In a ‘brave new world’ that seems overly focused on the new producer and the breakout category, it seems sometimes it’s a disadvantage to have any kind of history. Talk about some entity that is making orange wine or early harvest Mourvedre and there seems to be a waiting cadre of folks willing to give them a look. Talk about a proven Napa Valley label that has been around for more than three decades and you are likely to get blank stares. But just because someone has been around a while doesn’t mean they are no longer relevant.
The history of Keenan Winery started over 40 years ago. Certain that mountain side vineyards in Napa Valley could produce world-class wines, in 1974 Robert Keenan purchased 180 acres in the Spring Mountain District at an elevation of 1700 feet. Located on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas mountain range, Spring Mountain District gained recognition as an American Vineyard Appellation (AVA) in 1993. The low vigor soils unique to the region were known to create a stressful environment for vine growth, setting up perfect conditions to encourage vineyards planted on the steep, rocky, mountainsides to produce wines of great concentration, structure, and pure varietal flavors.
The original acreage Robert acquired included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, founded in the late 19th Century and one of the first pioneering properties established on Spring Mountain. By the time Robert Keenan arrived in 1974, none of the estate’s original vineyards were producing. Robert cleared the estate of tree stumps and rocks, extended the original vineyard acreage and replanted the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He built a new winery using the existing stone walls from the old Conradi building, and celebrated Keenan Winery’s first harvest there in 1977.
Robert’s son Michael took the reins in 1998 with a vision of moving the property up the quality ladder. While those early Keenan wines were respected, many of them were ferociously tannic. A slow deliberate process of trial and error, including the replanting of clones and the incorporation of a solar-powered system and sustainable farming (Keenan is now recognized as a ‘green’ winery) has helped the winery take the steps necessary to elevate their game and make some of the best wines in the winery’s history.
It has been interesting to watch the winery get more critical recognition as a result of this multitude of changes under the watchful, and arguably rather intense eye of Michael. It has been clear every year when we do the tasting with him that the wines are more intense, better balanced and more refined within the context of ample, burly mountain reds. Better grapes, better wine and every aspect is carefully watched in the process. The result has been a Keenan lineup that is playing at a high level but has remained true to their vision of Spring Mountain as an identifiable and important terroir of the Napa Valley.
The last lineup we were presented was arguably the best yet, but the star of the show was the Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Spring Mountain 2014. This is serious ‘mountain’ Cabernet with all of the power, depth and flavor intensity that the description implies. Lots of dark cassis and other blue fruits highlighted with notes of chocolate and the requisite chewy, but thoroughly ripe tannins, this is impressive from front to back.
We can roll out the requisite press. There’s a Vinous 93 with comments, “… an impeccably balanced wine that brings together firm mountain structure with ripe, unctuous fruit. Dark cherry, plum compote, spice, licorice and menthol are some of the many notes that give the Reserve its mid-palate density and sweetness. The firm tannins need time to soften, but this is impressive juice. “
There’s an even more emphatic Wine Advocate 95, offering “The (2014 Cabernet)… is the deepest, richest wine of the entire portfolio, with an opaque purple color and a super-pure nose of crème de cassis and blueberries. The wine is rich, full-bodied, nicely textured, and very long in the finish, with ripe tannins. It can be drunk now or cellared for another 15 or more years.”
High praise, to be sure. But we can’t help but think that if the wine had a little more of a ‘trophy’ style that obliterates terroir for the sake of hedonism, with overt, lavish oak, and carried the name of one of the current media darlings, it would have garnered a couple more points and approached ‘legend’ status. To Michael’s credit, this is as fine an expression of this vineyard, in a pure, honest style, that we have tasted from Keenan.
But we also think this effort is better even than the reviews chronicle and we’d think to ourselves that it seems to us that sometimes the ‘old guard’ has to do more to get the same recognition. One of the Cabs of the vintage for us thus far and, given the cost of Napa reserve Cabs these day, attractively priced as well.