One of the most often proclaimed credentials for winemakers in California consists of having been trained in the Old World. While plenty of California winemakers often “work a harvest” somewhere, it still remains uncommon to find those individuals that have spent multiple years abroad making wine before coming back to the U.S. The number of winemakers in California that have not just consulted, but lived and worked for three or more years in Bordeaux or Burgundy before coming back to make Cabernet or Pinot locally is quite low, but there are those such as David Ramey and Ted Lemon whose reputations have been built on these experiential foundations.
Bordeaux and Burgundy are, of course, the two most likely spots to host expatriate winemakers from California. Occasionally you’ll hear of someone traipsing off to Australia or South Africa for a couple of years to work as a winemaker.
Until I met Helen Keplinger, however, I had not encountered a California winemaker whose formative years (or any significant portion of their career) had been spent in Spain. When winemakers have cut their teeth in Europe, the (often credible) claim can be made that their time spent in the benchmark terroir for a particular grape gives them both a deeper understanding and a more “refined” approach to working with that variety.
After tasting her wines, I find it difficult to dispute that this unassuming young woman has got a way with Grenache-based blends that few winemakers in California can match. That skill alone would be grounds for great distinction, but her success making everything from cool-climate Pinot Noir to Napa Cult Cabernet and everything in between proves that Keplinger simply has a magic touch when it comes to winemaking.
And to think we almost lost her to medicine.
“I studied science as an undergrad, and thought for the longest time that I’d probably go into medicine, ” says Keplinger. “I did research after college and then decided to take a break before medical school, and went to Thailand and volunteered for a year. It was a nice break from science. When I came back to Boston I shadowed a bunch of physicians and took my MCATs and was doing my medical school application essays when I came to an important realization. All of the doctors I talked with were telling me that if they could do it all over again, they’d do something else. It was the late Nineties, and the power of the HMO was really changing the field. What these people said made a big impression and caused me to really look at what I enjoyed and wanted to do with my life.”
And when she looked, Keplinger saw that most of her free time was spent teaching herself more about wine.
“I grew up in Ohio with a dad who had a wine cellar,” she says. “He wasn’t a trophy collector or anything like that, but my parents had wine on the table every night. My mom is and was an amazing cook. She made her own bread, pasta, everything from scratch. We’d truly live garden-to-table a few months of every year. And on special occasions we kids were offered a glass of wine.”
She remembers spending time at the Finger Lakes winery of Constantin Frank, whom her father had befriended while studying at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY. So, with a bit of time on her hands, and a growing disillusionment with medicine, Keplinger all but relaxed into her next career.
“During that time I was reading about different wine regions and then driving out to Big Y [a major wine retailer in the area] and buying wines to see how they tasted,” she recalls. “I was doing a lot of tasting, a lot of drinking, and a lot of reading — not just wine guides, but also things like My Lady Vine, Rothschild’s autobiography — and that all had a big impact. But obviously I couldn’t do anything with that interest on the East Coast.”
“I saw that U.C. Davis had a graduate program in Enology,” she continues, “and I decided to take a huge leap of faith. I enrolled in 1998, and that was it. My first internship was at Mumm Napa Valley and halfway through I sat back and said to myself ‘I’m so happy!’ I love what I get to do. It’s the perfect combination of science and nature, the sensory, and art.”
Keplinger went on to have an internship with Heidi Barrett at Paradigm Winery, where she was then offered the position of Assistant winemaker the following year. After working a vintage in Australia, she returned to California to become the assistant winemaker at Fiddlehead in Santa Barbara. She was busy making Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir when the call came in from Spain.
“I got this offer from Cellars Melis to help them get started in Priorat,” she says, “and there was no question of taking the job. But it was crazy. They had nothing. I got started by just trying to find the place in Priorat where you could actually buy the kind of equipment you needed to make wine.”
Keplinger found herself scouting for new vineyards, planting ones that had already been found, managing those already owned, buying equipment, renting facilities, working in the lab, working in the cellar, and more. A little more than three years of this kind of frenetic activity were about all that Keplinger could manage, but they were also precisely the kind of crucible that can forge a set of skills that allow a winemaker to understand and operate every aspect of a winery operation.
