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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Kenefick Ranch

Former Neurosurgeon Cultivates Prized Vineyard Land in Calistoga
— An Interview with Tom Kenefick of Napa's Kenefick Ranch

When Tom Kenefick first got into the business of raising vines over three decades ago, he had no idea he would eventually be growing grapes for some of Napa Valley's finest wine brands.  In fact, tending vineyard land had only been a weekend endeavor for many years, which he balanced with a full time schedule as a practicing neurosurgeon for the University of California, San Francisco.  Yet in spite of the demands that medicine made on him, he managed to focus his free time on the cultivation of not only the grapevines themselves but also of his growing curiosity in the complexities of the industry, by taking night classes in viticulture and enology.  In 2000, his knowledge and enthusiasm had gained enough momentum for him to quit his surgical practice and delve entirely into the venture he'd grown to love so much.  By that point, Kenefick Ranch had secured a reputation for producing some of Napa's highest quality Bordeaux varieties, with a list of client wineries that includes Robert Mondavi, Rosenblum, Plumpjack, and Joseph Phelps.  Two years later, Kenefick ventured for the first time into the world of winemaking itself, launching his eponymous label and hinting at a professional turning point for the grower.  It was some time after meeting him at the annual California Cabernet Society tasting event in San Francisco that I joined Tom Kenefick at his ranch house in Calistoga to talk about his longtime experience as a grower and more recent foray into wine production.

NM:  You've got 125 acres of vineyard land that's producing fruit with quite a reputation in the Napa Valley.  Is it all technically under the Calistoga appellation?

TK:  I don't even know if it's gone through yet, but yes, it will be under the Calistoga appellation, once it's all approved.  Some people have told us, and Araujo and I have discussed it, that we could push for a sub-appellation for this area.  I don't know if that will ever happen, but we do believe there's a unique profile here — rocky, well-drained soil with alluvium coming down from the mountains — and everyone we've ever sold to tells me this is great stuff.  But I still think we're at the bottom of our learning curve and can really do it even better.  It's all in the land.  Of course, I'd love to take credit for looking all over and finding this place, and then thinking all that up, but I really just sort of fell into it.  Even when I've hired new vineyard people to work for us for a while, they've said, "Oh, yeah, we know about this site; we think that's some of the best land around here."  With the backhoe pits that we've dug, Tom Prentice from Crop Care [Associates] has told me that he's never seen better soil for Cabernet almost anywhere else in Napa.  It's a well-drained, rocky Pleasanton loam with a fair amount of sand.  I think it's a fairly unique little place.

NM:  But it's taken you quite a while to get to this point.  In fact, things looked very different in the beginning when you first started it all, right?

TK:  I've been a grower for 30 years.  The first plot of land was just a bit north of Calistoga; it was purchased in 1978 in a partnership.  And I really bought the land mainly as a tax-advantage investment.  I'm a 3rd generation physician, and my family has had farming and agriculture as a kind of second vocation.  But once we bought the land, I got more interested in it and went to viticultural school one night a week — after operating all day, I'd go to class for four hours!  I was just starting to have more interest in good wine, especially since my generation had been brought up drinking stuff like Hearty Burgundy, Mountain Chablis, and even Thunderbird!

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?

Kenefick's Sauvignon BlancTK:  It would make my life easier if it were the latter!  But it's not.  Still, I like working with most of the wineries.  Etude is a good example.  They have a vineyard management person who visits all the places they buy from; she schedules a lot of things, including harvest.  We go over it all together roughly once a week and decide on things like cropload/thinning, canopy management, irrigation.  Randy Lewis [of Lewis Cellars] is now starting to do the same thing, as well as Tony Biagi from Plumpjack, Remi and Graham from Merryvale, and, starting this year, the winemaker from Merus, since Bill Foley bought it.  So, in the best worlds, it's all a cooperative effort.  The differences with winemakers come when you sell your grapes by the ton.  We honestly feel that our grapes are above average, so we base our price on the Napa Valley average plus 10-20%.  But a lot of winemakers have a mindset that 1-2 tons per acre is an ideal cropload, when a farmer simply can't pay his bills earning that.  So, in some cases, after a couple of years of frustration, we went to a per acreage contract based on 3-4 tons/acre.  Paying that per acreage price, they can now do whatever they want in terms of crop thinning.  And sometimes that ends up changing their views as far as how much fruit to drop.  But, you know, I don't really like to be like that, on the defensive or adversarial; I much prefer everything to be up front.  I'm not a big fan of all this talk of long hang-time and picking dehydrated fruit at 30 brix.  Besides, we now know from the research at UC Davis, that after 26 brix, for every additional degree of brix, you lose 5% of your fruit weight.  So, if you're selling purely by weight, that means you're seeing 5% of your sales income progressively declining [with greater ripeness].

"I progressively came to realize that this was an above-average piece of land and that there were some top-end wines being produced from its fruit."

NM:  Given all that, how does your position as a grower carry over into the production of your own wine, of course using the fruit from your own vineyards?

