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keen on keenan Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Keenan CellarExpanding Vision and Confounding Expectation

NM:  You've mentioned having a great deal of success with varietals other than Merlot.  Would you say that you're still known as a premium Merlot producer, or do you feel, perhaps because of the new plantings with new clones and a better understanding of site specificity, that you're now known equally, if not even more so, as a premium Cabernet producer?

MK:  Some people still think of us as a Merlot producer, which is great.  But since '01 and with the reviews we got from [Robert] Parker, the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Cabernet Franc, and our [proprietary] blend Mernet have soared to the top, outshone the Merlot, and pushed it to a secondary position.  So there's no question that there's been a bit of a shift.  And really, we do have an ongoing dialogue among ourselves here: "What is truly our best varietal?  What's the feedback from the vineyard?  Is it Franc?  Is it Sauvignon?  Is it Merlot?"  If you look at France, where they've been growing wine for over a thousand, they really have precise definitions codified into law as to what you can grow and where — you simply cannot grow Pinot Noir in the Loire or in Bordeaux.  It's amazing how far it's gone!  Up here, we've gotten very strong results from all three varietals, so the feedback is not quite clear; we're still in the discovery process, even after 30-some years!

And also, what the market says (as far as feedback) is one thing, and we certainly know what that data is.  But that, to me, is not the ultimate barometer of what's our best because market conditions change and things go in and out of favor.  Merlot obviously has not been at its peak in the last few years, since the movie Sideways came out — though I think that's changing already.  Plus, as I've said from the beginning when that movie first came out, the net result of that movie will actually be good for Merlot and bad for Pinot Noir.  The overall gene pool for Merlot has gotten better because mediocre Merlot has been pulled out of the market, and people have been ripping out Merlot were it perhaps didn't thrive, planting Pinot Noir instead — where it won't thrive either.  And so the overall quality of Pinot Noir is now going down.

NM:  Essentially, then, with Pinot Noir we're beginning to see a rehash of what occurred in the early '90s here in the States: the boom in Merlot's popularity compelled widespread plantings of the varietal in unsuitable sites, which, combined with high yields (to pre-emptively meet the spike in demand), ultimately resulted in vast amounts of insipid Merlot in the marketplace.

MK:  Yes!  Americans love trends, they love fads.  But in the wine business, if you're driven by that, you can't have the model that we have here.  We're an estate winery, so we can't follow trends; we have to interpret what we do best here and stick to it.  And I believe that if you do your best and you're making a great product, then you'll find your market, regardless of what you're growing.  Trends will perhaps make it a little easier or a bit more difficult.  But if you're really going to follow those trends, you need to be a négociant-style producer who doesn't own property, who buys bulk juice that becomes available, packages the stuff with clever labels, and so is mainly a marketing entity.  Our model is the estate model, which is the First Growth Bordeaux model: you pick a place where you think the terroir is A+, you stick to it, and then you keep reinterpreting it, getting better at it and ultimately establishing a reputation.

NM:  I light of all that, what what would you tell someone who has allowed themselves to be influenced by the negativity Merlot has suffered (the more recent upswing notwithstanding), and therefore sees very little point in spending money on wine they ultimately think of as a passé varietal — especially from a region where, many would argue, Cabernet is king?

MK:  One of my favorite ways to answer to that sort of question is to tell someone that the wine I drink most at home, by a large margin, is our Merlot.  And that's because I feel it's the best food wine we make; it pairs with the widest range of food, so it gives me the most pleasure.  I can drink whatever want, but I voluntarily drink Merlot more than anything else.  So, if I'm considered an expert in the field and that's my choice, then that's a good reason for someone to at least try the Merlot!  {chuckling}  Though I've also softened over the years; ten years ago, with that same scenario, I'd be all energized in wanting to tell them about Merlot and try to convince them that they really need to change their mind.  But I've relaxed in the years since, because I've learned that with certain people, it doesn't matter what you say and it doesn't even matter what they tast; their mind will override it if they've got their mind set on something.  On the other hand, if they're open, the easiest thing to tell people is, "Try it!"  Winetasting is generally free — we bend over backwards to get our product into your mouths!  {laughter}  So there's no reason why you shouldn't try it with an open mind.



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