Returning to the Napa Valley, Keplinger joined Kenzo Estate as winemaker, reuniting with consultant Heidi Barrett and vineyard manager David Abreu, two high-profile names in the business that only a few can afford in combination. At Kenzo, Keplinger quietly cemented her reputation as one of Napa’s top young winemakers, allowing her to begin a parallel career as a consulting winemaker to brands such as Fort Ross, Arrow & Branch, Sarocka, and Scullly.
Her time spent with Barrett and Abreu also allowed Keplinger entry into one of Napa Valley’s most exclusive clubs: the group of winemakers that have been fired by Don Bryant, of Bryant Family Wines.
My first encounter with Keplinger, in fact, was an interview about her experience having worked at Bryant for a mere 20 months before being served her walking papers midway through harvest. Keplinger was remarkably sanguine about the whole affair, which finally gave her the space to concentrate on her own brand, which she began in 2006 and now manages with her husband, D.J.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two met over a bottle of Spanish wine.
“I had actually just gone through a breakup,” recalls Keplinger of her day trip down to LA from Santa Barbara to meet a friend. “The last thing I wanted to do was meet someone. I just wanted to hang out with my girlfriend and have something to eat.”
The two ended up at a small tapas bar connected to a Spanish wine shop where D.J. was working to balance out the irregular cash flow from the organic food company that he and a friend had started after leaving behind their careers in the high tech world.
“I went over to the wall of the wine store,” remembers Keplinger, “looking for one of my ‘go-to’ wines and they didn’t have any of them. This guy came over and offered to help me choose something, and we somehow got into this hilarious conversation. There was something about him. There was clearly chemistry, but really, I wasn’t interested in anything. I did like his wine recommendation, though.”
“I was in the middle of this cold, and was really very sick,” recalls D.J. “I also recommended a dessert to them, and I was hoping they liked it, so I told them to let me know before they left. Helen came over to say thanks, and handed me a business card with her phone number on it. She said something like ‘you seem interested in wine, let me know if you want to come up to the winery sometime.'”
“He was really sick,” remembers Helen, “And well, there was just something about him…” she trails off with a smile, but without any real explanation of how she ended up giving out her number.
Needless to say, he called, and they ended up spending the weekend of Fiddlehead’s holiday party camping and surfing on the coast. There was enough of a spark (and enough vacation time in Europe) to sustain the relationship through Keplinger’s stint in Spain, and the two have been together ever since.
D.J. runs the operations, marketing, sales, and business side of Keplinger Wines and of course, provides manpower at harvest and during the crush. Together, the couple presides over an 800-case production of Rhone varieties and blends sourced from all over California.
“I love making Cabernet and Bordeaux blends,” says Keplinger. “That’s why I’m here in Napa. But it’s nice to have something that doesn’t compete with your clients and your day job. I also fell in love with Grenache in Spain, and when I decided to start my own label in 2004, there weren’t that many good Grenaches in California. I wasn’t sure why.”
In Keplinger’s opinion, not many people have gotten the right combination of vineyard site, farming techniques, and plant material correct.
“It took me a year to find my first vineyard site. So much Grenache is planted in the wrong places in California. And not many people know that the grape is like Pinot Noir — if you have three tons or more per acre on the plant, it’s going to be insipid. It needs to be low cropped, and needs intense and very particular canopy management. The grape is very sensitive to the sun. It can’t be shaded but at the same time it can’t be in the full sun or it will bleach.”
“I take my time finding vineyards,” she says. “I’ve looked at a ton of sites. I want to make sure I’m also finding a grower that wants to do what I ask.”
The right sites, according to Keplinger, are steep, rocky slopes that drain extremely well. A little clay is fine, but the best thing for the grape is volcanic, stony soil.
Keplinger now farms six small plots, three in Sonoma County, and three in the Sierra Foothills. From each of these, she makes between 60 and 200 cases of wine per year.
