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In The Vineyard

The Blue Rock 100 acre Estate is located in Sonoma in the Alexander Valley next door to Silver Oak Winery. The hillside vineyard, consisting of 46 acres, is planted to the five Bordeaux varietals…Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec In 1993, an additional 3 acres of Syrah were planted on an extreme hillside.

The name Blue Rock comes from our soils, which are studded with blue pebbles, rocks, and boulders of serpentine. The serpentine rock defines the unique flavor profile of the vineyard, as serpentine naturally reduces the yields to very low levels. Bordeaux varietals are adaptable to many soil and climate conditions but develop great character and longevity in relatively few locations. Blue Rock is blessed with cool mornings and warm days that make it one of those special places where Bordeaux varietals develop clarity and finesse

The vineyard elevation is between 300 and 600 feet above the valley floor. As a result, the soils are shallow, generally no more than 18 inches deep, before the roots hit a layer of clay and serpentine rock. The vines are small and densely planted producing yields that average a modest 2.5 tons per acre. Further complexity is derived from the multiplicity of root stocks and clones.

From an interview with Nikitas Magel

KK:But answering your question as to what we did that was really pushing the envelope, there was planting at high density, knowing we were going to get low tonnage.  In addition to that, we planted clones that were very high risk, those that were not from certified virus-free vines.  I decided on that because I wanted to get budwood from phenomenal vineyards and was willing to do so even with the risk that it could be diseased.  For example, our Cabernet Franc budwood comes from [Bordeaux's Château] Cheval Blanc.  I got it through a tip from Daniel Roberts who had worked with Rex Geitner, the vineyard manager for Spring Mountain Vineyards who had, prior to that, spent some time working at Cheval Blanc.  So, my Cabernet Franc is the Geitner clone from the very budwood he brought back with him from their best vines.  The risk that I took with that is that it wasn't virus-tested.  If it actually does have any virus, it's not necessarily the end of the vines, but it would really cut back on their productivity and quality.  But so far, so good.  And I'm very excited because [that Cabernet Franc] reallyis special!  So those are all risks that I've been willing to take because I'm really pursuing the best that I can out here.  And some of those risks don't pay off; there were some parts of the vineyard that I had to replant because they did end up being virus-ridden.

NM:  Did the Bordeaux varietals that you ultimately settled on for the wines of Blue Rock stem directly from the discoveries you made in the process of replanting?

KK:  Absolutely! Now, when I bought the land, we originally had eleven different varietals planted in the vineyard: the Bordeaux five (Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec); Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Viognier, Syrah, and a couple of others.  Because in California, especially in an unknown area (as this was until relatively recently), you could plant whatever you like!  But then, of course, not all of it worked.  What we found was that the white varietals, especially, were not very distinctive here; they were okay, but it's just too warm for some of them.  Plus it was kind of a waste because the red Bordeaux varietals turned out so good, they just shined!  And the Syrah I wanted to plant because I just love Syrah!  {laughing}  And we got lucky there because it actually does very well on this property — the budwood originally came from Château Beaucastel, my favorite Châteauneuf-du-Pape!  It's just a small amount, only two acres.

NM:  How much of your original vineyard have you actually had to replant since you started ten years ago?  Would you say there's been a significant replanting, and if so, can you talk about the impact of that necessity on the overall business and direction of the brand?

KK:  We've definitely had a significant replanting.  As the younger vines come into production, we always vinify them separately and then make an analysis as to whether they make the grade or not.  Based on that we actually started a second wine called Baby Blue that's from the young vines — an artisan-production wine that's from all estate-grown young vines and aged in all-French oak.  Having said that, we do have one block of young vines that blows everything away and that goes into the Blue Rock wine.  But my point is really that we make the decision to vinify everything separately.  And several times throughout the year, we check in on the different cuvées.  You can tell very early on whether something is going to make one grade vs. another.  And so we actually have three grades of Cabernet Sauvignon.  The first is our Best Barrel, which is extremely limited, made only in the best years, and amounts to only a couple of barrels.  Our criteria for it is that it has to be both different and better than anything else, something that absolutely stands out.  The second is Blue Rock, which is our all-estate, flagship wine.  It started out as 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but it's morphing since we might use some of the other Bordeaux varietals planted in the vineyard.  We will blend if it really adds to the wine, but we don't blend to be cute; we feel that the only reason to blend is if it really makes a better wine.  For example, the 2005 Blue Rock Cabernet has 6% of the estate Malbec in it, which has a real blueberry note and a very Merlot-like texture that softens the Cabernet.  Finally, the third level of our Cabernet is the Baby Blue that I mentioned.  Baby Blue is an unbelievably serious Cabernet — but one that's still at a very affordable price point.  It's being poured by the glass at Gramercy Tavern in New York, in addition to some other fantastic restaurant all over the country!  And it's been so well received by these restaurants because it's affordable on the one hand, but still very serious on the other — it's meant to blow away any by-the-glass restaurant wine.

