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TK: 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.
NM: 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.