now and almost like they never were that big of a deal. The focus the last couple of years and now is not one of repair but of harnessing our creative energies to move forward, and to always improve. Re-doing the tasting room, installing a solar energy system, and creating new wines are the order of the day.
The last six harvests have all been incredible and the sky seems like the limit. During this period I have noticed how my thoughts and public comments about my father have completely changed in tone. There is no longer assignment of blame, but credit and praise for first having the vision and second the tenacity to hang in there long enough to provide us the opportunity to finally bring his dream to fruition.
Oddly enough, Dad never again visited the winery after I came on board. He was strangely superstitious and somehow thought it would be best if he just stayed away. Well, now another circle is completed. Dad, in condensed form, now resides on top of the armoire in the tasting room where he can get a bird’s eye view of the vibrant activity in the tasting room and keep an eye on our blending sessions for a while.
P.S.: Learn more about our family owned estate Napa valley winery.
Outrageous Weather and Stunning Wines
One more time?
I’m writing this on the 4th day of June and although it is technically still spring it really feels like the 4th day of summer. Our typical summer pattern of early morning fog on the coast and up the valley followed by hours of gorgeous sunshine and cool breezes in the evening seems successfully entrenched.
And not a moment too soon. Just six weeks ago we were still in the grips of the worst winter any of us can recall. We had already received over 70 inches of rain, shattering last years’ record of 63 inches, and one state forecaster thought we had another month left of this pattern. Good grief!
I have never seen the vines dormant for such an extended period of time. Last year we had plenty of sun between each storm so the vines got off to a great start, but this year we had grey, cold, rainy days seemingly without end. If it didn’t rain it was still dark, cold, and miserable.
So naturally my mind began to ponder the worst-case scenario. What if we simply did not have a harvest this year? This is farming after all; there are no guarantees. Aside from the fact that I thought it would be a shame if our 30th anniversary vintage was a total bust, I thought if we had to experience a completely disastrous vintage we are probably in as good a position to weather it as we have ever been.
A strong case can be made that the five-year period of 2001 through 2005 has produced the five strongest consecutive vintages in our history. 2001 through 2003 I would rate as equal vintages. All three can be considered excellent and each has its’ specific strengths and unique characteristics. 2004 and 2005 I am quite sure can be rated as our finest back-to-back vintages in our history. 2004 seems to possess in one vintage a synthesis of the strengths of the three previous years and 2005 is quite frankly beyond description at this point.
Well, mother-nature has provided spectacular weather for the last five weeks and the vine growth has been nothing short of miraculous.
My mind has left behind the contemplation of the disastrous and has moved on to the enjoyment of the present state of glorious vine health, numerous fruit clusters, and the very real possibility of yet another great year!
Cheers to summer!
An Extraordinary Year
We have a truly extraordinary view from our office window at the winery. Our Chardonnay vineyard is right below us and as soon as the vineyard ends the forest begins. A small hill rises up that blocks a view of the valley below but is not high enough to prevent an unobstructed view of the rocky eastern palisades. No houses, no roads in sight. Sometimes I wonder how we get any work done.
At some point last March we were all in the office having a “meeting”. After about ten minutes – which I think should be the limit of any “meeting”– I found myself staring out the window at the natural world. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Have you guys noticed how green it is outside? I mean, I don’t think I have ever seen the trees look this dark green or the cover crop in the vine rows look this lush and tall.” Fortunately I was not alone in my observations, and this was, I might add, before lunch so no sampling of our fine products had yet occurred to influence our perceptions of the world around us.
So I started to get an inkling that this year, this cycle, might have something extraordinary in store for us. Other signs appeared. The wild flower crop this year was the most brilliant that I remember ever seeing and the bird life seemed more numerous. One day while walking in the cabernet vineyard I saw what I guessed to be about two hundred ravens seemingly “playing” in a big group going from tree to tree and making a tremendous amount of noise.
