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NM: Speaking of project, you left from your former career in stock brokerage to start a new one in winemaking. In diving into it though, at least from the business aspect, a lot of it actually felt natural to you — understandably, since there are market-driven underpinnings to the selling of wine that you make. But how was the transition for you in terms of the grapegrowing and winemaking?
KK: It's been a wonderful learning experience, because when I started this, I knew nothing about grapegrowing. When I bought the vineyard in 1987, I hired a vineyard management company. The young man who owned the company, Jack Florence, right out of U.C. Davis, was well-educated and enthusiastic. And I learned from him! I also learned from the guys who were out there doing the hard work — the pruning, the tractor driving, the spraying, and so on — just through observation. It's remarkably complex the way that we farm today. When I got to a point where I felt I learned pretty much all I could learn from Jack Florence, I continued to go U.C. Davis for advanced courses in viticulture. And the university is fabulous, especially because it allows people who are running vineyards and wineries to take updated courses to continue to learn.
Now, recently I hired a viticultural consultant, Garrett Buckland, who is a partner at Premier Viticulture in Napa. And he brings an entirely different perspective to all of this. I brought him in because I wanted to farm in Alexander Valley just as the absolute top vineyards are done in Napa. So the question was, What happens if you take a property that has wonderful potential like Blue Rock and farm it with the technology of the best winegrowing properties? Since Garrett is a consultant to a number of those properties — Duckhorn, Araujo, Chateau Montelena, and few others — I'm learning from him how to farm here exactly the way they do at the top vineyards in Napa. And we're really getting some sensational results!
NM: In your efforts to drive quality and maximize potential in the wines, it sounds like you're really pushing the envelope with the choices you've made in both the vineyard and the cellar. What are some of the specific ways in which you've done so?
"To make the decision to go for high quality and low tonnage here takes a real leap of faith, because what happens if you produce low tonnage and people are still only willing to pay you half of what they pay for Napa fruit?"
KK: Well, to be honest, I really bet the ranch! When I replanted the vineyard, I hired the winegrowing team of Daniel Roberts and Alfred Kass. Daniel is a Ph.D. in plant science and worked for Kendall Jackson, overseeing all of their replantings until he went off on his own as a consultant. Alfred, who's from Australia, is also a Ph.D., but in soil science. And together these guys asked me what I wanted to do: to grow the absolute highest quality but with low tonnage per acre, or to yield higher tonnage with not the best quality. My answer was obvious. Now, when I say I bet the ranch, I meant that I was betting against the odds — in Alexander Valley, the highest average price per ton is only about half of what it is for Napa. So, to make the decision to go for high quality and low tonnage here takes a real leap of faith, because what happens if you produce low tonnage and people are still only willing to pay you half of what they pay for Napa fruit? On top of that, in order to get high quality in this particular vineyard, we had to plant at a very high vine density because of the magnesium that devigorates the vine. Each vine is small and produces a small amount of fruit and therefore, in order to get any kind of commercially viable yield at all, you have to plant at a very high vine density. And that's very expensive, because you have more plants per acre that require more structure in terms of irrigation equipment and trellising, and more labor in terms of tractor passes and hand harvesting. So, compared to my neighbors, I have a vineyard that's very expensive to plant and install, and yields low tonnage. The leap of faith is that we'll get paid in proportion to all that. And we're still waiting for that to happen! It's scary as hell! I have lost a lot of sleep, because I've put so much money into it, and it's a big gamble. At the moment, I (meaning Blue Rock) am the only buyer of the grapes from this vineyard who's willing to pay what they're worth.
In the vineyard, we have all of our own crews and do all of our own tractor work and hand labor. Most vineyards have custom farmers who come in with a hundred people who will do one operation, like leaf-pulling, and then do another operation with a whole different set of workers. But you don't build a vine-by-vine relationship like that. Yet it's important to do so, because the soils are very different; you can walk ten feet and the one vine will look very different than the last one. When you have a hundred guys come in, then everything is done the same way. Whereas when you have your own crew doing everything in the vineyard, they're walking the same row every day and so they know to treat one vine differently from another. You want each vine to have balance. So, I think that our focus is more on the vineyard than on the actual winemaking in terms of how we're making improvements every year.