Day 15: The Fresh Wines of Kevin Kelley

Not Kevin kelley's Winery

Of all the monuments to the fermented juice of vitis-vinifera in California, few have the tremendous ugliness that the warehouse space that houses Kevin Kelley’s Salinia Wine Company. For anyone else this is not a destination winery. There is no grand cellar, no architectural excess masquerading as a tasting room, no bio-dynamic walking tour. And that is ok. Because what Kevin is doing inside this building might represent the future of California wine, or at least some part of it.

i made him stand by the barrel so you could see the connection between winemaker and wine

Kevin, a graduate of UC Davis (he laughed when i jokingly reffered to his alma mater as the bête-noire of the natural wine movement) and a winemaker who has built up his reputation working with various vineyards and wineries around the Sonoma area. He is part of a growing number of winemakers that have become disenchanted by the precepts of international style winemaking, heavy oak, extraction, innoculated yeasts, too much fruit etc. (Wells Guthrie of Copain, whom Kevin worked for, is another that has begun to make wines of a lighter quality.) As Kevin saw it, what has been missing in America was any type of “fresh wine” or wine that is bottled and meant to be consumed young, often straight from the barrel or tank and into whatever container is available (check out Tracie B’s post on fresh Italian wines HERE).

One of these is not like the others

So when Kevin found a few vineyards that he felt were suitable for this type of thing he conceived the Natural Process Alliance, his project for fresh, natural, sustainable wines. To this end he hooked up with Klean Kanteen out of Chico California for completely re-useable bottles so nothing was wasted in the process and started work on a skin fermented Chardonnay and a Pinot Gris and has plans to add Picpoul, Grenache, and a true to life California Pinot Blanc (he tells me most Pinot Blanc is mis-identified here). This is an idea anathema to many Americans, who tend to think of wine as a serious, aged, and complex drink, which is partly where the stigma against wine comes from.

Kevin himself is warm and engaging and genuinely excited about his wines and the possibilities of where they could go. We talked for about three hours on all manner of things, from bio-dynamics (Kevin thinks like me on this, if the practices used are making your vineyards healthier and your wines better, go with it, but certification can hamstring people) to the ridiculous economics of owning vineyards in California (not yet for him, but sometime soon).

The idea behind the wines is simple. Don’t fuck (my term) with it unless it tells you to. No sulfur or anything of the type until absolutely neccessary, not as a preventitive measure and certainly not in order to shoot for a target otherwise unnattainable (when i arrived he had just finished an extremely light sulfur treatment on the Pinot Gris after he felt oxidation would become an issue otherwise, the chardonnay was still unsulfured). The wine itself is only available by the glass and sold within one-hundred miles of the winery so that Kevin can control the shipping as well as keep with his local philosphy.

that's the real stuff

So how is the wine? Given the hands off techniques and minimal intervention used both wines were remarkably clean and precise. The pinot gris, coming from Windsor Oaks Vineyards was a tight, acidic, mineral piece. This is food wine exemplified (we even proved it by eating sandwiches with it), subdued but not fat, balanced on the razors edge of rocks and fruit (thanks Lyle). The chardonnay is an entirely different animal from what you think of california chardonnay. Skin macerated for the entire fermentation and full of a some spiced meyer lemon feel and free of any of the requisite heaviness that comes along with oak or too much alcohol. To taste it is to realize that what we think of california chard is just as much a product of technique as anything else, and it doesn’t speak to California as much as it does to the style favored by much of our state’s vignerons. The wine itself was as ugly looking as the building, cloudy unfiltered with bits of stuff floating in it. But to taste it is to taste a small scale revolution. Tasting it is like tasting something different. Burgundian? No. International? No. So what then? The future?

One can hope.

Note: I tasted a number of Kevin’s other wines besides the NPA. I was going to include them, but space and time constraints made it impossible, so stay tuned for a full report after the month is done. Also, due to the holiday and an unforeseen event i will be taking two days off and depositing them at the end of the month. So next post is on the 6th of July.

Follow day by day here:

Up next: Arjun Mendiratta talks sulfur; or: British Arjun Mendiratta talks sulphur.

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 3, 2009.

12 Responses to “Day 15: The Fresh Wines of Kevin Kelley”

  1. Cory– Enjoyed reading about Kevin– my kind of winemaker. The quantities look really miniscule. Are they affordable? (Calif wines always seem so damned expensive for quality).
    Another question: Can you explain his barrique philosophy? This might be helpful to those of the any-wine-that-touches-barriques-is-poison-and-a-suckup-to-Parker-from-who-the-world-needs-saving ideology.

  2. As far as I know he has no philosophy on barriques. His other wines have varying degrees of wood on them, from the Lioco which is all stainless to his spot on cellars, which is woodier than the others, but I will let him explain it in more depth.

    As far as price, the prices are inline with other Cali wines. But that is California right now.

  3. tasting NPA with you in May was one of the highlights of my trip out there… so glad you hipped me to that…

  4. Hi Cory,

    I just wanted to leave a quick comment. Many supporters of natural wine, including myself, feel that the use of barriques(oak)is not natural since it can impart certain characteristics to a wine. Strict natural wine makers therefore do not use “oak”.

