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I came from a totally different culture. I had my own business for twenty years, where I was a general contractor with a partner, and we had a real family-style operation where we really took care of our employees, valued them, and tried to create a holistic environment. It was a wonderful, vibrant community that we were making with our business. So I brought that culture here to the winery, and also became very hands-on and really began to be involved integrally in everything that happened. But I had to re-do everything; the winery hadn't been doing well at all, it really had suffered. And quality had gone down because of inattention. Matt and Randy were actually getting ready to leave; they were putting out their resumes [out of frustration because] there was no money in the bank to buy anything, it was a terrible situation. So, I came in to resurrect the winery. And one of the first things I realized was that the personnel seems to be good. Matt and Randy were awesome, and so I started to treat them like I always did with my employees; I would tell them everything that was happening, I would took care of them, and we began to have this wonderful, cooperative relationship. We've been together now for eleven years and it's pretty much a happy family here. And that culture is so important for small businesses — any business, really, but especially for restaurants and wineries, which I think are so similar. In that kind culture of cooperation, there's a lot of independent work done, people are allowed to do stuff without being micromanaged all the time, there's trust, and there's a real team concept. So, while I set the overall tone and direction for what I want, we all really work as a team, together with our consultant, Nils Venge. They all make my job pretty easy because they do such a great job themselves. Overall, we're very proud of what we're doing, which is wonderful. And you just can't put a value on that.
I also think that I'm a pretty creative person. I always have been. When that kind of thinking got brought here, for the first time the winery really had a creative leader with a team concept that has really allowed us to do the best we can with what we're doing. It's almost like magic, because every year it keeps getting better! And we get that feedback from the marketplace, from people who have been following the wines. It's really cool to make people happy with a product [and its turn-around] so quickly.
NM: The winery and the brand, then, have really transformed under your watch! Looking to the future, what do you see for Keenan Winery in the next generation?
"As most anyone who's ever run a business knows, especially a restaurant or winery, it has to be run hands-on."
MK: Well, I would hope that with each generation, the best thing that you could hope for is a fresh look and the ability to continue learning, to go where we haven't gone before, to stand on our shoulders (hopefully appreciating what we've done) and then perhaps to find new ways to innovate and keep improving. Of course, there are some values that I hope each generation will come to realize are eternal — patience, respect for the past, respect for their elders. But it's also important to have the freedom to develop their own ideas and to think they could actually make an improvement and bring their creativity to bear in ways only they can, from insights where maybe their generation thinks a little differently. Essentially, take the best of the new but have respect for the old. Which is what I think I've tried to do. When I first took over, I was more than willing to assign all the problems of the winery to my the defects of my father's personality — and there were many! After a number of years when those problems were ironed out and we were marching toward a successful point, my perspective got a little bit richer and deeper, and I began to really appreciate his vision and the strengths of his personality. And that was a good circle for me to go through, to get through the negative and past the point where I had to prove to myself that I was better than he was. Now, I'd be quite happy to be considered an equal and to be developing new insights based on his original visions, which were great, and to build on that and become not a partner in time but a consecutive partner with a sense of connection and value for him. And that's been a wonderful journey.
Learning Fast while Slowing Down
NM: In this journey you've taken, during this whole process of raising vines and making what truly amount to world-class wines that have carved out a niche and claimed a character all their own, what have you learned that you've been able to apply to your life in general?