The cover crop was the thickest and most exuberant ever. We are certain of this because we have never had to mow it this many times! And don’t get me started about the fig tree this year. I think that recipe went out in the September wine club shipment and I highly recommend it!
The rainfall this last year was an all-time record: sixty-three inches. And between each storm there was plenty of sun. So the stage was set for a great growing season but each time a vineyard started flowering it started raining again! At one point I thought it would be a miracle if we ended up with any fruit. It even rained on Father’s Day weekend, the day of our open house. Somehow the bees managed to get their job done through all the rain and fruit did begin to form. August was pretty mild and we all looked forward to some good ol’ September heat to bring us home.
The first ten days of September were really cold. There were days that didn’t get over fifty-six degrees. Were my special feelings about this year just the musings of a madman? Would the fruit ever ripen? Were we now in the grips of some new evil global weather pattern? No, yes, and no, respectively. The sun finally came out, the vines responded rapidly and we harvested what may turn out to be a truly extraordinary vintage.
Cheers to the future!
Trials,Trials & More Trials
AND THE RETURN OF THE “MAILBOX” ?!
We have just concluded our blending trials for the 2003 red wines. The trials are the blind tastings of barrel samples of all the different lots of red wines from the ‘03 vintage. The objective being to determine the final forms that the various bottlings will have. Last year the ‘02 vintage practically assembled itself, but this year at the beginning of the trials the task seemed like a big puzzle with nothing but sky pieces.
Granted part of the problem when we started the trials at the beginning of March was that we had just received our best review from Robert Parker in our history for the ‘02 reds. He even boldly declared the 2002 Mernet Reserve as the best wine in our entire history! No pressure following that! But despite the enormous expectations on we went.
The first thing that we try to assess in the trials is whether or not there are wines worthy of the “reserve” designation. I was pretty sure that the ‘03 vintage had a “reserve” Cabernet in it but beyond that it was still all sky pieces. Immediately we determined that clone 15 would be the basis for the “reserve” Cabernet but it seemingly took weeks to massage the final blend into place.
Next came Mernet and our Merlot “reserve.” One potential problem for us with the ‘03 vintage was that we had very little merlot from the Carneros vineyard. This wine is primarily used for blending. It goes into almost every red wine we make and has played an especially important role every vintage in the “Mernet.” But Carneros and almost all of Napa with the exception of Spring Mountain District had terrible weather during set in the spring of ‘03 and thus had drastically reduced crop amounts. Conversely Spring Mountain had flowering and set a week later than the rest of the valley and by then the weather had cleared and we had a successful set and eventually a record crop in the fall!
Again all sky pieces! We were close but stuck short of a happy conclusion for either the “Mernet! or the Merlot. It wasn’t until we resorted to some ancient Bordelaise trickery that the “lower bowl Merlot emerged as an absolutely stunning embodiment of the purest, most voluptuous, Merlot, that I have ever seen! Two birds with one stone. Our first single vineyard reserve Merlot since the now legendary “Mailbox” Merlot from the ‘97 vintage! And to boot the lower bowl matched equally with the estate clone four cabernet will make our first 100% estate “Mernet!
Cue the parting of the clouds and the bursting rays of the just in time sunshine! All the pieces now are falling together. The sun has quite literally arrived just in time. The bees are buzzing, the vines are flowering, and Mother Nature appears ready to take us for another wild ride!
Cheers to summer!
P.S.: Learn more about family owned estate napa valley Mailbox Merlot.
This time of the year marks what we refer to as the start of the “second season”. Our primary season, the grape growing season, has just concluded with another very successful harvest and with the first good rains of the year coming quickly on its’ heels the “second season” is off to a great start. While the vines and deciduous trees are losing their leaves and becoming grey and bare the earth in the vineyard is springing to life and turning an emerald green.
Besides being pleasing to the eyes there are several distinct benefits to the vineyard from the growth of the second season crops.
