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TK: (con'd) Then around 2001, a couple of wineries whom I was selling to at the time and really enjoyed the relationship — Pride Mountain and Shafer Vineyards — decided to go off on their own and stop buying my fruit. We were selling Merlot to Pride, made by Bob Foley at the time, and Cabernet to Shafer. The early Pride Mountain Merlots that got a lot of fame and great reviews, without having a real vineyard designation, were 50-60% of our grapes. But they had replanted a lot of the vines on their own estate, and once they became viable, they decided to use all of their own fruit and stopped buying from us. Similarly, we'd been selling to Shafer for three or four years. But then they bought some more land and said that they wanted to grow everything on their own estate and have more control over their crops.
And so, in both of those cases, it wasn't that they didn't like the fruit; it was just that they wanted to do their own thing and stop the contract. That was one of the turning points for me in deciding to make wine from our own fruit. I knew that this was good land and we were growing good grapes. Ideally, I thought I would have had all 125 acres completed by the time I quit my career in surgery, but I had 40 or so acres yet to plant. And again, that was from having to replant because of phylloxera [in the early '90s] and having to refinance because of my divorce in '95. We finally did our last planting on the hill last year. The vineyards are all now replanted to Bordeaux varietals.
NM: And you also make wines under the Kenefick Ranch label from other Bordeaux varietals, in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, which I understand are doing very well.
"I'm not a big fan of all this talk of long hang-time and picking dehydrated fruit at 30 brix."
TK: My first winemaker, Josh Krupp, was also a pretty good salesman. In fact, he managed to sell our first vintage, 2002, in only a couple of months. So then he talked me into making about a thousand cases in 2003, which I figured wasn't a huge jump. And that's the first year, I think, that we made a Cabernet Franc. I'd actually not originally intended to make varietal wines out of the Cabernet Franc or the Merlot . But other people were telling me that if you're going out into the marketplace, you should have a variety of wines because it's tough to sell just one. So that's what we did. Josh Krupp tasted a few people on the Cabernet Franc while it was still in barrel, which we were going to use as just a blender, and [after getting positive feedback] we decided to bottle it as a varietal wine. And our Cabernet Franc may very well become our signature wine or the thing we're known for. Because there are dozens of Napa Cabernets [Sauvignon] out now, especially a lot of young wine, while there aren't nearly as many Cabernet Francs. A lot of people who have tasted ours say it's one of the best they've ever tasted.
And then even though the movie Sideways sort of killed it, after Merlot was so hot awhile ago, we still kept a couple of fields that we thought were good and made a varietal wine out of it. Kent Jarmon, who was the assistant at Duckhorn for a few years, said he thought it was as good as anything they had. So, we put our toe in the water with a couple of hundred cases of Merlot, and it's been very well accepted. Even though Merlot is coming back around, sometimes it's still a hard sell with some buyers. But I definitely think it's coming back. We're also making a Picket Road Red, which is a blend of four Bordeaux varietals and gives the winemaker some ability to express some style or do something different without being locked into the 75% varietal minimum [legally required for a varietal wine].
NM: So, Bordeaux reds are your bread and butter. What else are you growing?
TK: There's Sauvignon Blanc, which I just kind of fell into and have been selling to Mondavi. Robbie Meyers, the main winemaker, asked me if he could get a couple of tons of it for Jericho Canyon, up on the end of Calistoga. So, we sold it to them and he made it almost in the style of a Chardonnay — neutral oak, rounder, very full fruit flavor, and harvested late so we get rid of the high acidity. Just a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc! So, somewhat disappointly to Jericho Canyon, I finally said, "Well, if it's that good, we'll start making our own," and I ended the contract with Mondavi. Meanwhile, Josh Krupp had talked me into adding a white wine [to the portfolio] for our winemaker dinners. Since he'd spent a year with Michel Chapoutier, he talked me into planting some white Rhône varietals, which we did. It's a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Sauvignon Musquet. We're also growing a bit of Petite Sirah that we're selling to Kent Rosenblum for his Picket Road Petite Sirah — that wine's all our grapes. And then to keep our options open, we planted another five acres of Syrah that we're just now starting to get something off of.