Jeb’s review of our 2017 wines in his article, Napa Valley’s 2017, January 31, 2020.
2017 Keplinger Basilisk – 96
A deeply colored Grenache, the 2017 Grenache Basilisk has impressive notes of ripe blue fruits, ground herbs, lavender, and cracked pepper. These all carry to a medium to full-bodied, concentrated yet elegant effort that has ripe, polished tannins, a layered, multi-dimensional texture, and a great finish. There aren’t many Grenaches from the Russian River, but this is unquestionably one of the best. Drink it over the coming decade.
2017 Keplinger El Diablo – 94
Another beauty, lots of blueberries, jammy blackberries, ground pepper, orange blossom, and floral notes emerge from the 2017 Grenache El Diablo, which comes from the Russian River Valley and is 97% Grenache and 3% Syrah. Tasting like a topflight Châteauneuf du Pape, this full-bodied, pure, even pretty, red can be drunk today or cellared for 7-8 years.
2017 Keplinger Fuego y Mar – 95+
The 2017 Syrah Fuego Y Mar comes from the Silver Eagle Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Reminiscent of a great Cornas with its crushed violets, smoked game, black olives, pepper, and meaty dark fruit, it’s full-bodied, concentrated yet as the same time elegant and seamless. It’s still tight and restrained on the palate, so give bottles 2-3 years.
2017 Keplinger Hangman’s – 98
Incorporating 5% Viognier, the 2017 Syrah Hangman’s comes from the Hudson Vineyard in Carneros, and it’s up with some of the greatest Syrahs to ever come out of California. Deep purple/blue-hued with awesome notes of blue fruits, chocolate, graphite, smoked game, and olives, it has an exotic tropical note (no doubt from the Viognier), full-bodied richness, a deep, concentrated mid-palate, and a great finish. It’s a stunning Syrah I’d be thrilled to have in the cellar. It should drink well for 10-15 years.
2017 Eldorado – 92
There’s a single white under Helen’s Keplinger label, and her 2017 Eldorado checks in 49% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, and 25% Grenache Blanc. It has a vibrant gold/grey hue as well as notes of crushed citrus, apricot, toasted nuts, and a touch of Condrieu-like minerality. It’s medium-bodied and impeccably made.
2017 Keplinger Caldera – 93
Lots of cured meats, dried red and black fruits, and spice notes emerge from the 2017 Caldera, which is a Mourvèdre-dominated blend that includes 19% Grenache and 4% Counoise, all sourced from the Eldorado region of the Sierra Foothills. Medium-bodied and balanced, with silky tannins, it’s a complex, layered Mourvèdre to enjoy over the coming decade or more.
2017 Keplinger Lithic – 94
The 2017 Lithic is a Rhône-like blend of 42% Grenache, 28% Mourvèdre, and the rest Syrah that’s all from the Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador. This ruby/purple-hued effort has some obvious meatiness as well as notes of cassis and blueberry fruits, medium to full body, ripe, building tannins, and a great finish. This would easily stand on its own in a lineup of top Chateauneuf du Papes or Gigondas.
2017 Keplinger Sumo – 94
A Petite Sirah-dominated blend from Amador County, the 2017 Sumo boasts a deep purple color as well as a full-bodied, opulent style. Lots of black and blue fruits, tobacco, chocolate, and a touch of violets define the nose, and it has a big mid-palate, supple tannins, and loads of charm. It’s one delicious mouthful of a wine, and given it’s forward, soft feel, I’d lean toward drinking bottles over the coming 5-7 years.
2017 Keplinger Diamond Bar – 96
Côte Rôtie-like notions of spring flowers, smoked black fruits, and ground pepper, as well as some gamey notes, emerge from the 2017 Syrah Diamond Bar. Coming from the Skinner Family Vineyard outside of Fair Play, this medium to full-bodied, elegant, seamless red has a sumptuous texture, no hard edges, and a great finish. It’s going to keep for a decade.
Jeb’s thoughts on the 2016 Keplinger wines in his article, North Coast Part 1: Napa Valley’s Incredible 2016s.
2016 Keplinger El Diablo – 95
The Grenache-dominated 2016 Grenache El Diablo was brought up in neutral oak. Deep ruby-colored, with rocking richness and depth in its wild strawberry, black raspberry, spice, orange peel, and spice aromas and flavor. Reminding me of a Châteauneuf du Pape from the likes of Domaine de Marcoux, this medium to full-bodied effort has a balanced, layered, incredibly sexy profile that’s capable of evolving for 10-15 years.
2016 Keplinger Basilisk – 97
Probably one of the top pure Grenache releases in California is the 2016 Grenache Basilisk from the genius of Helen Keplinger. Coming all from the Greywacke Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, which is largely Pinot Noir country, this sensational effort boasts a ruby color as well as a huge bouquet of blueberries, ripe cherries, violets, crushed rocks, and a garrigue-like quality that’s hard to find outside of France’s Southern Rhône Valley. Medium to full-bodied, pure, and seamless on the palate, with nothing out of place and perfect balance, it’s a gem of a Grenache to drink over the coming decade.