Being a mountain winery has always posed the problem of slope. For thousands of years farmers have terraced hillsides, essentially creating level steps up and down the hillside to allow them to use the same farming techniques that the more fortunate valley farmer could use. In 1998 we had to replant our largest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. Instead of keeping the terraces we decided to contour the hill smooth and plant the vine rows straight down the fall line. This has revolutionized our relationship with erosion; historically one of our biggest problems. Now we can grow our cover crops over the entire surface of the vineyard during the rainy season and inhibit erosion more than ever.
Another benefit from the cover crops are the positive changes to the soil composition. The tunneling of the root systems of the grasses and grains provide increased passageways for water and nutrients to penetrate below the surface to the vines root systems. Certain plants also produce needed nutrients like nitrogen that the vines need during their growing season.
Compost is also provided by the second season crops, in that everything that grows in the vineyard stays in the vineyard. The mowing that is done in early spring leaves the vineyard rows covered in cut vegetation that again inhibits soil evaporation and retains the late spring moisture well into the summer and provides composting material for the following fall, further enhancing the soils’ composition.
We have all noticed that walking in the vineyards after the first big rain in the fall has become much less slippery than it was six years ago when we first started implementing these techniques because the soil composition has markedly changed.
Perhaps most importantly to the consumer though is the effect on the final product, the wine. I firmly believe that our improved farming practices have led to healthier more vibrant vines and this has directly led to wines that have a more expressive and voluptuous nature. Last Christmas Robert Parker gave us our highest scores in our history for our 2001 vintage. I think that the 2000 vintage though was our breakthrough vintage; the first year that we really saw the benefits of our improved farming techniques. Last summer we entered our 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon in the California State wine competition (the biggest of its kind) and since we release over a year later than most wineries we were up against mostly 2001s. Well we got 98 points (the highest score given this year!) the double gold medal and was deemed Best of Napa Appellation!
So here’s to another great second season-cheers!
History of Our 100 Year Old Winery Building
This year marks a number of significant milestones for the Robert Keenan Winery. The oldest milestone is that this is 100th anniversary of our winery building. In 1904 the Conradi family from northern Italy (the Spring Mountain District reminded them of home) built a traditional Italian hillside cellar. Digging into the hill to use the earth’s natural cooling system, and using the abundantly available local stone stock, they constructed a building that not only looks timeless but has indeed endured the test of time.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the “Robert Keenan Winery.” When my father, Robert, bought the property thirty years ago some of his friends, who had already bought land down in the valley, laughed at him. “You can’t even drive a tractor up there, Robert,” they chided, “you should be down here in the valley with us where the living is easy!” I think time will validate my father’s instincts, i.e., mountain fruit is more complex and can have more profound characteristics thus meriting higher recognition. The 2001 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a fabulous example of these qualities and is just, I believe, a hint of what our vineyards have in store
Another milestone is this year marks the tenth year that Nils Venge, Randy Kewel, and, Matt Gardener have worked together making the wine, making them, by far, the longest tenured team in our history.
People frequently ask me, “Who’s your winemaker?” I usually reply, half jokingly, “No one, the vineyard does all the work, and the wines really make themselves.”
This is partially a nod to the European concept that indeed there is actually no exact word for winemaker in most European languages and the term winemaker is of American origin. But more importantly, this response is an acknowledgement of the seamless workings of our current team, and of how naturally the illusion of effortlessness is accomplished.
These milestones were beautifully celebrated last Thursday evening with a dinner in the cellar. A singular, long table for 24 was set (Italian style!) by my wife Jennifer, using colors that matched those in the cellar. The dishes that were picked were foods that grew or were hunted on the mountain, candles provided the illumination, and of course the vineyards that we could see through the stone arched cellar doors provided the refreshment. Never have I seen a more perfect setting for a celebration.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the Conradi’s had ever had a night like this. Let’s all hope that all of us have many more nights and moments like this one!
Friends are What Matter on a Family Owned Estate Napa Winery
One of the things you hear all the TIME about the distribution side of the wine business is that it is a relationship business. To get things done, you have to establish good relationships with the people who are going to buy and sell your wine. You hear it so much that it has become cliché. But like a lot of cliches, it is based in truth. In the time that I have been in the wine business, the financial rewards of the relationships that I have established are not what I value, but more importantly, it is the simple pleasure of making great new friends in various cities across the country.
