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NM: Bringing this all full-circle, do you see any parallels between your work in medicine and your work in raising vines? How has your background in medicine helped you in understanding vine disease?
TK: Plants express most of their diseases and deficiencies through their leaves. Red leaf virus, for example, you can see because the veins are spared and stay green while the leaves roll or curl — which is why it's often called leaf roll virus. There's a few sub-groups of the virus, some of which are more expressive or harmful. Eventually what happens in many cases is that the fruit doesn't get to full maturity, even though you might reduce cropload. Interestingly, there may have actually been small amounts of leaf roll virus in the St. George rootstock that ended up making very good, flavorful wine early on. In fact, a lot of people have said that when Warren Winarski won the Judgement of Paris in 1976 [with his Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet], that a lot of the Cabernets at the time were so good because growers were picking by sugar levels — but with a little bit leaf roll virus holding down those sugar levels while allowing the flavor maturity to increase. Even though as growers we didn't know enough about what were doing, it turned out to be very good. For a while, some people had the thought that instead of going with vines that are completely virus-free and vigorous, we might actually allow for a little bit of leaf roll virus in our vines! But to answer your question, I find that I do like to look for signs of disease or deficiency in the vines. And, like I said, the leaves really express those things, often very clearly.
NM: And how has your scientific background informed your choices in managing your vineyards, which you feel help to maximize the potential of the fruit you grow?
"Plants express most of their diseases and deficiencies through their leaves."
TK: For one, I don't see that I'd ever be organic; I think that ties your hands. We're sustainable. The only water we use for irrigation is the rainwater we collect over the winter, and even then it's only deficit irrigation, which gives you smaller berry size and more intense flavors. I'm trying to look at our carbon footprint. If I do ultimately build a winery, it'll be as green as possible with things like solar panels, recycled water, hay bales in the walls for insulation, etcetera. So, we're definitely sustainable and have passed that certification. I do still use some chemicals for killing weeds or for mealy bug to not transmit disease. My feeling is if you're totally organic, I'm not sure that your eyes are wide open — and maybe that comes from my scientific background. I think a great deal of the U.S. public has gone a bit crazy over pure organic practices.
NM: How would you summarize your experience in running a business as a grower?
TK: In 30 years, I've never had a profitable year. So, my advice to people who are looking into this sort of thing: do it because you love it, not because you want to run a business. I never believed it when I heard that a vineyard is like a hole in the ground into which you dump your money! With the phylloxera, de force, and then leaf-roll, I've made enough costly mistakes — but, hopefully, I think all that's behind us. Of course, in the meantime, the land values have increased, so I often say that I'm land-rich but cash-poor. Nevertheless, I depend on these vineyards. There are a lot of people in Napa with a lot of money for whom this sort of thing is like a toy or an amusement. But some of us are struggling to make a living, and really need for the land to produce enough to do that.
NM: What do you see for the future of Kenefick Ranch?
TK: My long range plan is to build a winery, and then everything would be estate-bottled. Right now, it's all estate-grown and that's all we ever do. My view is to be like a French chateaux, where we just make everything that this land grows and plant whatever is best for this land.
Though knowing what's best for his land has been a journey of ups and downs, Tom Kenefick has undoubtedly gained solid momentum as a grapegrower in the Napa Valley. And it's with this foundation of knowledge and experience that he's now poised to take Kenefick Ranch to the next level as an increasingly viable brand in the consumer wine market. To learn more about its vineyards and wine portfolio, visit Kenefick Ranch online. (Photo Credits: Kenefick Ranch Vineyards).