For more than two decades winemaker Kirk Venge has made some of the finest examples of wines the Napa Valley has to offer. He also nearly lost everything in last year’s 2020 Glass Fire, when he watched as a wall of flames descended toward his winery and tasting room in Calistoga.
“Up until then, the 2020 vintage had looked near perfect, and we were days away from harvesting,” he said.
But in late September a raging inferno ripped through the region — scorching 70,000 acres and incinerating 1,555 structures. Among those were 27 damaged wineries and six that burned to the ground. The fire then left a path of singed vineyards in its wake. That night the flames headed straight at Venge as he tried to wet down his structures with a hose.
“The fire came so fast that at one point I had to get to the middle of the vineyard for safety,” he said. “I was pretty certain the winery was done for.”
In a fortunate twist of fate, the winds shifted and the conflagration abruptly turned. Over the next few days, Kirk stood guard, stamping out small fires that started as flaming embers continued dropping from the smoke-filled sky. When the fire had eventually been fully extinguished, all of his structures and vineyards had been left virtually untouched.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said. “We were only able to process about 20% of our wine last year because of smoke damage, but the little we do have is pretty fantastic.”
Kirk Venge’s grandfather, Per, the son of immigrants from Denmark, started a wine and spirits import business in Southern California in the mid-20th century, inspiring Kirk’s father, Nils Venge, to become a winemaker.
Nils graduated from UC Davis with a degree in viticulture in 1967, followed by a tour of duty in Vietnam as a Navy reservist before moving to the Napa Valley where he worked for notable wineries, such as Charles Krug, Sterling and Groth. Eventually, in 1976 — the year Kirk was born — his family purchased a 17-acre parcel in Oakville and planted it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Growing up, Kirk witnessed his father become an influential force within Napa Valley and beyond. Nils made some of the wines ogled over by wine reviewers such as Robert Parker Jr., including the 1985 Groth Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that received a 100-point score, which, according to the Saddleback website, made him the first American winemaker to do so.
By the mid-1990s Kirk’s family had launched their own Venge Family wine brand and purchased a second property — the old Rossini “ghost winery” in Bell Canyon, just northeast of St. Helena. Hoping to build a “forever” winery, the family set about renovating the dilapidated building that had sat vacant since being abandoned during Prohibition.
“It was pretty amazing — old stone walls and a cellar — really good bones,” Kirk said.
Kirk was involved with the entire process of renovation, believing that one day the reimagined structure would be where he would make wine as an adult. However, when his parents divorced in 2008 the winery was sold to the William Foley group. Kirk was left adrift and pondering how he might ever afford his own winery.
“I always wanted to be a winery owner — even when I was just 6 years old,” Kirk said. “I looked up to my dad, and I thought that working in the vineyards, driving tractors, traveling and being around interesting people seemed like such a great life.”
But purchasing a vineyard and constructing a winery are exceptionally expensive, and with the family’s winery sold, it appeared he might never own his own operation. That’s when his mother and sister stepped in.
“My mother was my first ‘angel investor,’” he said. “She and my sister loaned me money to get me started. They both provided me the support and resources to purchase the vineyard and build a small winery. Without them, this would never have happened.”
Kirk’s mother passed in 2011, but her legacy lives on through his winery and vineyard. He has also honored her by creating a wine in her name — “DLCV” for Dianna Lynn Candy Venge. Only one or two barrels of this wine are made each year — from the finest selection of the vintage — and each bottle costs $475. This wine is so rare and sought-after that no mention can be found on the winery’s website, and allocations are by invitation only.
“She was and always will be my life’s inspiration,” he said. “This wine is one way I can share with others just how special she was.”
Finding a mentor
Kirk, like his father before him, had obtained a viticulture and enology degree from UC Davis. As a student there, he found an influential mentor, Hugh Davies, who would eventually take the reins at his own family’s Schramsberg Vineyards, a sparkling wine producer in the Napa Valley. Another of the second-generation Napa Valley vintners, Davies, 10 years Kirk’s senior, was attending UC Davis’ influential winemaking school to obtain a master’s in enology.
“I felt exceptionally lucky to have Hugh take me under his wing like that,” Kirk said.
Beyond helping Davies at school, Kirk also worked at Schramsberg during the summers.
“Kirk was an enthusiastic, hard-working 18-year-old when I first met him,” Davies said. “Always positive, always present, he was a great candidate to join my tasting panel for my master’s thesis work.”
