Michael Keenan spent about half of our time together describing his wines. He spent the other half apologizing for his colorful language.
"Once in San Diego I participated in an elegant dinner - 10 wines with 10 courses. I found out later there was a secret contest to see how many times I would drop the f bomb during it," he admitted with a look of mischief in his eye.
When our giggles subsided, someone asked, "So how many times were there?"
"I don't know," he shrugged. "At least 18."
If a stereotypical winemaker is arty and even a touch pretentious, Keenan proved anything but. His spirited attitude and knack for lively storytelling won me over immediately. The story of his wines begins when his father, Robert Keenan, purchased 180 acres of abandoned land in 1974. The property on Spring Mountain in Napa used to be well-established Napa Valley vineyard called the Conradi Winery. Unfortunately, it fell into disrepair during prohibition. Robert saw hope in it though and hired a contractor to begin the ambitious task of breathing new life into the land.
Michael started to work alongside his father in 1977. In a somewhat ironic twist though, he left to work for the contractor tasked with reviving the Napa Valley vineyards. The change brought success and Keenan eventually started his own company. He was making a viable living when his father contacted him and told him he was giving up the winery. He offered it to Michael and said that if he did not take it, he would be forced to sell it to someone else entirely. Though hesitant, Michael agreed to at least return to the premises and consider the offer.
It was love at first sight. Keenan recalled his thoughts as he stood overlooking the valley.
"I realized, 'this is so special. I have to figure out a way to keep this in the family,'" he remembers. He gave up his personal business and embarked on a new journey. He knew it would be hard, but he was up for the challenge. He hired a small team of trusted individuals and even housed them on the property.
"Those guys are still working for me," he told me. "That kind of continuity is important."
Though Keenan is usually unfiltered in typical conversation (another case in point: he resents that a movie about "two terds" threatened his Merlot Napa Valley California sales), his entire demeanor changes when he begins talking about his wines. He speaks about them with genuine affection reminiscent of the pride a parent might exhibit for a beloved child. He chooses every word carefully so that his ideas can be conveyed most accurately. In one particularly poignant moment, he explained to us how his final version of the Mernet depends on achieving what he calls a "sweet spot."
"It's a high-toned perfume," he said thoughtfully. He went on to describe how the Mernet is a "winemaker's wine." While the others' notes are driven by the land's terroir, the Mernet's bouquet comes from his ability to blend the grapes together just so.
When I tasted the wine, his words made complete sense. The wine starts off feeling like a whispy velvet in my mouth. There are light touches of ripe fruit. The wine evolves entirely as it lingers though. It sinks down to an earthiness with more weight and darker fruits. Though the wine tastes incredible on its own, the balance between the acid and fruit makes it an ideal food wine.
"I like to say a wine responds to food instead of that it pairs with the food," he states. "Pair is a passive word."
As the name implies, Mernet is a blend of Merlot and 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Keenan gave me a chance to taste both varietals in two versions: regular vintage and reserve.
The 2008 Merlot is 100% Merlot grapes. Keenan still refers to it as a "blended" wine though because the Merlot grapes come from four different vineyards. The 2009 Mailbox Merlot, on the other hand, is a single-vineyard wine. Keenan believes that having all of the grapes originate in the same place gives it a "narrower focus" and "vertical depth." He praises the Mailbox Merlot for two qualities in particular: a sense of completeness and uniqueness.
"It doesn't need anything else to complete it," he explained. "It's unique because it has a high floral note and a long long finish."
Just smelling the wine took my breath away. A single sip left me in total awe. The extremely lush, peppery liquid hit every last iota of surface area in my mouth. The spice and fruit ricocheted off my palette from every angle.
Keenan then introduced us to the Cabernet Sauvignon. This varietal was more of a challenge to create.
"It took us 25 years to learn how make Cabernet," Keenan admitted. His father believed that a great wine came from placing stress on the land. In other words, amazing grapes were the result of the earth struggling with itself. Keenan brought a more "California approach" to winemaking.
"We're supposed to love the plant - not torture it!" he laughs. At the same time, he doesn't adhere to the more strict regulations that an organic or biodynamic labeling would require.
"I take a common sense approach," he asserts. "Nature can take care of itself."
The Cab proved extremely complex. Red and black fruits seemed to war and then come to a truce as the sip filled my mouth. Keenan described it as having "volume and range." By volume, he meant that it has weight and a physical presence in the mouth. Range refers to how it encompasses a wide variety of notes. It was aromatic, floral, fruity, and earthy all in one.
Keenan ended our tasting with a Chardonnay - a departure from the white to red ordering that so many wine drinkers insist upon. I enjoyed this immensely. I think wine should be fun and whimsical and love it when people break the traditions that seem to govern it.
The reds were certainly phenomenal, but to me the Chardonnay was true star of the day. It is full bodied and buttery without tasting of oak. The finish goes on for what seems like an eternity. It manages to be creamy and complex but still easy drinking. Unlike other Chardonnays, it does not go through malolcatic fermentation. Barrel fermentation imparts the perfectly balanced character.
So how does Keenan know when a wine is perfect?
"I felt like I was stoned the rest of the day," he quips. "That's how I knew it was good."
And just like that he's back to the endearing jokester from before. A jokester with truly amazing, artistic wine. Check out for best Napa Valley Winery.