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Keller Estate Winery

Author: Davina Rubin
May, 2008 Issue

    • Case production: 11,000
    • Planted acres: 90, the rest are sourced
    • Grapes used: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Syrah
    • Employees: 6
    • (707) 765-2117

    The award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim once remarked that “art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” Nowhere is this more applicable than in the art of making wine. Behind the burgundy and golden-hued masterpieces poured out of curvy glass bottles and swirled into clinking glasses is the touch of a winemaker’s hand. It’s through the deft art of winemaking that nature’s chaos is turned into a sumptuous elixir.

    At Keller Estate Winery and Vineyards, located along the Sonoma Coast, this art is presided over by winemaker Michael McNeill, who works closely with proprietors Arturo Keller and his daughter, Ana, who is the estate director.

    Situated in the region known as the Petaluma Gap, where the cool fog sweeps inland between Tomales and Bodega bays, Keller Estate is ideally suited for growing what’s generally considered one of the most fickle and genetically chaotic winegrape varietals: Pinot Noir. The revered Pinot Noir plant is unique in that it’s genetically unstable and throws off mutations, presenting more challenges—and opportunities—for winemakers.

    As McNeill explains, “Hundreds of years ago, someone in Burgundy walking through a Pinot Noir vineyard said, ‘Hey, there’s a pink grape, I’m going to take a cutting from that and propagate it,’ which is how Pinot Gris came to be. Then, from Pinot Gris, someone found some white grapes, and Pinot Blanc was born.” All of these are mutations that are identified out in the vineyard. For Pinot Noir, these mutations can also provide different flavors and aromas.

    With chemistry as a common academic background between them, McNeill and Ana Keller find it easy to work side-by-side. The two have created an artist’s palette, of sorts, with the six separate blocks of Pinot Noir on the main La Cruz vineyard combined with a ridge-top block known as “El Coro” (named for the beautiful sandstone choir sculptures that stand before the vines). The 20-acre “El Coro” vineyard is divided into two-acre sublots, and there are seven different clones in the vineyard. This brings the total number of Pinot clones planted on the estate to nine. Different elevations, slopes and wind patterns create tiny microclimates. Each of the clones is grown, harvested, fermented and aged in the separate blocks, so there are about two dozen lots of Pinot Noir in the cellar that McNeill can look at, evaluate and blend to put together the best wine possible.

    McNeill is also a master at determining which clones (and which sites) do better. Eventually, they bud over the least desirable or least performing clones to the ones that do the best. He describes the “budding over” process, which results in a production of finer and finer grapes. “The budders cut off the top part of the vine, and replace it with a couple of two- or three-bud sticks. These guys are able to do magic—cutting, slicing, inserting and tying. There’s a certain skill and touch they have, and they can do hundreds of plants in a day.” His admiration for the workers is evident.

    McNeill’s beginnings in the wine industry were quite humble; he had a harvest job for R. H. Phillips in the Dunnigan Hills in Yolo County. With a degree in chemistry from California Polytechnic University, this job soon turned into a full-time position as a research enologist. After two years there, McNeill took the position of enologist at Chalone Vineyards, where he spent six years learning a great deal about estate-grown wine and barrel fermenting, and eventually became assistant winemaker to Michael Michaud. “That’s where I fell in love—with Pinot Noir,” McNeill smiles. “I found my passion early in life.”

    After two years in Oregon, where he found life rainy and bleak, McNeill returned to sunny California with a job at Savannah Chanelle vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains.

    A recruiter representing Keller Estate Winery changed Michael McNeill’s life. Known for his focus on Pinot Noir, he was just who the Kellers were looking for. And, though he wasn’t actively looking for a change, the opportunity to work with the Kellers offered McNeill several attractive features that he couldn’t pass up.

    Arturo Keller first planted Chardonnay in 1989; back then, he sold most of the fruit and made only a small amount of wine for family and friends. Pinot Noir was added in 1994 and 1995. One of the unique aspects of Keller Estate is that, with each successive Pinot Noir planting, the family chose to propagate different clones. When a vine is propagated to create a vineyard, dormant cuttings are taken from a vine, and grafted onto a rootstock.

    The output for the Keller Estate wines is approximately 11,000 cases annually. The wines are marketed in 28 states, England, Mexico, Japan, Norway and Hong Kong. All of the wines sold by Keller Estate are wholly estate-grown and processed onsite. This gives the family complete control over the vineyard and production. The beautiful limestone winery, designed by noted architect Ricardo Legorreta, was constructed to minimize the handling of grapes by using gravity as much as possible.

    “We’re committed to producing wines of the highest possible quality,” explains Ana Keller. Unlike many absent vineyard owners in Napa and Sonoma, Ana’s presence at Keller Estate is constant. From label design to the selection of the finest barrels for the Precioso wines (a limited selection made from the best barrels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), Ana and her father have a say in it all.

    Arturo Keller, a trained engineer who worked in the automobile industry for much of his life, understands the need for the finest equipment at the estate. Because of this, “Every effort was made to get the best equipment,” McNeill says, “from the pneumatic punch down device to the new presses.”

    It was these new presses that enabled the winery to process all of its Chardonnay grapes at relatively the same time, so the grapes were picked at the height of ripeness, without any being too early or too late. This has been one of the factors in the superb quality of the Keller Estate Chardonnay.

    Among Keller Estate’s wine portfolio, another standout is the “Oro de Plata” Chardonnay. It’s unique tone is due to the process of stainless steel fermentation. McNeill explains, “My wife [Tracy, an award-winning chef] and I have been drinking a lot of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Albariños from Spain and Rieslings from Germany. These are real steely and mineral-driven with bright acidity. I wanted to try to emulate that, and felt I could do it with a Chardonnay.” The soil in this region helps produce that quality.

    When he pitched the idea to the Kellers, they were very willing to “give it a whirl and see what happens.” Their faith in McNeill isn’t without basis; few wineries do both styles of Chardonnay, and even fewer do both well. McNeill’s artistry is what makes the difference.

    It’s through respect for both tradition and innovation that Keller Estate is able to produce such elegant, highly textured wines from its terroir. Winemaker Michael McNeill’s devotion to experimentation and perfection, the Keller’s passion for wine and aesthetics, and the beautiful and fruitful property where the grapes reside are, like the Keller Estate wines themselves, a winning combination.


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