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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!