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KK: Well, we are getting recognition — just not so much from the media. And when I say media, I'm speaking namely of the big two, Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. They like a certain style of wine: big, inky, alcoholic blockbusters. What we're trying to produce is much more elegant, in part because that's what God has given us in Alexander Valley. We have an average temperature swing of 45 degrees [Fahrenheit] between the high and low everyday. As a result, you get wines that retain a brightness with their fruit, have nice acidity, and are much more food friendly — wines in a style that these critics are not necessarily going to love. Another part of the picture is that historically, Alexander Valley hasn't been paid much to farm and to make wine at a very high level of quality. If you look at most of the producers here, they're large, corporate wineries, and they're producing wines at a price point anywhere from $10 to $20 a bottle. At those prices, they're going to farm a pretty high tonnage of fruit per acre, they're not going to use the best oak, and given those choices, they can only so much do to maximize the flavors they're getting out of their vineyards. But once you get out of the valley and into the hillsides, where we are, and if you're driven to pay attention to details and willing to spend the money to do so, then you can get quality that's equivalent to the absolute top properties in Napa. And I know that because I've submitted our wines into blind tastings with the top ones from Napa — and in those blind tastings, we're always coming out ranking way up there against wines that are maybe two or three times the price. At the same time, we want to make sure we're producing our own style of wine; we really want Blue Rock to be distinctly Alexander Valley, rather than something that could be confused for a Napa wine. There's always a stylistic signature in Blue Rock and I'm happy about that! Because I think that if you're going to make an all-estate wine, you'd better make something that's distinctive and really stands on its own!
NM: Speaking standing on one's own, how do you feel your wines are similar to those of your neighbors, and how do you feel they're different?
KK: Funny you should ask that, because I've recently gathered together a little tasting group of artisan producers in Alexander Valley. See, most of the Cabernet produced in this valley is actually from corporate wineries who just aren't doing the same thing that we're trying to accomplish. I think they're doing a great job at the price point where they are — but we're aiming for much more artisanal wine production. And there are very few producers like that, though you're already familiar with some of them: Garden Creek, Medlock Ames, Lancaster Estate, Goldschmidt Wines. So, with this group, I have had a chance to taste a number of the wines from this area, and I believe that there's an Alexander Valley signature. But I don't think the wine trade knows what it is because when I'm out in the marketplace, oftentimes people — sommeliers and retailers around the country — have an expectation; they're expecting the wines to be vegetative. Yet when they taste our wines, they say, "Wow, there's no 'veg' here, no green olive. These are fantastic wines; they're balanced and elegant!" So I think that what we small producers need to do is redefine what the common flavor profile of Alexander Valley is. And to answer your question more directly, yes, I do think there is a unique style here. In the wines we're getting from the better sites and by the better producers — those who are committed to doing the best they can every year, some of whom I just mentioned — there is a real purity of flavor, a great deal of texture with early accessibility in the tannins, and because they're well-made, a concentration of fruit and good balance, allowing them to age fantastically even though they're drinkable early on. It's the best of both worlds!
"Historically, Alexander Valley hasn't been paid much to farm and to make wine at a very high level of quality."
NM: But you feel that Alexander Valley still has a ways to go in carving out its identity as a wine region?
KK: Absolutely! And that's because Alexander Valley doesn't have the critical mass of small producers who are really committed to high quality, which is essential to portraying something recognizable. Whereas Napa has that. Napa has hundreds of small producers who are committed to that level of quality, giving you a prospect from each appellation as to what your expectation of their wines can be.
NM: Interestingly, then, what this all suggests is that at least historically, there have been attitudes among the trade and press about the wines of Alexander Valley that are based on an understanding of them which is skewed heavily towards a quality level of production far below what the region is capable of. And so, would you say this implies that those opinions are based on a misunderstanding?