    This being said, I don’t hate oak when used properly, but prefer un-oaked natural wines.


  5. Robert,

    I have never been asked that question before. I am not sure about the energies that industrial stainless steel leaves on wine, but you’ve peaked my curiosity. What is your take on this?

    My only knowledge of the qualities of industrial stainless steel in wine-making, is that it is quite neutral, therefore not imparting unwanted “flavors”, unwanted bacteria, nor does it manipulate the tannic structure of wine. It’s also easier to control temperature if this is what you want to do.

    I am also aware that making wine using these reductive methods (in steel, without oxygen), can have some adverse effects on wine like rendering a newly opened bottle of wine “reductive” (aka reduced sulfur compounds). This will usually burn off with some air, but not always immediately. Perhaps this is the energy you are referring to?

    • I am fascinated by fermentation containers. I have personally felt in my home winemaking a nervosity and conductivity in wine in steel– and wild swings in the wine based on pressure and climatic changes. I also found a reluctance for malolactic fermentation to happen and have had to transfer the wine to glass in the last two years in order for the wine to finish.
      In the last year I have been travelling extensively to southern Italy and Sicily for my next book out in 2010 and I have found more and more natural winemakers switching to cement, oak “tini”, clay amphorae even plastic for some of the same sort of intuitive reasons.
      I understand the resistance to barrique abuse. But oak has been used in winemaking for a long, long time. I would correct your statement that “strict natural winemakers do not use oak.” Most all Burgundian winemakers and most Northern Rhone and Loire winemakers– Nicolas Joly included– and the good Beaujolais ones (Marce LaPierre for ex) use some for fermenting and / or raising wines. So I think it is important to distinguish between oak as a legitimate winemaking material and the abuse of barriques, wood chips, etc. to flavor wine.

  6. Robert,

    I hear you Robert. I have learned most of my wine terminology in Norway and hence when I use the term “oak”, I am really referring to Barriques use and not large, used containers like Solvenia Botti. I hope this clarifies what I am trying to say.

    I think the fact that you make wine (at home) is extremely fascinating to me and I have never had the opportunity to do so. It’s some what of a dream for me.
    On another note, most of the wine I taste these days have been fermented/aged/stored in fiberglass, plastic, amphora, cement or large wooden casks. The amphora thing I am really enjoying :-)


  7. It should be noted that “oak” usually refers to barriques and not neutral barrels. That being said neutral oak has to come from somewhere. Noel Pinguet has to use a small amount of new oak every year to replanish his old stuff.

  8. I don’t think there is such a thing as a neutral barrel. That is not good or bad–just is. In every barrel there is some exchange of air as well as interaction with the wood. The smaller the barrel, the larger surface-to-volume ratio. IE a higher percent of wine touching wood. Bordeaux Barriques at 225 liter capacity are much smaller than a 1,000 liter “foudre” therefore have greater influence. But check it out: a standard Burgundy “piece” is only 228 liters. In Beaujolais “pieces” are smaller than barriques (only 216 liters). IN the Loire Valley the various sizes of “pieces” are all about the same size as barriques.
    IMHO: Barriques are not the problem. It is the abuse of them by winemakers who either a: use too much new wood b: put inappriate or shitty wine in wood c: buy overly toasted flavor imparting barriques for a big dramatic effect d: buy cheap barriques etc.
    Let’s be real if Chateau Margaux uses barriques and the wine is gorgeous and Pavie uses barriques and the wine is bombastic and tastes like a wood plank– the problem is not in the use of barriques per se but in the way they (and the wine) are made and used.

  9. I agree with the fact that the problem is not the oak, but the misuse (or overuse) of oak. This being said, my original point was that using oak, again I am referring to “barriques”, is adding something to the wine, ie “flavor”. In my opinion this is not natural :-)
    This is a great discussion and thank you Cory for letting us go on like this here on your site.


  10. Thanks for the great write up Cory and providing the forum for this exploration and discussion. I thought I would try to answer some of the questions above and join the discussion, albeit late.

    Pricing is always a subject that brings out the envy/jealousy in me. Ranting is a regular occurrence at my table when I open a gorgeous $14 bottle from Europe. While there are concrete explanations, it still pisses me off that it is a struggle for me to do that here. The NPA is my attempt to make a daily table wine. Currently the Pinot Gris is $18 and the Chardonnay is $30. As I start to sell directly to consumers by exchanging bottles, these prices will fall dramatically, probably in the 30% to 50% range.

    Barrel philosophy for me is simple, a new barrel is a flavor additive and I avoid them as much as possible. A neutral barrel for me adds no discernable flavor, aroma or texture. Typically they need to hold wine, constantly, for at least 4 years. Of course it is never as simple as this and there are several exceptions. For one, I need to add barrels to the cellar and finding clean used barrels is a daunting task.

    As for fermentation vessels; clay, concrete and stainless are all man made amalgamations that interact with and affect the wine differently. New oak adds appreciable characteristics yet is the most unadulterated. I believe that choosing one of these vessels should be done wine by wine based on character. I personally disregard fiberglass and plastic because they are synthetic chemicals. I work very hard to eliminate chemicals in the field and I am not about to introduce them through a storage vessel.

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