“Take time to cherish your friends and family… gather together, have a great meal… and enjoy each other’s company.”
One of the new friendships that I have thoroughly enjoyed has been with Barry Manpearl, who represented our wines in the midwest. A trip to Chicago, Milwaukee, or St. Louis always carried the added bonus of knowing that I would get to spend some time with Barry. We’d share a great meal with great wine, tell stories, and get some business done. Business was always important, but somehow placed in context after the primary pleasure of simply being able to share each other’s company. The telephone, naturally, played a huge role in our relationship, and it was over the phone during the last three months that Barry told me about his cancer diagnosis, treatment, and apparent initial recovery. He had met a whole new world of people who had beat this disease, and with tremendous courage and positive energy, he was determined to become part of this brave new tribe. So when I answered my phone early Monday morning and was told that Barry had died, I was shocked and rendered speechless. Our deepest sympathies, support, and love go to Barry’s wife and son from all of us.
I am very fortunate that I have a great, beautiful, healthy, and happy family, and plenty of friends to share things both wonderful and terrible. To all on our mailing list and friends of Keenan Winery–take time to cherish your friends and family, gather together, have a great meal with a great bottle of wine, and enjoy each other’s company!
Wines from a Family Owned Estate Napa Winery that Wildly Surpass the Critics Expectations
News Flash – the end of the story
SPRING OF 2003 BRINGS TO A CONCLUSION the Saga of the 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon. On March 21st, three hundred and fifty five days after its release, the last pallet was shipped off to Las Vegas.
How do you spell relief? 1999 is how.
On March 27th, I was in Chicago working with our most excellent distributor showing the 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time. After talking up the Chardonnay and the Merlot, it was time to describe the ’99 Cabernet. The salesperson wanted to hear about the wine, our broker wanted to here the new story, and of course, the wine buyer for the wonderful restaurant where we were, wanted to hear all about it. I simply said, “Look, I have just finished the most exhausting year of my sales career praising the spectacular merits of the 1998 Cabernet and maybe five percent of the wine buyers listened to me because of the tremendously negative pall that the Wine Spectator (this is the third newsletter in a row that I have mentioned this publication–could be a trend!) cast over the entire vintage, so it really doesn’t matter what I say. The Wine Spectator says that the ’99 is a great vintage so you would be an absolute moron not to buy it!” Fortunately laughter filled the room, and the astute wine buyer for the fabulous restaurant ordered two cases of ’99 Cabernet and a six-pack of Mernet (only 80 are left of 300 cases!). Then he asked if I would come back in the fall and do a winemaker dinner.
I guess they like the blunt approach in Chicago.
Back in California, the restaurants that were pouring the ’98 Cab by the glass were fighting over the few remaining cases in our broker’s warehouse. All that remain at the winery are a couple of cases of half bottles, two cases of magnums, and nine 3-liter bottles. Nine months ago, who would of thought that at the end of March people would be fighting over the 1998 Cabernet?
Other signs of the impending apocalypse include the current (May 15th) issue of the (drumroll please!) Wine Spectator. Noted savant and indefatigable discerner of truth, Matt Kramer, has said that we are once again a “contender” (I always wanted to be!) and that our Merlot is one of the best that he has ever had!
Let the dancing spill into the streets!
Dinner with Frank Sinatra at a Family Owned Estate Napa Winery
The impossible dream – guess who’s coming to dinner
FOR THE JUNE NAPA VALLEY AUCTION catalog, participating vintners were asked the following question: “If you could pick anyone in history, who would you invite for a night out on the town?”
My choice would be Frank Sinatra for a night on the town. I’ve always been curious about the “mob.” Does it actually exist? What about the connections to the Kennedy administration? The Kennedy assassinations? Marilyn Monroe? The “Sopranos?”
