Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Robert Keenan Winery

Robert Keenan Winery is simply awesome!  Laura, our host, was great and provided a wonderful, informative experience.  We really liked every one of their wines. They were all interesting, nuanced, complex and unique, with incredible terroir and trueness to the varietal that speaks to the soul.  These are not tourist oriented, point drive wines, although Keenan wines (rightfully) score among the highest.  Their wines are not geared to the latest trend in popular taste but to a vision of presenting the complexity of the varietals without gimmicks or tricks.  You get the real thing here.  You get wines with all of the primal complexity that comes only from the very finest quality grapes and the most authentic and talented winemakers.  Robert Keenan wines are intense wines that have incredible varietal integrity and terroir.

Front of building. Tastings around back.

Robert Conradi started the first winery on this land in the late 1800s but went out of business during prohibition.  In 1974, Robert Keenan purchased the 180 acres and cultivated 48 acres of it for grapes.  (Our friend, who accompanied us to Keenan, almost purchased this vineyard before Robert Keenan did but ended up buying Pickle Canyon Vineyard (Kitty Hawk Vineyard)  up on Mt. Veeder instead.)  132 acres of land has been left forested even though it could be made into more vineyards.  The first wines were produced by Keenan in 1977 so they are one of the oldest existing wineries up on Spring Mountain.  They recently completed a solar power system on the property so estate wines will carry the “Solare Powered and Sustainably Farmed” phrase on the wine labels. 

Renate, Laura and Bill

As with other Spring Mountain wineries, the attitude at Keenan is one of loving the land and being close to nature rather than being committed to profit at any cost. They seem to have an intimate connection to the land and this reveals itself in the wine they make.  These wines have something unique to communicate, expressing not only the varietal characteristics, but also the terroir and subtleties that are preserved only by the careful handling of the finest quality grapes.

In the last eight vintages Robert Parker has given 47 Keenan wines ratings between 90 and 97.  I have never been much of fan of Robert Parker’s ratings or the ratings by most other famous wine critics, but I certainly agree with his high ratings of Keenan wines. (I do love the writings of Steve Heimoff, Matt Kramer and some other famous writers, but that is another story.)

View from front of building.

Keenan is up on Spring Mountain Road in St. Helena about half way up the road.  A side road marked by a sign veers off to the right and takes you another mile and a half in to the winery.  As with most Spring Mountain wineries, the view is spectacular; staff is very knowledgeable but earthy and unpretentious; and appointments are necessary.  You will have a good hour of tasting and touring with Laura whose enthusiasm and devotion is infectious and makes the visit an exciting adventure.

Now to the wines.  They have one white, a Chardonnay.  We tasted the Robert Keenan 2010 Chardonay ($30).  It had a very pleasant and pronounced aroma that I started picking it up when my nose was still about a foot away from the glass.  Mostly apple but perhaps some pear.  Exceptionally pleasant.  On the palate I got crisp fruit of mostly apple with minerality and all sorts of subtle sub flavors that delighted the senses. They do not use malolactic conversion or MLF but do use oak and sur-lie aging.  The oak added to the Chardonnay and did not detract from the varietal characteristics.  I hate Chardonnays that are ruined with excessive MLF and oak; where is the heart and soul of the Chardonnay varietal?  This Chard tastes like a Chard and not some laboratory experiment.

Walk from front of building to back.

Our red wine tasting began with the Robert Keenan 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel at $34.  About 65% of the fruit is from Spring Mountain.  It is a very nice Zin with some cherry on the nose and more red berry and spice on the palate.  This is not one of your thin zins, nor an overpowering high-octane one that will clear your sinuses.  It is a big, interesting, complex and spicy zin with plenty of fruit.  It should pair well with food.  Next was the Robert Keenan 2008 Merlot ($36) with about 80% estate grapes and 20% from Carneros.  The mountain fruit gives it tannin, structure and balance that many tepid, one-dimensional Merlots do not have unless blended with Cabs.  This one is excellent and easily stands on its own as one of the better Napa Valley Merlots.  This was followed by the Robert Keenan 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) that is 76% estate fruit with the rest coming form Pope Valley.  Robert Parker gave it a 94 and I think it is well deserved.  This is a much more complex Cab than I associate with the super ripe fruity Cabs that Parker often seems to praise.  I got some cherry on the nose with a big, rich, complex, structured palate that delighted the senses and was followed by a long finish. This wine probably was not so drinkable a year ago but is just now coming into its own.  Even though it is quite drinkable now, it would be a great one to lay away for a number of years.  The next wine to dazzle us was the Robert Keenan 2008 Napa Valley Syrah ($38) which comes mostly from Coombsville.  Tons of fruit with good integrated tannins, pleasant chewiness and great structure, this one is not a fruit bomb like some Syrahs.  If you are tired of one-dimensional, fruit forward Syrahs, that have little going on, then try this one.  Our final tasting was of the Robert Keenan 2006 Tribute Cabernet Sauvignon ($96).  I got some incredible fruit on the nose, mostly blackberry, with a powerful but delightful palate of black fruits and some floral notes.  It clearly needs plenty of air.  As Laura said, we could come back to it in a day or two after opening it and catch it after it fully opened up.  I liked it a lot but I think it is one to lay away for a few years even though it is already six years old.  If you drink it now give it plenty of air in a decanter first.

The only down side to visiting Keenan is deciding what to purchase.  We decided on two Chardonnays, two Merlots, one Cab and two Cab Francs and will certainly return soon for some more. Oh yes, the 2008 Cabernet Franc.  It was not available for tasting but, given how great all of the Keenan wines were, we opted to buy some anyhow and will open one at our July 4th picnic.  As usual, I’ll add addendums as we try the wines we purchased.  The Keenan line up of wines is incredible, and there are still a number of their wines we have not tried.  If you join their club, btw, you will receive 20% off the already very reasonable prices.  Keenan should be very high on your list of wineries to visit if you love serious wines.

Addendum: We had the Robert Keenan 2008 Cabernet Franc ($60) yesterday 7/4/12.  It had not been available for tasting and was almost completely sold out. It was a deep purple color with a good aroma.  On the palate it was intense but balanced, richly textured with lots of ripe fruit.  (Robert Parker rated it a 95. ) I would love to try it side by side with the Chappellet, Titus and Gerard. 

Addendum: We drank the Robert Keenan 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) 7/15/12.  This was the one that Robert Parker rated at a 94.  It was even better than I remember at the winery.  We already planned to put this on our updated favorite list, but it is a standout even among our favorites and could easily sell for twice the price. This is another incredible Spring Mountain cab.  If you give it some air it improves, becoming more integrated and subtle.  It is a bit more fruit oriented than most other Spring Mountain Cabs but that is neither praise nor criticism.  It tips somewhat toward ripe fruit but still has a lot of terroir and is very much a mountain wine.  It is among my very favorite Napa Valley Cabs, which is to say, among the finest wines I have ever tasted.  If you can find this wine anywhere, buy it. It really is exceptional.

Robert Keenan Winery
3660 Spring Mountain Rd
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-9177
Date of visit: June 27, 2012

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