TK:  To put on my other hat, as a wine producer, we're picking the fruit for our own wine at 27 to 29 brix because we're making it in the New World style with fruit forward flavors and soft tannins that make it drinkable at a very young age, but still with enough structure to improve for twenty five years.  Our first vintage [under the Kenefick label], made by Josh Krupp, was released after eighteen months in barrel and six months in bottle — so we released it pretty early, just to get it going on the market.  It had a beautiful nose!  I would put my hands around the bowl of the glass and smell it for five minutes before I'd even have a sip.  And though that sip would be good, I thought the nose was better.  If you give our wine one or two years of bottle age, which is the release timeline that we transitioned over into, you lose a lot of the intensity of that bouquet; it's not quite what it is when it's younger — but the taste improves significantly.  I've got friends who have flat out said that they'll never drink a Napa Cabernet until it's at least five years in bottle.  And I tell them that they're missing a lot of the olfactory experience they'd get from the nose on these wines.  It still does open up and have a good nose, just a more subtle one.  On the back label, I indicate that the wine should be decanted because that helps to open up the aromas much better.  Plus, these are wines at 15% alcohol because of the late harvest, so decanting helps to blow off some of the alcohol — though it's not really a problem because the taste of the wine balances out the alcohol.  In fact, I've tasted a bunch of people in wine shops around the country on our wines, and most of them guess the alcohol to be around 13%, not more than 14%.  They're blown away when they learn the wine's at 15% because there's no burn.  A good wine can carry high alcohol, and hopefully that will help it mature longer, along with good tannins.  But I still think they're better when they're decanted or aerated.

Kenefick Ranch Cabernet SauvignonNM: And did you decide to begin production under your own label, after being strictly a grower for some years?

TK:  From the beginning, my primary plan had been to be just a grower.  I just kept thinking that otherwise it would be a lot of work and trouble to have a winery of my own.  But once I quit medicine and moved here full-time in 2000, I progressively came to realize that this was an above-average piece of land and that there were some top-end wines being produced from its fruit.  Sometimes it was hard to convince wineries of that — a lot of the bigger ones were just blending it with other people's fruit, and it took a few years to convince them to make wines from just this vineyard and see that it was really high quality and had a great deal of potential on its own.

Tom Kenefick with Kenefick Ranch WinesTK: (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?

Kenefick Ranch LogoTK:  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.

Tom Kenefick in the vineyardNM:  Bringing this all full-circle, do you see any parallels between your work in medicine and your work in raising vines?  How has your background in medicine helped you in understanding vine disease?

TK:  Plants express most of their diseases and deficiencies through their leaves.  Red leaf virus, for example, you can see because the veins are spared and stay green while the leaves roll or curl — which is why it's often called leaf roll virus.  There's a few sub-groups of the virus, some of which are more expressive or harmful.  Eventually what happens in many cases is that the fruit doesn't get to full maturity, even though you might reduce cropload.  Interestingly, there may have actually been small amounts of leaf roll virus in the St. George rootstock that ended up making very good, flavorful wine early on.  In fact, a lot of people have said that when Warren Winarski won the Judgement of Paris in 1976 [with his Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet], that a lot of the Cabernets at the time were so good because growers were picking by sugar levels — but with a little bit leaf roll virus holding down those sugar levels while allowing the flavor maturity to increase.  Even though as growers we didn't know enough about what were doing, it turned out to be very good.  For a while, some people had the thought that instead of going with vines that are completely virus-free and vigorous, we might actually allow for a little bit of leaf roll virus in our vines!  But to answer your question, I find that I do like to look for signs of disease or deficiency in the vines.  And, like I said, the leaves really express those things, often very clearly.

NM:  And how has your scientific background informed your choices in managing your vineyards, which you feel help to maximize the potential of the fruit you grow?

"Plants express most of their diseases and deficiencies through their leaves."

TK:  For one, I don't see that I'd ever be organic; I think that ties your hands.  We're sustainable.  The only water we use for irrigation is the rainwater we collect over the winter, and even then it's only deficit irrigation, which gives you smaller berry size and more intense flavors.  I'm trying to look at our carbon footprint.  If I do ultimately build a winery, it'll be as green as possible with things like solar panels, recycled water, hay bales in the walls for insulation, etcetera.  So, we're definitely sustainable and have passed that certification.  I do still use some chemicals for killing weeds or for mealy bug to not transmit disease.  My feeling is if you're totally organic, I'm not sure that your eyes are wide open — and maybe that comes from my scientific background.  I think a great deal of the U.S. public has gone a bit crazy over pure organic practices.

NM:  How would you summarize your experience in running a business as a grower?

TK:  In 30 years, I've never had a profitable year.  So, my advice to people who are looking into this sort of thing: do it because you love it, not because you want to run a business.  I never believed it when I heard that a vineyard is like a hole in the ground into which you dump your money!  With the phylloxera, de force, and then leaf-roll, I've made enough costly mistakes — but, hopefully, I think all that's behind us.  Of course, in the meantime, the land values have increased, so I often say that I'm land-rich but cash-poor.  Nevertheless, I depend on these vineyards.  There are a lot of people in Napa with a lot of money for whom this sort of thing is like a toy or an amusement.  But some of us are struggling to make a living, and really need for the land to produce enough to do that.

NM:  What do you see for the future of Kenefick Ranch?

TK:  My long range plan is to build a winery, and then everything would be estate-bottled.  Right now, it's all estate-grown and that's all we ever do.  My view is to be like a French chateaux, where we just make everything that this land grows and plant whatever is best for this land.

Though knowing what's best for his land has been a journey of ups and downs, Tom Kenefick has undoubtedly gained solid momentum as a grapegrower in the Napa Valley.  And it's with this foundation of knowledge and experience that he's now poised to take Kenefick Ranch to the next level as an increasingly viable brand in the consumer wine market.  To learn more about its vineyards and wine portfolio, visit Kenefick Ranch online. (Photo Credits: Kenefick Ranch Vineyards). v