Keenan Winery is located about 2/3 of the way up Spring Mountain Road (before you reach the Napa / Sonoma County line) at about 1,700 feet. This is the quintessential Spring Mountain hillside ghost winery. Originally founded as the Peter Conradi Winery, Peter & his family moved here in 1890, planted grapes a year later and built a simple wooden winery which he later replaced with the stone winery in 1904 that still stands today. This old stone building was built from quarried stone that came from the local hillsides. Like other Spring Mountain properties, the feel here is rural; the winery is surrounded by both vineyards but also with plenty of surrounding forested hillside land.
The winery and tasting room is located about 1/2 mile down a very narrow winding road leading off of the also windy Spring Mountain Road.
Robert Keenan (a World War II veteran, died in 2006) worked as an insurance broker and also invested in commercial real estate (apartments) but had been a wine enthusiast for years including owning a significant collection of Bordeaux wines. When looking to purchase property in Napa Valley he focused on hillside properties; he originally also looked on Howell Mountain but decided on Spring Mountain due to the site having plenty of water and being attracted to its eastern facing exposure. Robert purchased the Keenan property in 1974.
The winery is still under the same family ownership; Robert’s son Michael who helped his father during their first harvest oversees the winery operations along with his wife Jennifer. Michael ran a residential home remodeling business for years; in the late 1990s Robert informed him he was planning on selling Robert Keenan Winery. In what was a pivotal decision at the time, Michael decided to take over Robert Keenan winery from his father. And now, even the 3rd generation has joined their family business; Michael’s son Reilly worked for one of their distributors for a time and helps with harvests and sometimes hosts tastings and his sister Madison helps with select tasting events. Long time winemaker Nils Venge consults as needed.
The winery had been abandoned for decades by the time Robert purchased the property in 1974 only the walls of the old stone winery were still standing – he kept these, which are still being used in the cellar. The family owns 180 acres of which approximately 57 are planted to vines including 11 different varieties. They dry farm the vast majority of their vines. When your first vintage is 1977 in Napa Valley, this puts you among a select list of Napa wineries that are older than 40 years. The first wines they produced that harvest were Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a Chardonnay.
They specialize in estate grown fruit for the following varieties: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. More recently they are growing several extremely unique to Napa Valley varieties including two Spanish origin varieties, Mourvedre and Mencia. Most of their wines are approachable with a diversity of flavor. As Robert used to say to his son Michael “the key to life is balance, taking anything to the extreme is usually a mistake”. These are good words to live by. You will find Keenan’s wines are very well balanced between acidity, texture and flavor.
And here is a piece of Keenan/Cakebread trivia. In 1975 with not enough space at Cakebread’s new winery to handle their increased production, they processed their Cabernet Sauvignon from this vintage up at Keenan Winery. 1975 was only Cakebread’s second vintage.
Surprising for the location (Spring Mountain Distinct) Chardonnay is grown on site. This is not a variety you think of when it comes to up valley Napa hillside-based wineries. However, there are several other Spring Mountain wineries growing this variety and it has its own unique characteristics compared to the more common cool weather Chardonnay sourced from the Carneros district to the south. The vineyard that produces this wine is directly below the winery and the tasting room. It is dry farmed. They make this wine in a similar style each year – barrel fermented, no secondary malolactic fermentation and the wine is stirred on the lees during its aging.
The 2021 Robert Keenan Chardonnay is medium gold in color; from both smelling and tasting this bottling, one will quickly realize oaky or buttery are not descriptors one can use to describe its style. The bouquet offers aromas of an orange peel zest, citrus blossom, honeydew melon and some pretty floral intrigue including honeysuckle and jasmine. the brightly lit palate offers some minerality nuances along with flavors of melon, red apple, and pear. This balanced bottling offers a creamy but not viscous texture. The finish is lively, long lasting and filled with layers of fruit.
The 2013 Robert Keenan Chardonnay sports notes of lime and citrus blossom on the bouquet. This wine is very balanced on the palate and easy drinking. It offers a noticeable weight with some creaminess but without being too heavy. Some Chardonnays on the extreme end of the spectrum are fairly acidic while others on the other end of the spectrum are oaky, buttery and very viscous. This wine is neither of those styles – rather is somewhere in the middle. It is a very balanced wine.
Several of their wines are made in very small quantities (usually a few hundred cases) for wine club members and for onsite visits. One such wine is their Zinfandel. The 2020 Robert Keenan Zinfandel is deep ruby in color; its aromatics show leather, hints of black pepper, truffle oil, milk & dark chocolate, a woodsy spice, mocha and vanilla along with dark cherry and plum. The palate offers flavors of cherry, blackberry and dark raspberry with a finishing note of toasted oak and dried herbs. The grainy tannins persist for quite some time paralleled by a drying character, both showing more on the front of the palate than the back and both characteristics outpacing the fruit on the finish. The wine was aged in French and American oak barrels for 18 months. For reference the lowest alcohol Zinfandel we have tried over the years from Keenan was from the 2011 vintage, a much cooler and wet growing year.
The 2019 Robert Keenan Syrah Napa Valley is not grown on the estate, rather it was from grapes growing in Coombsville, a part of the valley located east of the city of Napa. This 100% varietal wine is deep ruby and nearly opaque in the glass; the bouquet is untamed, dark, brooding and savory. Its aromatics feature plenty of character – if we were to compare them to a person, it would be a grizzled old cowboy riding back to the corral after a long day working in the high dessert. Perhaps ‘Curley’ in the film, City Slickers would be a good candidate. This wine shows scents of saddle leather, dried jerky, crushed black peppercorn, dried mushrooms, leather, a gamey/meaty character, mesquite, creosote and dried herbs including sage. The palate offers more fruit than the bouquet with flavors of dark plum, cherry and black currant. Its acidity is bright, complementing gravelly tannins which persist for quite some time. The finish is savory, earthy, bright and dark spice filled including of crushed pink peppercorn. A medium rare well-marbled steak please. It was aged in French and American oak barrels for 17 months.
