March 31, 2013, Wine Spectator, 'Four to Watch'
Keplinger: A New Path to Success
As a young girl growing up in Canton, Ohio, Helen Keplinger, now 41, had an unusual hobby: She collected rocks and wine bottles, proudly parading them around her neighborhood in a little red wagon. "I've always been fascinated by rocks, their color, texture and all the ingredients in them," she says. "My mom was always an incredible cook and my dad supplied the wine." Bottle shapes, sizes, colors and labels intrigued her. It was a sign of things to come.
While she kept wine in the back of her mind, Keplinger graduated from Smith College, taught for a year in Thailand and had her sights on medical training until, one day, she overheard a group of physicians talking about what they would rather be doing instead of doctoring. The topic caught her attention. She pulled the plug on medical school and enrolled at U.C., Davis, to study winemaking.
After graduating, she worked in Napa, first with Heidi Peterson Barrett, and later with David Abreu. She also worked with Kathy Joseph of Fiddlestix in Sta. Rita Hills. That was followed by a three-year stint in Spain's Priorat region, making wine for Melis, where she came to appreciate the unique blending potential of Grenache and Syrah. When she returned to California, she began working for Kenzo Estate, a $100 million, star-studded startup owned by Japanese video-game mogul Kenzo Tsujimoto. She also consulted for a number of wineries in Napa, and was winemaker for cult Cabernet producer Bryant Family Vineyard for a year.
Today, Keplinger's main focus is on her namesake brand, owned by her and her husband, DJ Warner, 43. The couple met in Los Angeles, where Warner worked in a wineshop; today he oversees the pair's business and works as a consultant.
The couple is making fascinatingly complex and stylish Rhône-inspired reds in Napa, vinifying their wine at Cuvaison and buying grapes from Amador, El Dorado and Sonoma counties. Keplinger is a small operation, comprising only a few hundred cases, but the quality and style of the wines—rich, layered, dense yet polished—shows the excellence of the vineyards as well as the talents of the winemaker.
Each of Keplinger's wines has its own mix of grapes. Sumo, from Amador, is a blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier. The 2010 Sumo offers an explosive mix of dark berry, crushed rock and espresso. The 2010 Caldera El Dorado is Mourvèdre-driven, with Grenache and Counoise, offering white pepper, dried berry and tobacco leaf. The 2010 Lithic is a cuvée of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, exhibiting dark berry, loamy earth and a touch of leather.
In 2010, Keplinger is adding a new Grenache from Basilisk Vineyard in Russian River and dropping Kingpin Rows from Knights Valley. Basilisk is steep and rocky, she says, "hard to walk up without falling down." The 2010 Kingpin Rows is a personal favorite, she says, but the grapes went to a different buyer in 2011. Occasionally she makes "The Holdout," a Banyuls-style dessert wine fashioned from Mourvèdre and Grenache from the Caldera vineyard in El Dorado County.
"I love what we do," she says. "We make the wines better every year, and in 2012 we have some really interesting new sites that will really be great." Being in Napa, she thinks about Cabernet, "but I would only do that if I could get really great fruit."
94 Sumo Amador County 2010 $60
93 Caldera El Dorado 2010 $60
93 Lithic Amador County 2010 $60
January 28, 2013, Wine Spectator, 'Grenache Love with Helen Keplinger' / Video
December 20, 2012, Wine Spectator - James Laube's Blog
Winemakers Who Made a Difference in California
Helen Keplinger is proving her talents as a winemaker, making a trio of striking Rhône-inspired Sierra Foothills reds under her Keplinger label—Sumo (Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier) and Lithic (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) from Amador, and Caldera (Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise) from El Dorado. Ann Kraemer's Shake Ridge Vineyards is at the epicenter of the Keplinger excitement.
October 5, 2012, Food&Wine Magazine - 2012 Winemaker of the Year - Helen Keplinger
Napa Valley & The Sierra Foothills, California
One characteristic great winemakers share is that they understand potential. Helen Keplinger, for instance, is making extraordinary wines in very unassuming regions—the steep, rocky vineyards of California’s Amador and El Dorado counties in the Sierra Foothills, mostly known for affordable Zinfandels.
How does someone recognize that kind of hidden potential? In Keplinger’s case, it stems from time spent making other world-class reds (for Napa Valley’s Bryant Family Vineyards), as well as familiarity with terroirs like the Priorat and its similarly stony vineyards (she was a winemaker there). Or, it just might be a love of rocks. As she says, “If you like rocks the way I do, these places are insanely compelling.” Either way, her vision is clear in wines like the 2010 Keplinger Lithic ($60), a mineral-rich, layered blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre; it’s the kind of wine that may someday help redefine a whole region.
Channeling the Rhone in California
'We headed back down to the Napa office of Wine Spectator to taste through the lineup of 2010 reds. The portfolio expands to six offerings...
