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NM: Wow, Cabernet Franc your most sought-after wine! Can you tell me more about that and what went into the choice to plant enough of it to produce a viable amount of the varietal wine?
MK: The original planting was designed to use for blending, so there wasn't much of it, which is also why it's been one of our most sought-after wines. In one vintage, I think I had 100 cases. But when it got a 94 point score from [Robert] Parker, all of a sudden people were jumping on it. After the '03 vintage, which at the time was our biggest Merlot vintage ever, we actually couldn't pick the very top Merlot block in time; I had to just let it go, abandon it, because things were ripening so quickly. I already knew we had a record harvest, so I decided to forget it and just get the Cabernet right when it was perfect — and we did, we jumped on it — and we let the Merlot go. At the end, I realized we had a record Merlot harvest, and we hadn't even picked the top block so I decided to convert it over to Cabernet Franc. That conversation we didn't reap the benefits of until 2005, which is the vintage we just finished selling; it's the first vintage in which we had 600 cases, so we can now actually get out and show the wine and more people can buy it, which is great.
Evolving Practice and Validating Principle
NM: And from what I understand, Keenan wines have definitely evolved in recent years. What are some of the changes you've made in the vineyards that you feel have been directly responsible for their improvement?
MK: Probably the one event that compelled us to change the most was having to replant all of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines because they had died of phylloxera. The vines began dying in '94 and we finished replanting in '98. Also, two out of three Merlot vineyards and all the Chardonnay had to be replanted, so it was a big chance to reset the whole scene. The biggest change we made was in the big vineyard, the one that you drive around as you come in here — that used to be Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot together. On the replant, we decided to do it all with just Cabernet Sauvignon, and chose five new clones that we'd never used before but that were suited for mountainside growing. We also changed the whole way in which we farmed. The old style was terracing, which is what we had, where you essentially re-create the valley by establishing a series of level bands up a hill. On the replant, we got the tractors in there and re-contoured the hill to be smooth, as it had been before we ever started farming it, and planted the Cabernet vines going straight down the hill. Along with that, we'd put in an underground drainage system to catch all the runoff.
"My definition of sustainable is that we can continue to do what we're doing, indefinitely into the future, and continue to improve the environment."
And all of this is a relatively new and revolutionary way to plant hillside grapevines. By doing that, we've been able to grow cover crops over the last twelve years, basically transforming the vineyard into a giant, living biomass. And it's so cool to see how it's all totally changed the dynamic of the vineyard! We had a 9-inch rain event on New Years Eve, I think in '08, which washed out a big chunk of Spring Mountain Road. Nine inches in one night — that's a lot of rain! When I came to the vineyard the next morning, I went to look at the collection pond where all the drainage tubes from the vineyard eject into, fully expecting there to be a great deal of runoff to have come off the vineyard. But there actually ended up being very little; the ground had literally sucked up that massive amount of rainwater. Twelve years ago [before we recontoured the hill to allow for cover crops], that would not have happened; it would have all run off.
NM: What this boils down to, then, is that the growth of cover crop between the vines really transformed the composition and behavior of the soil, directly benefitting those vines. Furthermore, you witnessed direct evidence of this, by virtue of the vineyard's absorbing that large amount of rainwater all at once (and presumably sending it down into the water table) rather than channeling it away.
MK: Yes, and that's why we describe ourselves as sustainable. My definition of sustainable is that we can continue to do what we're doing, indefinitely into the future, and continue to improve the environment. That's the simplest definition of sustainability and one that I think really applies to us.
NM: It also sounds like it improved not only the state of the immediate and wider environment, but also, by extension, the quality of the wines themselves.