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September 2016

Keenan Winery Bucks the Trend in Napa and Makes Beautiful Bordeaux Style Wines.

keenan-logoMichael Keenan is one of my favorite people in the business.  His passion for wine, his winery, and life itself not only shows up when you meet him, but it comes through in his wines.  I’ll be featuring Michael and wines from the Keenan winery this coming Wednesday, September 14, 7PM, at the Vestry, inside the Chapel, in San Francisco.  Not only will you experience amazing food and wine, but you’ll get to hear how the wine was made, and why it was paired with each course.  Click HERE to see the menu prepared by chef Elaine Osuna, and get tickets. You’ll get inside the secrets of the trade, while having your mind blown by such delicious fare.  Don’t miss this event next week!  Seating is limited.

Robert Keenan, Michael’s father, fell in love with Bordeaux wines by drinking a lot of them at the dinner table with his family.  Not only were they delicious, but the rich history of wine production in Bordeaux came through in the wine as well.  He was so inspired that he decided to break ground on Spring Mountain, in Napa, in 1974, to make Bordeaux style wines that had brilliant fruit, balanced acidity, complexity, and longevity.

Robert had an understanding of terrior, and picked a spot with eastern sun exposure in a place that gets really hot in the summer.  A vine’s placement in relationship to the sun is critical.  Normally southern sun exposure would be preferable, but mountain fruit have a different set of needs.  The sun and temperature during the day really bake the grapes, producing huge amounts of sugars (sugars turn to alcohol), and limiting potential acidity.  This eastern exposure produces lots of morning sunshine.  For the rest of the day, the grapes cool off, producing Bordeaux-like acidity, and keeping the fruit in balance.  I find this to be an anomaly in Napa, where Cabernet Sauvignon lacks the grace of Bordeaux, and Chardonnay becomes a cocktail wine.

In 1998 Michael Keenan took over the reins, and has continued the tradition of making wines of grace, and style.  He replanted much of the property, with an eye for improving the quality of the vines.  His eye for sustainability grabs my attention, too.  He had huge solar panels built to produce enough electricity for everything on the property, including several residences.   They also have a pond on the property that collects rainwater to irrigate the vineyards.

My favorite Keenan wines will be featured at the wine dinner September 14.  I’m pretty sure they’ll rock your world, as they did for me!

Keenan Summer Blend 2015, Napa Valley

A blend of Chardonnay from the estate with small amounts of Albarino and Viognier purchased from the Napa Valley floor.  I particularly love the aromatics from both the Albarino and Viognier, and the fresh peach fruit with bangin’ minerals.  

Keenan Chardonnay 2014, Estate

I’ve featured this wine for years at Venus Restaurant in Berkeley.  I stayed in the, now extinct, “Love Shack” right on the Chardonnay vineyard.  I loved walking the vineyard at night until a fox started to get protective of his home, and scared me away!  Staying up there can really change your perception of Napa from a Highway 29 perspective.  It’s really wild!  The acidity, stone fruit, almond extract, and earthiness are all balanced out by lovely acidity and sexy texture.  

Keenan Merlot 2012, Carneros

Keenan vineyard manager Peter Nissen also manages the Ghisletta Vineyard in Carneros, where this fruit comes from.  I love Carneros Merlot.  The proximity to the San Pablo Bay brings out softer tannins, rounder fruit, and and lighter style.  The AVA has the longest growing season in Napa, similar to that of Saint Emilion in Bordeaux.  I love the complex nose of licorice, plum, campari, menthol, dill, and vanilla.  It finishes wonderfully tense, with tart cranberry, firm tannins, and well balanced acid.

Cabernet Franc 2012, Estate

Perhaps one of my five favorite wines of the last year, this wine delivers with elegance, power, and the yin/yang I love in a well balanced beauty.  It comes from the highest elevation on the property at 1900 feet.  These vines only produce 2.5 tons per acre, creating an amazing amount of fruit quality per grape cluster.  A great balance between Bordeaux and Chinon with notes of violets, cherry, plum, earth, and minerals.  The acid remains vibrant with pencil lead earthiness and structured tannins.

Zinfandel / Merlot / Cab Franc 2012, “Nod to History”, Estate

Only available at the winery (and at this wine dinner because Michael likes me!), I love Zinfandel when made with balance.  It is California’s noble varietal as talked about in one of my recent blog posts HERE.  The Merlot and Cabernet Franc give the wine structure to go with the brilliant fruit of Zinfandel.  With only 10 cases released total, you won’t be able to try this wine anywhere else.  I love the brambly notes and rich texture.  If you come on Wednesday, you’ll get a chance to try it with Filet Mignon!

It is impossible to know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



Skin Contact Whites – White Wine For The Red Wine Drinker

orange wineHello Team, before I get into this week’s topic, I want to invite you to an event you should not miss. I’m hosting “the Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – Volume 2” on Sunday Sept. 11, from 1-4PM in Oakland.  I’ll be working alongside long time friend and badass chef, Shawn Mattiuz.  We’ll feature our favorite flavors of fall, let you taste, and show you how our food & wine pairings work so well together.  It’ll be delicious, relaxed, fun, and informative. Reserve your ticket HERE.