Her winemaking regimen qualifies as somewhat cutting edge in California, but wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Spain. She cold soaks her grapes for three to five days and lets everything ferment with native yeasts (with the exception of 1 or 2 lots that don’t make it on their own). The juice macerates on the skins for 30-40 days and the free run juice is drained to neutral 600 liter oak barrels where it sits undisturbed until blending and bottling. Most wines spend about 18 months in barrel before being blended and then bottled unfined and unfiltered.
“I’m careful with the wines in winemaking. I want structure and I want it to age,” says Keplinger. “I’m also interested in the expression of a single place, the voice of a single vineyard — that’s the most interesting thing to me — a wine that I can make each vintage and see how it changes. I have no interest in making generic, crowd-pleasing wines.”
Keplinger wines are made at the Cuvaison facilities in Napa, and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future, at least until Keplinger takes another full-time job, a possibility which Keplinger can’t predict at the moment.
Before I present my tasting notes for her 2010 wines, I want to note that there will undoubtedly be a whole group of people that might look at the alcohol levels of these wines, rich as they are, and dismiss them on that basis alone. This would be a grave mistake. They are beautiful and balanced. Big? Yes, but without a trace of the overblown theatrics that can often mark New World wines whose alcohol levels push into the high 14s and low 15s. These are gorgeous wines that are prime candidates for prying anyone out of the rut that involves always drinking the usual suspects.
2010 Keplinger “Caldera” Red Blend, El Dorado, Sierra Foothills
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and chocolate with bright notes of berry and distinct scents of rusting metal that are quite interesting. In the mouth, the wine is plush and velvety with bright cherry and chocolate notes mixed with strawberry and hints of cedar. Bright, juicy acidity and faint tannins. Long finish. A blend of 65% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 6% Cunoise. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2010 Keplinger “Lithic” Red Blend, Amador, Sierra Foothills
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a incredibly floral nose of cassis, blueberries and violets. Notes of red licorice emerge over time. In the mouth, gorgeously supple tannins gently grip flavors of cassis, blackberry, blueberry and wet earth. Deep, resonant, and complex, but without being heavy. Fantastic acid balance, and a wonderful long finish. Wow. 44% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre, and 25% Syrah. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2010 Keplinger “Basilisk” Red Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet strawberry and cherries mixed with woodier tones of red miso paste. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful sweet strawberry and blood orange fruit character. Excellent bright acidity brings fantastic counterpoint to powdery tannins. The fruit has a joyous quality to it, and a slight savory, cocoa powder finish makes me thirsty for more. More than anything, this wine has an incredible harmony that makes it utterly gulpable. Stunning. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $60.
2010 Keplinger “Red Slope” Grenache, Knights Valley, Sonoma
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of strawberry jam and violets. In the mouth, the wine has a crazy brightness, with flavors of strawberries, cherry, cola nut, and a hint of leather. Tacky tannins have a stony quality that is quite compelling. Made From a vineyard 1000 feet up on a ridge in Knights Valley. Includes 4% Syrah. The wine conveys some sense of its 15.3% alcohol with a sense of warmth on the palate, but generally remains quite balanced throughout. Wonderful floral notes and exotic citrus lingers in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2010 Keplinger “Kingpin Rows” Syrah, Knights Valley, Sonoma
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry, cassis, and a hint of black pepper. In the mouth cassis and blackberry flavors are wrapped in powdery mouth-coating tannins. Juicy acidity makes the wine quite bright, and gives a bit of a snap to blueberry flavors that linger long in the finish. 15.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.
2010 Keplinger “Sumo” Syrah, Amador, Sierra Foothills
Inky almost opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet white flowers and rich cassis. In the mouth, the wine is voluminous and rich, broad shouldered and massive. Blackberry, cassis, blueberry and hints of clover honey all course across the palate dressed in gowns of fleecy tannin. Earthy notes emerge on the finish. 88% Petite Syrah, 10% Syrah, and 2% Viognier all cofermented, in sort of an odd twist on a Cote Rotie. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.