The 2019 Robert Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley was crafted using grapes primarily from their estate property but also with grapes from Pope Valley. This wine is deep ruby in color; the bouquet offers aromas of old library book/parchment paper, pipe tobacco, menthol, sweaty baseball mitt leather, freshly tilled soil, along with a briary character and a note of dark raspberry. Mouth watering, savory and bright across the palate, this wine reveals flavors of red cherry, currant and cranberry. A note of dried tobacco leaf lingers on the finish along with grainy and granulated tannins which ultimately outpace the fruit. This wine was aged in 33% percent new French and American oak barrels for twenty months. We would love to pair this bottling with the juicy California Burger at Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena.
The Mailbox Vineyard Merlot gets its name because the original Merlot block for this wine was planted next to their mailboxes along Spring Mountain Road (alongside their driveway). When they planted a newer block of Merlot closer to the winery, they lost the significance of the original location. Not wanting to change the name on their customers they merely installed a mailbox among the vines of this newer vineyard. One would think it never receives mail, but one group of visitors decided they wanted to write Michael Keenan a thank you note and somehow placed it in the mailbox. The 2011 Robert Keenan Mailbox Vineyard Reserve Merlot shows a dark, deep and brooding bouquet. On the palate it is almost meaty, showing dark fruit along with notes of white pepper and even a toasted marshmallow component. This wine has good acidity – it is balanced with rich flavor and good structure.
The 2020 Robert Keenan Cabernet Franc (100% varietal) is deep ruby in color; the bouquet offers varietal characteristics including of tobacco spice, violets, dust, and old library book. We taste a number of Cabernet Francs from Napa Valley which is overly extracted, high alcohol and too ripe, masking all the wonderful varietal characteristics inherent to Franc. This wine is not one of them; its palate is built upon its acidity with flavors of red cherry, plum and cranberry. The dense and dusty tannins are certainly felt but their texture is more rounded rather than angular. The finish is energetic and brightly lit with a lingering note of dried tobacco leaf.
The 2011 Robert Keenan Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon offers an elegant nose with a sweetness and a purity that is all about the fruit. More black fruit shows on the palate than red including black currant and tasty notes of ripe blackberry. There is an appealing richness of fruit across the palate. The finish is lengthy and shows both coarse tannins and fruit. This vintage produced a slightly more restrained bottling of this variety; during normal years this wine is among their most, ‘petal to the metal’ products.
When Michael approached his father about making a Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot blend his father did not give his approval. But at that time Michael was already running the winery so he went ahead and made a proprietary dual varietal blend he cleverly called Mernet. This wine is always a 50/50% blend of both varieties.
The 2018 Mernet is deep ruby in color; its aromas are dark and savory including scents of tobacco, petrichor (a smell resulting from rain on dry earth) and rose petals. An herbal freshness runs the length of the palate featuring bright and lively acidity and a lingering red fruited tartness. This acidity causes one’s salivary glands to work overtime on the finish. This wine reveals flavors of red plum, red cherry, currants, dried herbs, pepper spices and a lingering dusty character. One can feel the presence of the tannins, still somewhat tightly wound 5 years post vintage date at the time of our tasting. This wine has plenty of life ahead of it with the proper cellaring.
The winery completely renovated and modernized their tasting room by early 2015. Conveniently, Jennifer’s father, John Walker of Walker & Moody Architects in San Francisco oversaw the redesign with Jennifer’s help for the interior design. Tastings can take place at the bar but there are also several comfortable chairs for a more personalized sit down tasting. And weather permitting, visitors will want to walk out to the small deck featuring panoramic vistas overlooking their vineyards and the surrounding hills.
Visits sometimes include a walk downstairs to the barrel room. Barrels are stacked up against the original stone walls of the winery – the outer walls were restored in time for the 1977 harvest, their first vintage (and a roof was also added that year). Winemaker Joe Cafaro, who we met with years ago when he was operating his own brand, Cafaro Cellars was their first winemaker. No air conditioning system is needed as the barrel room remains naturally cool based on it being located against the hillside.
The family owns relics from the original Conradi winery including an original ledger kept by the Conradi family. This book contains a list of purchases and purchase prices (hand-written in pencil, including by family member Carl Conradi) from the early 1900s. Guests who drove here from the Napa side, would have taken the very windy Spring Mountain Road. Before this road really starts to climb it narrows in order to pass through two very large and tall Redwood trees. A photo hangs on the wall in the tasting room from the early 1900s from when this road was dirt – showing an old wagon passing between these two same trees. This was also a watering stop for horses on the way up or down the mountain; a water trough was located right next to these trees – unfortunately it was blown up in the 1960s and no longer exists.
The winery sometimes can be popular with small tour groups on the weekends. For a boutique “mountain” winery with a relatively long history and acclaim, their prices are very reasonable – they have a price range from quite affordable (by Napa standards) up to their more limited production collector wines.
A small picnic area is site and can be used by guests with prior reservations. Stand in front of the winery and look down at the vineyard – to the right of the pond, surrounding the edge of the vineyard one will see all their pole mounted solar panels. These provide much of the power for the winery as well as the several homes on site.
And unlike most Napa wineries, Robert Keenan has a library collection going back several decades, some of which can still be purchased. Total annual production is around 12,000 to 14,000 cases. For more information, to purchase wine or to schedule an appointment, visit: www.keenanwinery.com