Imagine young, aspiring medical doctors sitting around drinking Bordeaux. Now imagine this happening 50 or so years ago, in Minnesota, at a place called Wong’s Cafe.
This is how Dr. Tom Kenefick explains his burgeoning interest in wine, dating to his medical school days when he and a few colleagues started wine-tasting groups.
“Everyone would bring their own wines. There was maybe a bottle of Bordeaux, a bottle of burgundy, we’d try to get educated,” he said.
A neurosurgeon who spent time practicing at the Mayo Clinic, Kenefick has come a long way since those days. This year, Kenefick Ranch in Calistoga celebrates 40 years of growing grapes and 20 years of making wine.
The 250-acre ranch just southeast of Calistoga farms about half of that acreage, one of the largest contiguously farmed in Calistoga. They sell about 90% of the crop, and also have their own label.
The Keneficks are also in the process of adding a tasting room, which could be completed in another 12-18 months.
Growing healthy grapes
Kenefick is a third-generation physician, but farming is also in his blood. His grandfather bought farms from his patients during the Depression, in Iowa, to help them with their mortgages, so he was part owner with local farmers.
After moving to San Francisco in 1969, Kenefick would drive up to make a few tours in Napa Valley. He eventually bought property in Calistoga from a farmer who had owned the ranch dating to before World War II. “He dry-farmed Gamay and Petite Syrah with a horse and plow. He left us the horse,” Kenefick said.
Then, once a week for two years, after surgery in the morning in San Francisco, Kenefick would drive up and attend night school at Santa Rosa Junior College, taking oenology classes from Richard Thomas. “It was just getting popular again then,” Kenefick said.
Over the years, he has adjusted his farming techniques. He said he takes off a lot of the wings, or side bunches of grapes, usually about two weeks behind the rest in maturity. They also de-clump if bunches are too close together, so the grapes get enough sun and air, and practice canopy management. They have also altered row orientation according to the sun’s daily movement across the sky.
“Off Rosedale Road, they are planted at 20 degrees east of north, and with that orientation, when the sun is at its highest, from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the sun is going down the whole row,” Kenefick said. “It’s just live and learn and listen, and try to improve. I don’t know how you can grow better corn than someone else, but with grapes you can see the difference. There are a lot of things you can do to make it a better product.”
Being a doctor has also influenced how Kenefick farms. His vines, he says, are healthy.
“We have an extremely clean vineyard. I don’t like any disease. When they have a virus, the plants don’t mature as well, or get all the flavors you want,” he said. “We’ve done quite well on cutting down on some of the viruses that come in, like red or curly leaf. It’s fun to be able to make a diagnosis. A healthy, clean vineyard is important.”
Time to make wine
Kenefick started making wine after he retired from surgical practice and moved to Calistoga full-time.
“It takes a lot more time and energy and oversight when you’re both farming and making wine,” he said.
Kenefick started with Bordeaux varietals. In trying to create a better grape, some of it was trial and error. At one time, Kenefick had 14 different clones of Cabernet on five different root stocks. They still have a number of different clones.
The first wine came out in 2002 under winemaker Josh Krupp. “I thought when I started that I would just make one wine, sort of like Tim Mondavi with Continuum Estate. But both the Cabernet and Merlot turned out to be good enough to stand on their own,” Kenefick said. “When we were making Cabernet Franc not many other people were. They tasted it and said ‘geez, that’s really good.’ We were farming it just like Cabernet, but it’s just that it’s hot enough in Calistoga it gets very ripe.”
Also, the volcanic soil profile in much of Calistoga “makes us separate from other people in Napa. The rocks give a good minerality to the wine. The good thing for all of Calistoga is that it’s hotter here than much of the rest of Napa Valley. Grapes like Cabernet really do like hot weather,” he said.
Then Kenefick got the idea to put the five different varietals in one bottle.
“Typically, there are three different varietals but as many as five are used for some. Our Founder’s Reserve is our only current release wine with five varietals — all five main Bordeaux varietals,” said Kenefick’s son, Chris, vice president and director of sales and marketing.
Now, under winemaker Kent Jarman, they produce six wines, at about 3,000 cases annually. They also produce 25 case wines just for the wine club.
“Our 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Chris’s Cuvee, is 90% Cab Sauv, 5% Petite Verdot, 3% Merlot, and 2% Cab Franc. The reserve Cabernet, 2014 Doctor’s Cuvee, is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon,” Chris said.
The future and the legacy
The proximity of the ranch to the new Four Seasons resort going in where Silver Rose used to be, called 400 Silverado Trail, is a mixed blessing but also offers opportunity.
Kenefick has been harvesting grapes with Thomas Rivers Brown, winemaker for the new resort for about three years. The resort’s restaurant will feature Kenefick Ranch Reserve as a designated wine.
“It’s sort of a plus and minus. When I first moved up here I liked the quiet. (Now) it’s kind of an urban/industrial interface,” Kenefick said, referring to harvest time when large trucks are on the road and guests of Solage are bicycling on Rosedale Road or Silverado Trail. However, “they were good neighbors, they contacted all of us and had a meeting.”
Kenefick’s daughter Caitlin and son Chris are co-owners of the property. Chris was in hotel management for about six years before deciding to join in the family business. Caitlin lives in New York but does marketing for the family.
“We hope it will stay in the family a long time. My long-term view is we hold it in the family for generations, at least one or two, like the French, or Europeans. With so many selling (smaller vineyards selling to larger vineyards) I hope that’s what we’re doing,” Tom Kenefick said.
Look for a 40th anniversary celebration party after harvest in the fall. For more visit kenefickranch.com/
You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or email@example.com.
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