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soil of serpentine Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Blue Rock Amidst FogBut I also got into the wine business because it's a creative outlet for me.  While my wife and I were living in Memphis, we decided that we wanted to pursue this as a dream.  It was my dream, really, more so than hers; her dream was to come out to California because she loved the environment here so much.  So, in 1979 we decided on making the move.  But it took a few years, since there were detours along the way — like children! — so we actually made the move in 1985. Then in 1998, Bank of New York bought the firm I was with, and I stayed with them for another five years.  But the whole time I was there, I kept dreaming about Blue Rock!  And it really got the point where, to be fair to them since I was spending so much of my energy on developing the vineyard and the winery and the business here, it became right for me to leave and pursue this full-time.

NM:  This was a significant shift, then; it became your second career!  How has that been for you, going from one to the other? — especially given that I can't think of two more vastly different industries!

KK:  There's actually a great deal of similarity.  A lot of people, on learning what's involved, are surprised over the nature of the business in running a winery or managing a vineyard.  For me, it was like a Ferrari shifting from second to third gear; it was really effortless.  And that's because I established Blue Rock in 1987: I started as a winegrower, developed the vineyards, and then sold grapes to other wineries while I worked full-time in the brokerage business [in San Francisco].  I had great consultants whom I was learning from and who were working with me in the vineyard.  At that point, although it was a serious hobby, it was still part time; I would come out here on the weekends.  But even when I decided to go full-time, I was able to transition over very easily, because it's really very similar to what I was doing at Bank of New York: it's a business that I'm running, which has a production side, sales, marketing, finance, and really all of the same elements that I dealt with in the brokerage business.  It's all about building relationships with customers and exceeding expectations.  Other than the product itself, there's really not that many differences.

NM:  You were clearly very fortunate, because it sounds like there wasn't a long or arduous period of adjustment.

"I was spending so much of my energy on developing the vineyard and winery, it became right for me to leave and pursue this full-time."

KK:  It was all planned!  This has been a 25-year strategic plan that we implemented.  Soon after we bought the property, we started to replant it.  We then started dreaming about renovating the house and the winery, which were first built in 1880 and had been a complete wreck!  So, I worked and made money to finance the restoration and replanting, which we did in phases, maintaining my job because it required a tremendous amount of cash to replant the vineyards, especially with the way we're farming here.  We sold grapes for many years to other wineries, so we had the opportunity to taste the fruit from this vineyard with the other wineries who were making the wine.  In doing so, we learned that it was really unique and special.  Then in 1999, we decided to go full-time, as per our long term plan.  We hired Nick Goldschmidt who, at the time, was the head winemaker at Simi, so he knew Alexander Valley.  And he also makes very elegant wines using a style of winemaking that I'm very attracted to as a consumer.  When we made the wine, we did so on a virtual basis: we used our grapes but we took them over to Trentadue [Winery] down the road and did a custom crush there.  But once we rebuilt the original 1880s-era winery here, after buying our own crush equipment, we were able to do everything here and have control over it ourselves.

NM:  So, when you came to this property, there was already some history here — winemaking history!

KK:  There was a winery here, called Villa Maria, that was built in 1880.  The Italian immigrants who came here wanted to be close to the Italian-Swiss Colony, which is down the road in Asti, and were attracted to this general area.  Even now, our neighbors are Seghesio, Pedroncelli, and a lot of other wineries that began with Italian families.  When these immigrants moved here around 1880, they built the house and the garden with the bocci ball court, and then they built a winery they called Villa Maria.  Not a whole lot is known about it, other than the fact that it was here and when Prohibition hit, they weren't able to make it anymore.  Some of the other families in the area, like the Seghesios, were able to stay and continue their businesses by selling their grapes to home winemakers (who could make up to 200 gallons a year) or to the Church for sacramental purposes.  And so a lot of the families around here just eked out a living and more or less kept on going until Prohibition was over.  But this one didn't make it, so the property fell into ruin from neglect until I bought it in 1987 — the land was completely overgrown with weeds, there was no roof on either the winery or this house, and it was all just a complete wreck.  Restoring it was a project!