Kenefick Ranch's Calistoga Cabernets Demand a Closer Look
The Kenefick family's estate wines are commanding attention from those in search of great Napa Cabernet buys
[Kenefick Ranch's Calistoga Cabernets Demand a Closer Look] Kenefick Ranch vineyard has become one of Calistoga's leading Cabernet sites. (Jason Tinacci)
Mar 8, 2021
One of the great advantages to blind tasting is that without the influence of the label and price, you’re forced to focus exclusively on what’s in the glass. When you pull the bags off afterward, you make some great discoveries.
In the short time I’ve been covering California Cabernet, I’ve noticed the name Kenefick Ranch popping up on labels from the likes of B Cellars, Quivet Cellars and Nickel & Nickel. Looking back at my notes, I see a common thread. The vineyard delivers wines with a deep and loamy profile, featuring notes of juniper, apple wood, cassis and blackberry. They’re lush but focused in feel, delivering a tug of warm earth along the way.
In today’s single-vineyard designate game there are vineyards with much more name cachet—To Kalon, for example. In that case though, with so many wineries using the vineyard, there tends to be more differentiation based on winemaker style than there is a common thread based on the terroir. But with Kenefick, I was digging the sense of place the wines delivered despite being made by different wineries. And after tasting Kenefick Ranch’s own wine from the site, I made a point of visiting.
Located in Calistoga on Pickett Road, Kenefick is directly across the street from Eisele, and it even shares some of the same alluvial sandy loam. The 250-acre ranch has 120 acres of vines spread just about equally over three main soil types. There's iron-rich, red clay Aiken soil and a patch of volcanic soils flanking the sandy loam.
Tom Kenefick, a wine-loving neurosurgeon from Minnesota, moved out west in 1969. On weekends he found himself coming up from San Francisco to tool around in Napa. He fell in love with the area and bought a vineyard, then sold it, and used the proceeds to buy this Calistoga property in 1980. At the time it was planted to a hodgepodge of Italian varieties and, steadily over time, he went about shifting to Cabernet Sauvignon and other blue-chip grapes. Most of Kenefick’s grapes were sold to other wineries until 2002, when the family decided to start doing making a little wine of their own.
Today, Tom’s son Chris, 33, is managing the estate. His sister Caitlin, 35, has spent the past year on the property helping out as well. Winemaker Kent Jarman, 45, formerly of Duckhorn, has been making the wines since 2007.
Kenefick Ranch's annual production totals only about 3,000 cases, headlined by Cabernet Sauvignon along with small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and a few others. The family still sells the vast majority of their grapes to the aforementioned wineries, along with the likes of Caymus, Cade and others. It’s an arrangement that works logistically.
“Ramping up to do the whole production would mean 40,000 cases annually,” says Chris. “That would be a bit difficult. We have a history of growing fruit for others and we’re proud of that.”
Most of the Kenefick Ranch vines top out at 25 to 30 years of age, and there’s a slow but steady replanting program in place.
“It’s not that we just rip out at age 25,” says Jarman. “Virus issues and dealing with declining quantity are the factors, along with maximizing row alignment, replaced outdated trellis systems. We even have some AxR rootstock (which is not phylloxera resistant) in some spots. So we’re dealing with that all bit by bit.”
The 2020 Glass fire cost Kenefick its production when the winery facility they were using was lost. They’ll find a new custom facility for 2021 and have plans to finally build their own winery on-site.
For now, though, the pipeline includes the Kenefick Ranch 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga Chris's Cuvée, typically a 90/10 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. It’s full of plum cake and steeped currant fruit backed by a telltale warm earth note. It has the slightly softer midpalate of the vintage but still has length, with the fruit echoing nicely while anise and vanilla accents linger.
The 2018 Chris's Cuvée shows the power of this nascent vintage, densely packed with plum and currant fruit, it’s broader and deeper than the ’17, and with a long tug of warm, loamy earth running throughout.
The wine retails for $65, about as square a price as you can find for outstanding Napa Valley Cabernet these days. And it’s not a flamboyantly toasted, hyper-rich styled wine either. Rather it seems quietly confident in its combination of classic Cabernet notes allied to a terroir-driven backdrop. Jarman uses just 70 percent new oak for the aging and medium toast only.
“I like fruit,” he says matter of factly. “Wine needs oak, but too much and then you don’t get the fruit. And I like the fruit of this vineyard. That’s what I want to show in the wine.”