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MK: Absolutely! There's no question. Case in point: we just finished blending the '07 vintage, which every vintner will tell you, from almost every region in California, is the best vintage we've ever seen with all varietals; it's one of those miracle years. At the end of one trial, I turned to Randy and Matt (who have been here for about fifteen years) and said to them, "Ten years ago, did you ever imagine we'd be tasting barrel samples of estate Merlot and Cabernet that had this kind of texture, this voluptuous, pleasure-giving texture, at this age and with tannins that are so well-integrated and so smooth?!" They both said No. So, the results we've seen [with the changes we've made in the vineyards] are readily observable! Then I think of 2001, which was our 25th anniversary, as the benchmark vintage where we really began to see these things all come together. That vintage marked the first Reserve Cabernet in our history — the dawning of a new era, it was fantastic — and it came off that [resurfaced hillside] vineyard! And if that weren't enough, what really surprised me is that the '03, '04, and '05 vintages are all 100% estate Cabernet Sauvignon, with absolutely no Merlot or Cabernet Franc blended into them. Now that is something I never thought I would ever do! Because being raised with Bordeaux wines by my father, we were conditioned to thinking of Left Bank wines as never 100% Cabernet Sauvignon; they're always blended. I grew up thinking of that as a given truth and one that we certainly practiced here for the first 27 years — until 2003, when we made that first 100% Cabernet. And yet it was never a goal! When we were doing the blending trials, all of a sudden I realized that our Cabernet Sauvignon was complete, lacking no lift in the nose nor lacking any texture. It need nothing more; it was incredibly expressive and complete all on its own. It was amazing!
NM: And, once again, you attribute this to the changes you made in the vineyard's sustainability.
MK: Yes. And part of the credit has to go to the new clones that we started using that we hadn't used before — clones that were more appropriate for this mountainside terroir — and also to a more modern rootstock that's (hopefully) phylloxera-resistant and more adaptable to the mountain terrain. So, it was a lot of things coming together.
Refusing Compromise and Building Reputation
NM: Clearly, then, changes in vineyard management have helped to further your wines' quality. What are perhaps some other choices you make that directly impact the character of Keenan wines — ones on which you refuse to compromise and that you feel are really salient in achieving the quality that you demand for them?
MK: I think there's certainly an idea that I'm never going to compromise on what it takes to make the best wine we can make. If that means dropping crop to improve quality, then we'll do that. If it means not making a bottling in a certain year that we've made for a number of years in a row, even if we know we have buyers waiting for it but it's just not good enough, then we won't do it. As an example, we usually do a wine called Summer Blend — a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, and Marsanne, all fermented non-malolactically, and very pure, young, and fresh in style — but this year, since the Viognier wasn't good enough, it just didn't work. I know we've made some of our wine club members unhappy because they look for that wine every year, and they would have bought it sight unseen like they do every year. But we still decided against producing it, because even though we know it would have been successful and sold out, it just wasn't good enough to meet our standards. We also don't make a Reserve Merlot every year, for the same reason. We've done it every year since '02, but we didn't do one in '01, which was actually considered a great year. And I had made that decision because ultimately we really weren't able to tell its difference in quality from the Napa bottling, which is a blend of our estate fruit with Carneros fruit and the one we make the most of. There just wasn't a quantitative leap in quality in the Merlot that year [that would have been high enough to justify making a Reserve Merlot].
So, it's that kind of decision-making that we're constantly doing — quality is always the most important thing, what goes into that bottle. Because when those wines go out, I want people to be really impressed and feel like they got a deal with every bottle, regardless of whether it's $96 for the Reserve Cabernet or $36 for the Napa Merlot. I want to over-deliver. And that's the philosophy I've had from the beginning of my career as a small-businessman: if you over-deliver, you establish a reputation and it's bullet-proof, people can bank on it. Doing that, you'll always have a market, regardless of the economic situation (and now is a great example). A lot of guys who are priced higher than I am, which is most of Napa wines, fall into this category — the market is saying No to all those wines, and they're having to make some tough decisions on how they're going to sell. We're seeing some of that, but in the end, it's not really a problem; our wines are still moving. If you over-deliver consistently, you'll always get your share of the pie.