NM:  Okay, so, two of your wines mention the color blue in their name.  I recall that when I first tasted your wines, you said that there's something very significant about the name Blue Rock and that it's directly correlated to the wine's style and character.  Can you say more about the wine's namesake?

KK:  Well, first let me tell you about the process we went through before we settled on Blue Rock.  Initially, my wife and I — the francophiles that we are — went through names like Clos this and Clos that, and the like.  But none of it really stuck.  When we bought the property, we bought it in foreclosure in 1987.  And there was a number of reasons it was in foreclosure.  First of all, the stock market had just crashed and there was, at least temporarily, a major recession.  Also, Alexander Valley itself wasn't very well known and so there weren't any notable wineries in the area.  We're adjacent to Silver Oak Winery, but at the time even they weren't well known.  As a result, Alexander Valley fruit was not selling for very much.  But the third reason that the property was in financial straits was that the land had a lot of serpentine rock [which is distinctly blue in color].  The neighboring farmers know that serpentine is high in magnesium and therefore very difficult to farm — you end up getting naturally very low tonnage from very wimpy vines that are really having to struggle.  So, basically when this property was being sold at foreclosure, nobody showed up except me!  And I was wild about the place, so absolutely in love with its beauty, that I had to contain myself from bidding against myself!  {laughing} But seriously, no one else wanted the property!
Anyway, [the reason for the serpentine rock's significance is that], as it turns out, the business model in 1987 was different from it is today.  Back then, with its low market rates per ton of fruit, if you didn't produce five, six, seven tons per acre in Alexander Valley, then you just couldn't make any money.  And that's why this place was in foreclosure.

Fortunately for me, though — and this was not by design, it was simply by good luck — the business model changed some years later, in that all of a sudden it became about quality, not quantity: a vineyard became valuable only if it was distinctive and if it produced something with power, finesse, balance, aromatics, and all the other things that people look for in upscale wines.  It was now all about producing great wines.  And you do that from properties that have a natural balance between the vigor of the vines and the amount of fruit that's produced.  It's all about Goldilocks, really.  Ideally, you want to have enough water because you have to be able to grow the canopy to ripen the fruit, but not too much water that would result in big canopies with vines that look like trees and grow fruit with vegetative flavors.  Similarly, you have to have enough nutrition, but you don't want to have deep, rich soils with too much nutrition because that grows too big of a crop with, again, too much canopy.  The great vineyards of the world are exactly what Goldilocks would have wanted, with their perfect balance.  When those vines produce the right amount of canopy, they basically just stop growing because they've exhausted the nutrition and the moisture in the soil, so there's nothing in excess.  So, now, one of the things that serpentine rock does, being very high in magnesium, is that it de-vigorates the vines.  In fact, there are even areas where there's actually too much serpentine and nothing will grow.  But most of the vineyard, fortunately, has just the right amount of magnesium so that the vines can have just the perfect amount of growth without too much nutrition.  What we get is relatively low tonnages of very intensely-perfumed fruit that has a really distinctive personality — it has black fruits, it has blue fruits, it has a mint quality — it really has a signature of its own.

NM:  Yes, when I first tried your wines, I found them to be very fragrant.  And that struck me because it's not something I've found in own my experience to be typical with Bordeaux varietals, especially from this general region.  I'm guessing that the aromatic signature of the wines comes from a cooling effect on the vineyard at night and in the early morning.

KK:  I'm speculating with this, but I think it's actually two things.  Number one, it's the soil; a lot of that perfumed quality comes again from the serpentine soils.  And the other thing is that 45 degree [Fahrenheit] swing: at the peak of the day, it's so hot that you'll want to come into the house where it's cool because of the stone walls, but then at night you're wearing a sweater.  It gets so cold at night, the vines just shut down.  And terroir, which gives the wines their quality, is really all of those things combined: the amount of moisture, the aspect or angle to the sun, the temperature swings, the soil composition, etc.