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Winemaking Owner Furthers Legacy on Napa's Spring Mountain
— An Interview with Michael Keenan of Robert Keenan Winery —
It was by virtue of his hillside Napa Merlot that Robert Keenan planted his eponymous winery squarely on the world's wine map twenty years ago. Since then, a new generation of ownership under his son has resulted in significant changes in vineyard practices, varietal choices, and overall business philosophy that have propelled the producer well into the modern era of premium winemaking. Although bolstering its reputation in recent years through the crafting of fine wines from Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Keenan Winery continues to produce Merlot of superb quality, threatening to help bring the varietal back into vogue following its recent fall from market popularity. I spoke with proprietor Michael Keenan on the evolution of his winery's production, the virtues of raising vines on Spring Mountain, and the lessons learned from the daunting task of furthering his father's legacy.
A diplomatic, inclusive, and compassionate man, Michael Keenan runs the winery he inherited with a rather fresh emphasis on forging and maintaining relationships with employees and industry colleagues alike. Combined with his 'keen' attention to detail and overall business savvy, this has allowed the brand to flourish in recent years through such forward-thinking changes in the vineyard as planting new clones while mindful of site specificity and implementing practices in sustainability that have seen measurable results. And yet even in their enthusiasm for change, Keenan and his team have remained focused on producing wines that are truly reflective of the local terroir, standing firmly in the winds of the past decade's swaying market trends. All the more inspiring was listening to him share the lessons he has learned from raising vines and making wines that have enabled him to grow not only as a businessman, but also as a husband and father.
Challenging Assumptions and Garnering Attention
NM: I was first introduced to Keenan wine through your Napa Merlot, which, at the time, was widely considered among the best. Years later, I still get a sense that's what you're known for.
"Merlot was the first varietal we got really good at. And the reason is that this site is so well-suited for Merlot that it's involved less of a discovery process than Cabernet and Chardonnay."
MK: We've historically grown three varietals: Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot. But I think Merlot was the first varietal we got really good at. And the reason is that this site is so well-suited for Merlot that it's involved less of a discovery process than Cabernet and Chardonnay. With those other varietals, we had to learn things that were different than what we thought we were going to do, and had to work to change our philosophy and try new things before we really hit our stride. With the Chardonnay, specifically, a lot of the challenge was about its location on the property, where best to grow it. And though its style has really remained the same, with the right site we finally got the ideal balance. With the Cabernet, site wasn't really the problem; rather, it was more about technique, both in the vineyard and the cellar. But with the Merlot, we had basically rolled out the vines and it all worked from the get-go. So that was our best varietal for the first twenty years, no question about it.