Drinking, thinking and reading about wine since he was sixteen years old, Kevin Kelley perhaps didn’t expect to be asked to check his bag of knowledge at the front door of UC Davis. Adhering to the thousands of years that went into the farming and vinification techniques behind the Old World Classics that came before him, Kevin wasn’t prepared to retire Coltrane tracks for Kenny G. “They’re scientists,” said Kelley of his alma mater, “distilling things down to one thing…’This is what we know. This is what we can control. This is all we’re going to talk about.’…It’s all about quality control. Everything needs to be in the box [and] they’re serving the industry well, because that’s the industry they’re serving. [However] I went in there with knowledge of how wines have been made through the centuries and that has nothing to do with science but with tradition and craftsmanship. The scientific information is still new.” And while Kevin considers winemaking a craft as opposed to a form of art, it’s clear that Kelley came to master the classics with his Salinia wines before he started playing bebop with his second project, the Natural Process Alliance (NPA).
Situated in Sonoma, Salinia means ‘from the ocean’ because Kelley’s fruit comes from within ten miles of the Pacific, planted on an uplifted seabed ensconced in ocean fog. Practicing “straight forward winemaking”, Kevin spends most of his time in the vineyards at Heintz Vineyard for his Salinia Chardonnay and Syrah and at W.E. Bottoms Vineyard for his Salinia Pinot Noir. He doesn’t measure brix and makes wine based on four key decisions: 1) when to harvest, 2) the amount of whole cluster/skin contact, 3) when to press the juice from its skins and 4) when to bottle. Inspired by spending $50-70 on local wines, only to have them fall dead after two to three years in the cellar, Kelley makes wines that have the longevity of a Cole Porter songbook and that show best after being open for two to three days.
“The goal of Salinia is to make age worthy wines for which you need acidity,” he said, “so they [the vineyards] have to be in cold areas.” And while there are very few areas in California where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines can achieve this, Kelley added, “the Chardonnay vineyard [at Heintz] is one of the best Chardonnay vineyards in California.”
Harvesting W.E. Bottoms Pinot Noir at night
Welcomed to the property at Heintz as a young winemaker with very little experience, Kelley was lucky. The same can be said for his working with fruit from the W.E. Bottoms Vineyard, which is just down the road. “It’s hard to find organic vineyards that are being farmed well with the right varieties in the right area,” said Kelley, but at Heintz, he and Ted Lemon pushed for years to go organic, “So our parcels have been organic since 2005.”
Of his practices in the cellar Kelly said, “As the Italians say, the most important thing a winemaker can do is go fishing. [You’ve got to] leave shit alone, especially with Pinot Noir. Any time you touch a Pinot Noir, you bruise it.”
Perfecting the art of ‘leaving shit alone’ Kelley said, “It’s very controversial still, the idea of uninnoculated fermentations, but there’s 1,000’s of years of history of wine being made without commercial yeasts.” Pressing his Salinia Chardonnay Heintz Vineyard 2004 into a barrel, he forgot about it for 24 months; and then the wine took six months to settle clear after the fermentation. And though Kevin and Jennifer Kelley intended for their wines to be aged, they found that their customers were drinking them as soon they received them, a problem that they remedied after a tasting at the winery in 2006 for their members.
“At this event I opened all of the bottles I had– ’03, ’04, and ’05,” he said. “But the thing I heard over and over was that people drank the wines as soon as possible, but everyone said they wished they’d saved the bottles.” And though he’d kept telling everyone to age the bottles, he then realized that not everyone has the capacity for storage. “That day, we realized that if we wanted our wines to realize their potential, we needed to save and age them.” Still making wines for other wineries at that point, the Kelleys didn’t need to consider Salinia a part of their cash flow. “It just had to support itself,” he added, “we were lucky to make decisions [based] on the wines themselves and not on cash flow.” And we are lucky too.
Read Part II here.