I think Frank could really clear these questions up. Plus, think of the prestige and awestruck respect that I would garner from New York restaurateurs when they realize that I was able to be bring Frank Sinatra back from the dead and make him look 30 years old again! Frank would tell everyone that it was the miraculous healing powers of my 1998 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon! Sales would soar! I would be on the cover of the Wine Spectator!
Unfortunately, ressurecting Frank Sinatra is perhaps the only way I could get some of my out-of-state distributors to get excited about the 1998 Cabernet. Due to consolidation in the distribution end of the business, i.e., giant companies buying up smaller family-run companies, our choices for representation in many markets outside of California are dwindling. The bigger the company, the simpler the thinking; 98 bad–99 good.
But just as the traditional supplier-to-distributor-to-retailer or restaurant-to-consumer four tier system is getting more problematic for the small winery, the winery direct-shipping-to-customer option is growing. Thanks, in part, to several pending legal actions, the internet, and companies like “Fiftyfivedegrees.com,” it is becoming increasingly easier to ship wine directly to the consumer. Fortunately for us this is the fastest growing segment of our business!
And as a way of saying thank you to the faithful on our mailing list and especially to our wine club members, I would like to extend a special offer on the 1998 Napa Valley Cabernet from our family owned estate napa winery. For holiday gifts, parties, weddings, or any occasion, please call, fax, or e-mail for a special price if you wish to buy one case or more. Wine Club members will receive the most outrageous deals!
Happy Holidays from all of us at Keenan Winery!
Wine Critics’ Generalizations are Not Always Correct when You’re On a Family Owned Estate Napa Winery
The second half of the story
JUST ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, RIGHT AS we were beginning our blending trials for the 1998 reds, The Wine Spectator came out with an article ripping the entire 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage from Northern California and from Napa
in particular. They said that due to adverse weather, the crop just didn’t get ripe and therefore, the wines were thin, green, hard, overpriced, and to be universally avoided.
Unfortunately for a lot of producers, almost everything that the Wine Spectator was saying was true. The 1998 Cabernets that were released one and two years ago were generally thin, green, hard, overpriced, and to be generally avoided!
But what The Wine Spectator failed to mention was that two years later, there would be a second half of the story to tell.
We have been farming on Spring Mountain for 25 years, which in the big picture I do not think is a very long time, but it is long enough to have learned (sometimes the hard way) what to do when Mother Nature throws you the old “Uncle Charley” (that’s baseball for curve-ball).
There were two very important decisions that had to be made during the 1998 growing season and not everybody got them right. The first was how much, or if any, crop should be green harvested (dropped on the ground before harvest to help insure what was left on the vine would ripen). We normally make between 10-11,000 cases a year-in 1998 we made just under 6,000 cases. We dropped a lot of fruit on the ground. We passed the first test.
The second crucial decision came in September. We finally had two weeks of great weather, but heavy rains were on the forecast. The sugars were close, but the seeds were not ripe and the acids were not there yet: to pick or not to pick? We chose not to. We weathered the rains and the mold and finally in mid-November, the fruit got truly ripe! We risked losing all of our fruit but the payoff was worth it.
We did something that not everyone was able to do in 1998: we made the right call on both of the tough decisions and ended up making an extraordinarily beautiful 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon that has some qualities that are even more appealing than the ’97! (Parker scored the ’98 higher). The ’98 opens up in the nose quicker and has more lively, ripe aromatics than the ’97, and has tannins that have a more round, voluptuous mouth-feel at release than the ’97, making the wine more approachable now. The wine was also more delicate in barrel than the ’97 was, so we were even more discerning with our use of newer oak barrels, choosing to use less new oak on the ’98 than the ’97. The final result being a beautiful wine that I am not only proud to put our family name on, but has won us more awards than any of the cabernets from the last twelve vintages! So here is to the second half of the 1998 Cabernet story!
P.S.: Learn more about the Cabernet Sauvignon from our family owned estate Napa winery.