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Nodding to the Past & Moving to the Future
NM: Speaking of open minds, one thing that really struck me was your mentioning that much of the inspiration for Keenan's own wines came from the those of Bordeaux. I find it somewhat uncommon for people in California's wine industry, even among your colleagues in Napa, to openly express a sense of reverence or respect for Old World winemaking history. It might be said that some producers even downplay Europe's historical significance in their understanding and appreciation of wine — all in an effort to assert a pioneering mentality with a purely Californian identity. What's your take on that?
MK: I've got no problem with that. To me, that's one of the strengths of our culture, and not only in California but America in general; there's room for everybody. If you want to throw your money in the game and get a stake, you can do it in any way you want! I also think that we're working within a fundamentally different paradigm than that which has happened historically in Europe, where there was greater stratification in society. Fifty years ago in France, if you were born in a village to parents of modest means, you could never even dream of owning a First Growth Chateau; that's just wasn't going to happen. But in this country, if you have success in some business and have money to invest or even if you start from the bottom, then you have the chance to work your way up, end up with a great piece of property, and then make a wine that can get a great score and be among the best. That's never happened before in the world; it's a novel concept. So, I've got no problem with people having different points of view in California — it's great; to each his own!
My path has been my path and you can see why I have my views. I mean, I do know that I'm making California wines; there's no question about that. There's a sense of history and background that gives me a frame of reference, but I'm fully aware that the wines we're making are definitely, uniquely Napa. Actually, they're uniquely Spring Mountain; I like to differentiate the two because it's all about identifying your terroir, and this terroir here is unique. But, to your question, I understand it and I think that's fine. I think it's part of the spirit that's really made this country what it is — people who say, "Screw the past! I'm going to cut my own path, be a pioneer, and discover something new!" That's wonderful!
NM: Do you feel that your own nod to the past and to the Old World has been an advantage to Keenan as a brand?
MK: I think a lot of people whom I run into in the wine world, who collect wines, certainly have an appreciation for the First Growth wines, and since they know me and hear me talking about them, it gives them something they can really identify with — and that is an advantage for me. I also think the more you're educated, the better off you are, and so the more you know about the history of your business and what other regions are doing, the better off you are in that business. It just makes your knowledge base broader and gives you more things to pull from in making decisions. So, to answer your question, I'd have to say Yes!
NM: On the subject of nodding to the past while looking to the future, tell me a bit more about your taking over Keenan Winery from your father. How would you describe the experience of carrying on something of this magnitude in the light of the wine industry's unique demands, and how have you been able to redefine the business with your own vision while still honoring and staying true to your father's legacy?
MK: For us, one of our biggest stories is with the progression in generation from my father's to mine, there was a huge change in the overall philosophy of the business. It was a complete cultural shift. And that was a huge positive, because my father had great ideas and a great vision, but he was not really a great small-businessman. He started off and had great success, critically, right away with the wines that were made; they were really well received. But he honestly thought that after seven or eight years, he would be pretty much done — that the winery would be set, that the course would be set in stone, and that he wouldn't really have to do the hands-on work that he'd done in the beginning, particularly the talking to journalists, going to wine shows, and hosting distributors. All that kind of stuff he didn't really like to do. But as most anyone who's ever run a business knows, especially a restaurant or winery, it has to be run hands-on. On top of that, with his personality, he never got along with any of the winemakers that he hired; he had six winemakers in eight years! He originally came from a culture of paranoia, from World War II, where everybody was out to get you, so trust wasn't really one of his strong suits. As a result, he never established a successful culture here at the winery of developing relationships with people who worked for him nor of engendering a welcoming mindset.