The 19th Century Farmhouse.
The Housewrighter has embedded with Blue Rock Vineyard for a 1 year exploration of an estate, its winery, and the people who manage them. Kenny Kahn is the magnanimous owner of Blue Rock, in the Alexander Valley. This, recently fashionable, enclave of excellent wine is showing up all over the press lately. Blue Rock is one of the reasons it is. The wines are excellent, but I am not here to write about wine flavors, organoleptic compounds, or scores from critics. I am here to talk about people, to share my observations living at the winery once a month, and to learn just what the hell goes on day-to-day during the winery year. It all starts with Kenny, a native of Memphis, and while his southern charm is evident, do not be mislead by the lilt of his voice when he describes his estate. Kenny is no bumpkin. He is cool, well-dressed in French berets, country denim, and possessing the savoir-faire to relate to kings and countrymen. He is clearly well-traveled and conscious of his presentation. In the first 15 minutes of hanging out with him, it is apparent he owns the place, and not just in deed, but in show.
In October of last year I took his photo for a Wine Enthusiast article about the Alexander Valley. In minutes I, could feel the wheels turning, and within an hour, we were talking about collaborating. He was looking to grow his presence on the web and get new images of his gorgeous property. I explained, that I am a storyteller, first and foremost. I would be happy to work with him on new images, but the story would have to come from our interactions, my observations, and that the winery year would dictate the storylines. We quickly agreed to meet again on this subject, and shortly after Wine Enthusiast sent my images to print, Kenny Kahn called.
"Can you come up once a month, stay in the farmhouse, see what we do?" said Kenny, rather matter-of-factly. It took me about a second and a half to accept. I was in the wine industry for 16 years, but I have never worked in a winery, or experienced the inner workings of the winemaking operation. Blue Rock is no juggernaut in terms of size, yet it produces several thousand cases of wine, and Kenny is the only full-time employee of the winery. No question that the man is a hard worker. The vineyards are another story, but not an altogether different one. The immigrant family that toils the earth for Blue Rock is an exceptional saga of its own, and I relish the opportunity to share it with you in the coming months. We agreed I would come up in January, and at least once a month from there.
I arrived at Blue Rock last week in a rented Dodge Ram 1500 with a Hemi. If I was going to live a winery life, once a month for a year, I needed a proper vehicle. Kenny greeted me in the middle of the one-way road at the site of a broken-down tractor, getting a jump start. "That's how things go at a winery Michael, things break, they all cost a ton of money to fix, but if you don't fix them, you can't do the work." We jumped in the car (a winery appropriate Korean luxury sedan) with Laika (the ubiquitous, and immediately charming, winery dog), and headed to lunch, on a cool sunny day. We drove through the vineyards and Kenny explained some of the history of the area. We got serious tacos at a taqueria where we appeared to be the only gringos in the joint. "The place fills with vineyard workers every evening", said Kenny ripping into a bowl of outstanding and spicy salsa. He warned me the salsa had some kick, and being a native Texan, I devoured 2 to 3 chips before I allowed any heat to settle. If it was going to come, I wanted it to come hard. It did, I was sweaty, and sated.
From there we decided to drive back to Blue Rock through Dry Creek, land of Zinfandel. A farming community for a century or more, Dry Creek is now starting to show signs of powerful monied influences. All around Sonoma county there are new restaurants, lively markets, and folks clamoring for a life that simply got ignored, and left to the "locals" for a hundred years. Now, it's cool to go to wine country. Who needs a flight to Champagne, when there is so much incredible life to be lived right in the American backyard. Blue Rock is this backyard. French country in style, Memphis proud in hospitality, and decidedly American in its optimism. On our way up the stairs, back at the farmhouse, I could not help but notice the light from the carefully placed windows on the landing. The sun was setting low over the high hills in back of the estate, and it was shining a beam of warmth through the afternoon haze. I grabbed my Nikon and emphatically skipped down the stairs to see.
I had always heard that vineyards go dormant in the winter. There is nothing dormant about these lands. The mustard flowers, the essential insects, the birds, and the beautiful sunshine suggest something closer to a botanical orgy, than dormancy. I knew at that point in my day, I had made the right decision. I would tell the story of this place, and I would be better for doing it. Although I am not sure I still need the Ram truck.
Join me next week when we meet Kenny's neighbor and I sit in on the blending of the famous Blue Rock Vineyards, Baby Blue Wine.