Pretty much everything about Knighton Vineyards on Old Lawley Toll Road came about as happenstance. Jim Knighton never set out to make wine or own a vineyard when he bought the property in 1999.
“I didn’t even drink wine; well, certainly not good wine,” Knighton said.
He also didn’t want a place that needed any kind of fixing up, but the 50-acre parcel had no house, just an “abandoned garage with an old tractor in it,” he said.
Knighton was living in San Francisco at the time, his then-wife was studying for the bar and they had just finished renovating an old home in the city.
“It was a tense, tense place in the house. My wife was a transplant from Missouri and she didn’t like the fog,” he said.
He wanted to find a “tiny little place in Napa” for the weekends. He told the real estate agent he wanted a small place, low maintenance, and certainly no vineyards.
On one house-hunting trip his agent asked Knighton if he minded stopping by a property that had just come on the market. It wasn’t anything Knighton would be interested in, the agent told him, but it was on the way to their next showing.
Knighton agreed and surprised himself by falling in love with the large rugged property with three vineyard blocks that were abandoned in the early ‘80s, that didn’t have a tiny little place, it had no home at all.
“It was stunningly beautiful,” he said. “I bought it, but had no intention of doing anything with the vineyards.”
Some time later he and his wife split, and he turned the garage into a small home.
“It’s a Home Depot style, a two-bedroom, one-bath. It’s very modest, certainly by Napa standards,” he said.
He was president of a biotechnology company in Silicon Valley — he is a co-founder of a newer biotech company now — and took a leave of absence, considering himself “semi-retired.”
One day he was “walking around, a little bored.”
“I thought, ‘How tough can it be to grow grapes,’” he said.
He got a consultant and started planting one vineyard block at a time in 2004. Through the vineyard management company, Pina Vineyard Management, Knighton was connected to a winery that wanted to buy the crop multiple years.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this was easy.’ Boy was I wrong,” Knighton said with a chuckle.
“But I grew to love it, I mean just love it,” he added.
Now he and his new wife, Ann — both are native Michiganders — run Knighton Vineyards together, which produces its own wine under the Knighton Family Vineyards label and sells most of the grapes to Chuck McMinn and his winery Vineyard 29.
There are five distinct blocks of cabernet sauvignon — Toll Road, Wapoo, Landslide, Palisades and Jericho — each with unique topology, geology and growing characteristics. The vineyards start at about 1,000 feet and rise to 1,500 feet on top of Jericho Canyon. David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars got the first crop in 2007.
Keith Emerson, winemaker for Vineyard 29, also makes Knighton’s wine. McMinn had a barrel of wine made for Knighton out of his vineyards’ grapes. It was sent to Robert Parker and got a 90 score.
“Now I’m really thinking this is easy,” Knighton said.
The 2010 got a 94.
“We keep doing well.”
Emerson uses the Knighton grapes in Vineyard 29’s cru cabernet sauvignon.
“I have been working with Jim and Ann since 2006. They are wonderful people and their vineyard is truly special. The steep, rocky terrain is meticulously farmed by Pina Vineyard Management, namely by one of my favorite vineyard foremen in the valley, Jose Luis Hernandez,” Emerson said.
“Pina and I work closely together to determine irrigation strategies, crop levels, leaf surface area, and other farming practices/decisions that come up during the growing season. The unique site, orientation, and elevation produce fruit of exceptional concentration and typical aromas and flavors of black cassis, currant, blackberry, graphite, creosote, scorched earth. The acid and tannin profile are firm and balanced providing structure for this opulent cabernet sauvignon.”
Knighton likens his unlikely venture into wine to his 30 years of work in biotechnology. He started his latest company, Avid Biotics, the same year he planted the first vineyard.
“The comparison of starting a biotech company and a winery is actually very similar,” he said.
Both are cerebral — one in medicine, the other in science — and both take years to fully develop, he said. Wine is more “emotional,” and helps him shift his brain.
“Although it is equally stressful, because it’s still a business,” he said.
In the biotech industry there are years of research and development, testing, trials, approvals and more. “It’s a different type of business. It’s very hardcore science,” Knighton said, but “I don’t worry about growing seasons in biotech.”
Vines take years to produce quality grapes, and “it takes years before the root system gets” established.
“You watch the vineyard grow the same way” you watch a biotech business grow, he said.
“Neither is an overnight success,” he said.
He said both of his businesses are “at a stage of adolescence.”
“The wine is coming of age” and Avid Biotics has a set of “therapeutic proteins” that can target pathogenic bacteria, viruses and cancer cells “with surgical precision,” he said.
“We’re working on a brand new approach … to kill very specific bacteria. It’s the antithesis of a broad spectrum antibiotic. It only kills the one we design it to kill,” he said.
It will be interesting for him to see what kind of “adult” both businesses turn into, Knighton said.