The 2010 Caldera El Dorado is sourced from head-pruned and dry-farmed vines on deep red Aiken soils (red volcanic). The 65/29/6 Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise blend has the smooth leathery feel of old-school Bandol, but with even more flesh through the finish, spiked with pepper, tobacco, gun metal and melted licorice snap notes. It's dense, but not chewy, with a remarkably silky feel despite its heft and a mouthwatering dark bitter cherry echo on the finish. The 2010 Red Slope Knights Valley is also sourced from vines on red volcanic soils, but rockier and with more slate and clay/loam content as well. The vines were planted in 1996 and the 96/4 Grenache and Syrah blend is brighter, with kirsch and red licorice notes, a flash of sweet vermouth and a long cherry pit and steeped damson plum-filled finish. It's pure and fresh, with nice, sappy drive.
The 2010 Basilisk Russian River is 100 percent Grenache, sourced from a steep hillside vineyard located next door to Gary Farrell. This is beautifully fruit-driven, with dark plum and raspberry pâte de fruit notes, lots of dark toasted spice and a long, polished finish that drips with licorice. There's lots of latent grip in reserve, though, and this could put on more weight with some cellaring. The 2010 Lithic Amador is sourced from Ann Kraemer's vineyard, situated at 1,750 feet elevation, on volcanic soils filled with basalt, quartz and soapstone. The 44/31/25 Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah blend is the only bottling here that is partially destemmed (all others are fully destemmed). It's sappy and dense, with lots of kirsch, melted red licorice, plum paste and linzer notes all wound sleekly together, with dense, cocoa powder-coated structure that stays very well-integrated through the long, Turkish coffee-infused finish. It's very impressive but will need to stretch out a bit in the cellar.
The 2010 Kingpin Rows Knights Valley is sourced from vines planted in 1996. This 5-acre block has shallow soils up top, deeper at the bottom, but Keplinger sources her fruit from a few rows in the middle of the slope, where the ripening is more uniform (not too much sun up top, not too much shade down below).
"It's still rocky and not too heavy, but not too devigorated, so the balance is there. It's the sweet spot of the vineyard for me," she said. The 100 percent Syrah bottling sees 50 percent new oak and it almost gushes with dark berry and plum fruit, but there's silky, refined structure and echoes of black tea, spice and incense that keep it restrained and focused through the finish. Dense, but very supple, this shows remarkable grace overall, and at 15.4 alcohol it doesn't show any heat. "I could put 14.4 and be legal on the label, but why?" said Keplinger. "There are wines at over 15 that are balanced and there are wines under 15 that aren't. It's just a number."
The 2010 Sumo Amador is 88/10/2 Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier, sourced from the same vineyard as the Lithic. As with the Kingpin Rows, this sees 50 percent new oak, the most in the portfolio. It's very dark, with deep purple and blue fruit notes that are caressing and flattering, laced with hints of anise, cardamom and roasted tobacco leaf notes. Long and creamy through the finish, this is the flashiest of the set, with the most California-like density through the finish. It flirts with being a bit too heady for me, but it's an undeniably impressive expression of Petite Sirah.
We also tasted two older bottlings, both of which were showing exceptionally well. The 2007 Red Slope Knights Valley (90/10 Grenache and Syrah) is nicely mature with a mix of melted licorice and cassis notes melding into smoldering tobacco and a flash of tapenade. There's a bright iron edge that has emerged nicely on the the finish, with a black tea note lingering as well. An echo of plum skin holds the finish wonderfully. In contrast, the 2008 Lithic Amador (46/40/14 Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah) shows a darker, still-muscular profile, with bitter cocoa, tobacco and tar notes, nicely layered flesh and lots of integrated grip. It's smoky and broad, but focused at the same time, with licorice root, steeped black cherry and plum eau de vie hints all gliding through the finish. It still has lots of muscle, but excellent range and definition.'
March 31, 2012, Wine Spectator - 'Head to the Foothills' by MaryAnn Worobiec
December 31, 2011, Wine Spectator - 'Puzzles and Surprises' by James Laube
December 23, 2011, Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, Issue #198
Antonio Galloni gives his impressions of the 2009 Keplinger wines:
The 2009 Kingpin Rows (100% Syrah from Pelkan Ranch) is plush, sweet, rich and totally inviting. This is a more finessed, perfumed style than the 2008. Layers of radiant fruit flow effortlessly to the silky, polished finish in this fabulous red. The 2009 can be enjoyed now or cellared. Anticipated maturity: 2014-2024.
The 2009 Red Slope is another super intriguing wine. This Grenache-based blend emerges from the glass with expressive dark red fruit, flowers, licorice and hard candy. Layers of sweet, ripe fruit build to the perfumed finish. This is another strong effort. Anticipated maturity: 2013-2023.
March 1, 2011, The Wall Street Journal, On Wine, Blog by Lettie Teague
February 1, 2011, Benu | Keplinger | Gilt City San Francisco
January 13, 2011, Wine Spectator, James Laube's Blog
Napa Winery, but No Napa Grapes at www.winespectator.com
December 27, 2010, Wine Spectator, Mary Ann Worobeic's review of Petite Sirah
7 Intense California Reds at www.winespectator.com
September 18, 2010 - Keplinger Wines Release Party - 750 Wines, St. Helena
Please join us from 4-6pm to taste our 2010 Fall Offer wines! 2008 Lithic, 2008 Caldera, 2008 Sumo...plus, a few special barrel samples of the 2009 vintage.
