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the kenefick effect Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Tom KenefickTK: (con'd) And so, my investment partner and I became members of the Napa Co-op, where all the grapes we were growing went to Gallo — Petite Sirah, Napa Gamay, Carignan, Bergers, Mondeuse.  I eventually told my partner, though, that I didn't believe the things we were growing were going to make it much further in the market, and that we should think about replanting to Bordeaux varietals or at least something else that people were going to want to drink.  See, the cachet of Napa Valley was just beginning right about that time, around 1980.  But he had a family and didn't want to invest any more money in the property, whereas I was really looking to build it for the future.  Then in 1984, we renegotiated with the flip of a coin!  I ended up losing that flip, and so, with the help of some investors, he bought me out.

After being bought out [from that original property] I turned around and purchased this current property, which turned out in the long run to be even better.  I then began replanting it around 1985, but could do only about 25 acres of it.  I figured that once it started to produce, it would give me some cash flow to plant some of the rest of the land.  Unfortunately, though, the popular rootstock at the time was AxR#1, which, as you know, is vulnerable to phylloxera.  But I didn't know anything at the time about phylloxera — it wasn't until about '89 or '90 when phylloxera was really discovered here.  Even so, I thought that because it's spread by people doing work at multiple places, maybe we could beat it here because we didn't have anybody coming in to work from the outside and we were doing all our own tractor work.  So, instead of pulling up all the vines and going through an entire replanting, we tried doing what's called inarch grafting with 110R rootstock.  But in the end it didn't really work since the vines were already too mature and by '92 we had huge phylloxera holes in the vineyards.  Replanting those holes set me back a bit.  Then in the mid '90s, my wife decided she didn't want to live up here full-time — which is the direction I was going since I was getting close to retirement from medicine.  And so, we divorced and I had to refinance to buy back her share of the property.  But she was seldom here, anyway, since she had little interest in all this.  The kids, though, were always pretty interested and still come out here.  In fact, two of my wines are named after them, Caitlin's Select [Cabernet Franc] and Chris's Cuvée [Cabernet Sauvignon].

"Everyone we've ever sold to tells me this is great stuff."

NM:  You eventually hit your momentum.  But how does a grower like yourself go from raising grapes to actually selling them to quality-conscious wineries? How to you get their attention and interest in your fruit?

TK:  With difficulty!  It's been 30 years for me, obviously a slow transition.  Rutherford Hill was one of the bigger ones.  But it's Les Behrens [of Behrens & Hitchcock Winery] that I owe a debt of gratitude to because he started buying from our first field of Cabernet and got 94-to-96 Parker ratings almost every year, and started to make a name for us as a vineyard.  He and Kent Rosenblum were the two people who put our name on their wines as vineyard designates.  But Les Behrens was really the first one who started making it.  Actually, he was still running his café [Folie Douce] in Arcata, when he would come down here with a trailer and get two or three bins and make it for their house wine.  Then he finally decided in the late '80s that he didn't like running a restaurant, but really wanted to be a winemaker, so he came down here [and made wine from my fruit].  [Robert] Parker came down one time and tasted our stuff.  At that time, there weren't so many wineries, so it was a little more friendly.  And I guess it was complimentary, but in some ways it was a little embarassing: Parker called our wine — made by Les Behrens from my grapes — "the poor man's Araujo" because Araujo, whose winemaker was Tony Soter at the time, was doing the same thing at $150 a bottle, whereas Les Behrens was selling his for $60.  In any case, Tony had always known the potential of this land up here, so when he started Etude Wines, he began buying my fruit.  Although Etude is pretty big in Pinot Noir, they're making Cabernets from a few different districts in Napa, including Calistoga, and we're destined to be the vineyard of choice for the Calistoga Cabernet. I love selling to them, Vines on Kenefick Ranch they're a very good company. But Tony's since gone to Oregon and is making Pinot up there.

NM: How closely or collaboratively do you work with the wineries that are buying your fruit in making decisions in the management of your vineyards? Is there a dialogue in that process? Or do you do exactly what you feel is best for the site and for the fruit, figuring that if they want to buy it, they'll buy it?