There are some people that will not drink white wine.  Either they had a bad experience with a Chardonnay that tasted like dirty old feet, or almost got their soft palate burned by a searing Sauvignon Blanc.  It doesn’t matter if it’s 90 degrees out;  it’s red wine or nothing!   Others are more ambivalent towards white wine, but would much rather feast their palate on a rich and complex red.  For those of you that love red wine, I’d like to introduce you to skin contact white wines.

For thousands of years, white wine was produced in the very same way as red wine, using open top fermentors, with extended time on the skins and lees (dead yeast).  These “orange wines”, of what we now call Eastern Europe, were wild in many ways:  unpredictable, nutty, tannic, and zero shelf life.  Since the 1940’s, however, white wine production has gone through a major transformation.  Cleaner and better controlled environments, pressing juice out of grapes, cold temperature fermentation, fining and filtering, and stainless steel have become the norm.  There are many benefits to this modern winemaking style, such as more vibrant, food friendly wines.  These contemporary whites are created with some predictability in how they will last on the shelf.  But, there’s also something very exciting about the wildness of skin contact whites.  They have a life to them that you don’t get out of your everyday Sauvignon Blanc.  They have the complexity, nuttiness, structure, and body to go with the vibrancy of acid.

Skin contact whites use the same principles in making a red wine.  The juice and the skins soak together, sometimes for upwards of a month.  Winemakers can choose to ferment the wine in either closed stainless steel or cement vats, which control the process somewhat.  Or, they can get all jiggy with it and ferment exactly as they would a red wine in open top fermenters.  The process oxidises the wine, creating a hazelnut quality on the finish and caramelized color, also known as “orange wine”.  In either case, the tannins, earthiness, and floweriness are emphasized when macerating (fermenting wine on its skins) white or red wine on its skins.  In whites, you’ll get a structure and texture like red wine while still having the grace and femininity of white wine.  Consequently, these wines are some of the world’s most versatile food wines – going with everything from fish, to pork, to even beef.    

It is the more aromatic whites that work best for skin contact.  These floral notes mix really well with the richer notes that a winemaker achieves through the skin contact process.  Here are four or my favorite whites.  Click on the link to see where you might buy a bottle or twelve.

Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho 2014, “Contacto”, Monçao Melgaco, Vino Verde, Portugal

This type of wine is extremely rare in Portugal.  My guess is that Mr. Mendes is seen as a bit of an odd bird in those parts!  I love the grace and acidity of Alvarinho (also known as Albarino in Spain).  They are really graceful, and fragrant as a warm spring day when made well.  Mix that with a full month on the skins, and four months on the lees, and you get a truly exciting wine.  Notes of honeysuckle, peach, pear, and chalk.  The cucumber water-like texture, beautiful pear fruit, and subtle, food-loving tannins will seduce you.  

Batic Pinela / Rebula (Ribolla Giala) / Zelen 2014, Slovenia

Now, this part of the world is where “orange wines” start to become a little more normal!  I got a great education about “orange wine” and indigenous varietals at Oakland’s own A Coté restaurant.  Jeff Berlin has got an amazing wine list there.  This wine comes from a family owned winery, making wine since 1592!  It is organically certified, comes from the Vipava valley, and has seven days of skin contact.  It really feels like you’re drinking something vibrant and full of life when you try this wine.  Its notes of fennel, gardenia, cider, pastis, smoke, and honey make you forget you’re drinking wine for a second.  On the palate it comes across as dry, richly textured, and smoky, with a nice acid backbone, and subtle tannins.  

Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Winemaker Stephen Hagen is truly dedicated to holistic farming, using red clover as a cover crop, and compost to fertilize.  He literally still tends the vineyard rows with horse and plow.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon is known for two varietals world wide.  Wine aficionados love the Pinot Noir, but the oft forgotten Pinot Gris is also world class.   He lets the skins macerate for thirty-six hours in some neutral oak, and leaves the wine on the lees for five months.  I love this wine so much, with its notes of hibiscus tea, rose hip, lavender, lemon blossom, mandarin fruit, and ocean-like minerality.  It’s textured with layers of apricot fruit, and has orange-like acidity.  

Donkey & Goat Vermentino / Grenache Blanc / Marsanne / Roussanne / Picpoul “Sluice Box” 2014, El Dorado

Jared and Tracey at D&G in Berkeley are some of my favorite people in the business.  I love their dedication and stubbornness of making an old world style of wine, despite a lot of California still pining for Napa Valley wines.  You can get a glass of this wine at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Berkeley.  Almost fifty percent of the wine is left on the skins for about seven days.  I feel like this practice goes so well with their philosophy of picking early (yielding drier, more acidic wines) to create a truly complex food wine.  Think melon, peach, and caramel on the nose.  It is textured, has structure, and acid on the palate, with pronounced tannins.  Go for it!  Pair it with the heartiest of dishes.  

Skin contact white cheat sheet:

  • Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho 2014, “Contacto”,  Vino Verde, Portugal
  • Batic Pinela / Rebula (Ribolla Giala) / Zelen 2014, Slovenia
  • Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon
  • Donkey & Goat Vermentino / Grenache Blanc  “Sluice Box” 2014, El Dorado


It’s impossible to know everything about the world of wine.  Let’s keep learning.