September 2, 2010 - Vertical Tasting / www.napaman.com
"Talk about discovery. At the tasting, not only did I score every one of Helen’s glorious wines..." Jim White gives his opinion on the first Keplinger Vertical Tasting at www.napaman.com
June 12, 2010 - Meet Your Maker - Pop Up Event
We'll be pouring Keplinger Wines at this fantastic event of authentic, handcrafted menswear and accessories on Saturday, June 12 from 4 to 7pm. This collection of fresh designers share our passion for the importance of selective sourcing and minding the details in the creative process. The market will run all weekend - June 11 to 13. Come check it out!
Event: Meet Your Maker
Location: Ohio Design, 630 Treat Avenue, San Francisco, CA Map
Time: Saturday, June 12, 4-7pm
May 23, 2010 - New York Times Style Magazine - BOTTLE STOPPERS
Keplinger Wines 2007 Red Slope Grenache is one of five Napa vintages worth seeking out and stocking up on, in the opinion of David Lynch, the wine director at the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Quince.
May 16, 2010 - Star Chefs & Vintners Gala / Meals on Wheels San Francisco
Keplinger will be pouring at the Vintners Gala benefiting Meals on Wheels. Paired with a Star Chef's Second Course, the 2007 Red Slope Grenache will be featured on the menu at the benefit dinner. www.mowsf.org
May 4, 2010 - Karen MacNeil describes the 2007 SUMO...
NEXT BEST THING TO CASHMERE PAJAMAS
"Sumo" 2007 (Amador County, California)
Begins plush; stays plush; finishes plush. This wine is a textural high. Made mostly from petite syrah with a little syrah thrown in, it’s a (well balanced) sumo wrestler of cocoa, spice and earthy flavors. Richness as reward".
May 1, 2010 - Hospice du Rhone: Keplinger Wines will be pouring the 2007 wines at this year's HdR Grand Tasting on Saturday May 1st. www.hospicedurhone.org
2009 SommSpeak - What Sommeliers are saying about Keplinger wines:
“Keplinger wines have been one of my most exciting finds and top discoveries in the world of great wine. The pure, sexy, black fruit conjures up an image of an old school jazz club, sweaty, smoky, full of intense energy, manic and exciting, with food memories of grilled lamb, rosemary and anchovies, sitting over the history of graphite soil and minerals, full of iron and blood [ Keplinger Sumo ]. I’m totally blown away by the concentration and earthy, deep aromas in all of the wines and I eagerly look forward to drinking another bottle.”
Chris Blanchard, Master Sommelier - Sunset Marquis Hotel, Hollywood
“Keplinger is one of a few new producers working hard to bring the classic flavor profile of Rhone varietals back to California winemaking. The Kingpin Rows Syrah is a wine that delivers the kind of aromatics that Syrah lovers look for in the glass - classic ripe vintage Northern Rhone nose of crushed fresh herbs, garrigue, pepper and ripe blackberry fruit. The palette also shows the brambly black fruit and layers in structured oak, firm but balanced tannins and vanilla all carried over a noticeably long finish. A full bodied presentation of Syrah that delivers the best of both worlds - old and new.”
James Hayes, Beverage Director – Thomas Keller Restaurant Group
“Bringing classic black and red berries, cassis, savory herb, volcanic earth (hence the name), and a subtle background of toasty oak, it possesses a fabulous texture, beautiful richness and purity, and a finish that lasts forever. It is a wine of richness, dimension, and purity, all the while masking its muscles in a suit of elegance. It is no surprise that winemaker Helen Keplinger worked with the same varietals and style in Priorat, Spain. Although pleasurable now, it benefits from decanting and should drink well for 15 or more years.” [ Red Slope ]
Michael Ireland, Sommelier – Quince, San Francisco
"Layers of lush red, purple and black fruits with hints of lavender and sage. Notes of cardamom and clove rise from the judicious use of French oak. The wine was tremendously successful with the duck breast; the pure and concentrated fruit spoke perfectly to the accompanying winter dried fruit sauce. A very unique wine of uncommon purity and depth." [ Red Slope ]
Yoon Ha, Sommelier – LaToque, Napa Valley
"Ms. Keplinger’s pedigreed wines are so clearly familiar, whether her crafted efforts emerge from Spain or California's Knights Valley, she evokes Miro’s haunting compositions. A vinous high wire balancing act, Keplinger's Knights Valley Syrah and Grenache effortlessly weave a magical expression of scented oak and profound terroir. If predisposed, please open two days before you enjoy these wines, otherwise don’t touch them for at least five years.
The humblest apologies to Colette, can merely fail to compete: 'I was a boy when I met this Princess; deliriously aroused and inviting as all great seductresses are' – Keplinger."
Peter Birmingham – Sommelier & Consultant, Los Angeles