Eventually, Kirk would work at other wineries, including Mumm Napa and internships overseas. Today, Kirk is himself a mentor for dozens of aspiring winemakers, not only those working and interning at his winery but also those working at the numerous brands for which he consults, including B Cellars Winery, Bacio Divino Cellars, Eleven Eleven Wines, Hunnicutt Wine Co. Implicit Cellars, JAX Vineyards, Macauley Vineyard, Mirror Wines, Promise Wine, Sky Devil Wines, Trespass Vineyards and Tres Perlas Wines.
“Kirk was cut out to do this kind of work,” Davies said. “He’s carried his infectious energy straight on through these last 25+ years, and it is no surprise to see him succeed as a winemaker and winery owner/operator.”
The wines of Venge
Besides being pleasant and happy, Kirk is a winemaker whose talents are in high demand because he consistently makes delicious wines. I am not talking about the type of deliciousness of many high-scoring wines of yesteryear with over-the-top alcohol and sweetness. I am speaking of wines that can be “big” without being unidimensional and cloying.
Producing little more than a few hundred cases of each different wine each vintage, Kirk’s offerings this year include a range of red wines and two white wines.
I detail four: the 2019 Brown Ranch Chardonnay ($47 per bottle, 400 cases made), the 2019 Signal Fire Calistoga Zinfandel ($50 per bottle, 450 cases made), the 2017 Kenefick Ranch Merlot ($75 per bottle, 300 cases made) and the 2018 Bone Ash Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon ($115 per bottle, 600 cases made).
The Brown Ranch Chardonnay comes from grapes grown in the Carneros region of south Napa. This wine is straw-gold in color with aromas of orange blossom, chalk and toasted hazelnuts. Flavors of ripe pear, grilled pineapple, coconut zest and candied lemon merge with vanilla. Try this wine with sautéed sea scallops served with grilled mission figs and a salad of arugula tossed in a light dressing of apple cider vinegar and olive oil.
The grapes for the Signal Fire Zinfandel are sourced from Kirk’s Calistoga dry-farmed, old-vine vineyard just north of the hot-springs geyser. Beyond natural rain, these venerable vines receive no irrigation and produce a tiny crop — only 1 ton of grapes per acre. Able to survive in the parched soils by having strong, deep roots, the grapes produce a surreal wine — inky-black in color with complex aromas of sun-dried red raspberries, cracked black peppercorns, dried sage and molasses. Flavors include blackberry jam, toasted malt and German chocolate cake. Enjoy this with spareribs brushed with puree of sun-dried cherries.
The Kenefick Ranch Merlot fruit comes from the nearby Kenefick Vineyard just north of Kirk’s property and represents a scrumptious example of the versatility of the merlot grape. One of my favorite varieties of Vitis vinifera, this example of wine is a study in concentration. The color is mahogany in the glass with aromatics that linger on dried blueberry, dark-roasted coffee, fresh tobacco and Chambord. In the mouth, this wine is a silky wave, with flavors of duck confit and Chinese five-spice that finish with blueberry and cedar incense. Ponder enjoying this wine alongside seared duck breast sauced with cherries and port reduction.
Bone Ash is grown at the Calistoga winery location and produces Cabernet Sauvignon wines comparable to many of the adjacent well-regarded vineyards such as the Fisher Family, Kenefick and Araujo vineyards. This wine is quintessential Napa Valley Cab, opaque in the glass with a ruby rim and aromas of creme de cassis, cedar, leather and black truffle. The flavors are of a classic French demi-glace sauce that has been infused with bacon, umeshu and Mexican chocolate. This wine would go with any hearty game dish. I’m picturing venison grilled over an oak-wood fire that has a few sprigs of thyme smoldering in the ashes, accompanied by grilled radicchio that has been brushed lightly with balsamic vinegar.
Kirk Venge — rooted here
“He is rooted here,” Davies said. “Here’s a guy that was born into this industry and community — we are fortunate to have his commitment, his experience and motivation here in the Napa Valley.”
This rootedness seems to be an important source of Kirk’s success, and it furthers his family’s legacy of helping define and refine what it means to be a Napa Valley vintner.
“There are plenty of challenges — drought, fire, the skyrocketing cost of insurance — but I love what we make, I love wine,” he said. “This is usable art — tangible, collectible and changes with time.”
Kirk paused and looked out the window of his tasting room. A few groups of visitors occasionally oohed and aahed as they tasted wine on the outside deck. Beyond, less than 50 yards away, the winery structure stood flanked by green rows of vines. In the distance sun-baked, dry, beige hills loomed, many still strewn with blackened trees from the recent fire.
“Yes, there are challenges,” he repeated, “but for me, the most powerful force out there is remembering just how much there is to be grateful for — family, friends and the opportunity to live, work and share this amazing place.”
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