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My father, I think, knew that, too. His most famous PR stunt was doing a thing with Château Pétrus back in '89, when they were regarded as the world's benchmark for Merlot. Somehow he talked the Pétrus people into coming over here and doing a series of wine tastings — one in New York, one in Los Angeles, and one here at the winery — comparing our '79, '83, and '86 vintages against their same vintages. And though I think the New York and LA tastings were trade and press only (writers, sommeliers, and other people who worked in restaurants and retail shops), there was quite a number of people who came to this, understandably, since offering the chance to taste Pétrus would get anybody's attention. Essentially, the result of the three tastings was a draw. And that, of course, for us was a huge victory: we'd shown that not only were we in the same ballpark but in many ways the equivalent of Château Pétrus — though, at a much lower price point, as Frank Prowell dryly noted at the end of his article in the New York Times. It was a huge score for us and put us on the map. So, the net result is that a lot of people who have known us for a long time think of us as a Merlot producer first. And that's great; I think it's a wonderful varietal and I think that Spring Mountain will be recognized in the near term as the Number One Merlot appellation in California, if not the Western Hemisphere. It's got everything that Merlot loves: the right amount of stress on the vines, plus the right combination of clay in the soil combined with tons of rock that give great drainage — and that's hard to get because usually you have only one or the other. Also, it's a little bit cooler up here because of the elevation, which Merlot also loves and which gives it a little more acidity and structure. On top of all that, we've got the right terroir to really pull out the flavors. So I think the Merlots we're making here are absolutely world class!
Establishing Identity while Honoring Locality
NM: What was the vision that your father, Robert Keenan, had for the winery when he first established it? And did his vision include wanting specifically to produce a world-class Merlot or did that develop gradually as he went through the process making wines from Spring Mountain?
MK: His original vision was to make world-class Cabernet Sauvignon; that was his real focus. He wanted to compete with the Left Bank First Growths, which, as you probably know, are all Cabernet-based wines. That's what he'd fallen in love with, that's what he felt was the benchmark for Cabernet in the wine world, and being a very competitive man, he wanted to compete with the best! After he passed away in November of 2006, I went through all of his papers and found his handwritten notes from the time when he was looking for property in 1974. He had no training in enology or viticulture, but he had a natural green thumb and his real genius was real estate — in fact, his main company was a real estate company — and he knew that the wine business, in the end, was really a real estate business. And that's because you've got to have the terroir, it's the number one ingredient. Obviously, the human interaction can't be understated; it's absolutely essential for humans to make it all happen. But it really starts with terroir — terroir dictates what you're going to make and how you're going to make it, and if you're going to interpret that terroir to its fullest extent.
So, in wanting to compete with the Left Bank First Growth Cabernets, he felt he needed to be up in the mountains. In his notes, he wrote that he only looked at two sites, Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain, without even bothering with the valley. And after looking at both sites, the tie-breaking data for him that made him choose Spring Mountain were two things: first, the primarily eastern exposure that he felt was superior to Howell Mountain's primarily western exposure; and second, the fact that there's more water up here — Spring Mountain is called that for a reason: it has a lot of springs! Plus, we get more rainfall than on the opposite side of the valley; this is probably one of the most rainy spots in the whole of Napa Valley, averaging just under 50 inches per year. And almost all of that rain comes between November 1st and April 1st, which is great because it makes for a growing season that's bone-dry. As for the Merlot and Cabernet Franc, he had originally planted them assuming they would be secondary grapes used for blending. But he discovered quickly that the Merlot was doing great here, and then a little while later we learned that the Cabernet Franc was great up here too. Since then, I've actually converted more acreage over to Cabernet Franc. In fact, looking back at the last couple of years, our most sought-after wine is probably our single-vineyard Cabernet Franc.