2016 Keplinger Fuego y Mar – 95
From the cooler Sonoma Coast (the Silver Eagle Vineyard), the 2016 Syrah Fuego y Mar spent 16 months in 50% new French oak. It has a vivid bouquet of blueberries, spring flowers, orange blossom, and subtle cured bacon to go with medium to full body, ultra-fine tannins, and a thrilling display of purity and elegance. Drink it over the coming 10-15 years.
2016 Keplinger Hangman’s – 97+
Another wine from a cooler region that grows more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir than Syrah, the 2016 Syrah Hangman’s comes from the Hudson Vineyard in Carneros and is 95% Syrah and 5% Viognier, aged 16 months in 50% new French oak. This sensational Syrah is up with the crème de la crème and reveals a deep purple color as well as a heavenly bouquet of black and blue fruits, spring flowers, California bay leaf, and serious amounts of meaty, bacony nuances. Full-bodied, about as pure and seamless as it gets, with fine tannins, give bottles 3-4 years and it should cruise for another decade or more.
2016 Keplinger Lithic – 95
Another release from the Sierra Foothills, the 2016 Lithic comes from vines planted in 2002 and 2006 and is a blend of 41% Grenache, 32% Mourvèdre, and the rest Syrah that saw some stems in the ferments and 16 months in 15% new, larger barrels. This medium to full-bodied effort has beautiful elegance and purity as well as a great nose of blueberries, ground pepper, wild strawberries, and violets. It’s another Châteauneuf du Pape look-alike that does everything right and is up with some of the top GSM blends coming out of California today.
2016 Keplinger Caldera – 94+
Moving to the reds, the 2016 Caldera is a Mourvèdre-dominated blend that includes 30% Grenache and 6% Counoise, aged 16 months in neutral 600-liter barrels. Coming from the Eldorado region, this beauty offers a fabulous bouquet of black raspberries, toasted spices, cured meats, and some subtle bacon fat notes to go with a medium to full-bodied, seamless, layered profile on the palate. It shows more wild blue fruits with time in the glass, has silky yet present tannins, and a great finish. It’s proof positive that world-class wines can be made from the Sierra Foothills.
2016 Keplinger Sumo – 94
The inkiest colored wine in the lineup is the 2016 Sumo, which is a Petite Sirah-dominated blend that includes 13% Syrah and 3% Viognier, all from the Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador County, aged 16 months in 60% new French oak. Its saturated purple color gives way to a ripe, full-bodied red that has good acidity and purity, classic notes of black and blue fruits, lots of minerality, and more nuanced notes of liquid violets, smoked earth, and spice. It’s a layered, ripe, balanced red that I suspect will be drinking nicely in another 15 years or more.
2016 Keplinger Diamond Bar – 96
The deep purple-colored 2016 Syrah Diamond Bar comes from the Skinner Family Vineyard in Fairplay and spent 16 months in 50% new French oak. A Côte Rôtie-like perfume of blueberries, blackberries, violets, bacon fat, and tapenade gives way to a medium to full-bodied Syrah that has impressive purity of fruit, fine tannins, and a great finish. Another awesome wine from Keplinger, it’s capable of evolving for 10-15 years.
2016 Keplinger Eldorado – 92
Coming from the Sierra Foothills and a blend of 70% Viognier, 15% Roussanne, and 15% Grenache Blanc, the 2016 Eldorado is a vibrant, pure, yet also textured white that does everything right. Giving up medium-bodied notes of white peach, flowers, and citrus pit, it’s going to shine on the dinner table.
Wine Advocate, Review by Lisa Perotti-Brown
2016 Keplinger Basilisk – 94+
Composed of 100% Grenache, the medium ruby-purple colored 2016 Basilisk opens with vibrant black and red cherries, warm plums and baking spice notes with wafts of red roses and dusty soil. Medium to full-bodied with a solid frame of fine-grained tannins, it has a long, refreshing and wonderfully perfumed finish. 100 cases made.
2016 Keplinger Mars, Moon Mountain – 94
A blend of 52% Grenache, 34% Syrah and 14% Mourvèdre aged 16 months in 15% new French oak, the medium to deep garnet-purple colored 2016 Mars opens with notes of spicy salami, warm black plums and Black Forest cake with touches of potpourri, Chinese five spice and red soil. Medium to full-bodied, it packs in the spicy layers with a plushly textured juicy fruit core and fantastic persistence. 250 cases produced.
2016 Keplinger Fuego y Mar, Sonoma Coast – 95+ Points
The 2016 Syrah Fuego y Mar is composed entirely of Syrah aged for 16 months in 50% new French oak. It has a very deep garnet-purple color and sings of crushed blackcurrants, baked blackberries, dark chocolate, licorice and violets with touches of black tea and hoisin. Full-bodied and richly fruited with a firm frame of rounded tannins, it has amazing vivacity and great persistence. 80 cases produced.
2016 Keplinger Hangman’s, Carneros – 95+ Points
The 2016 Syrah Hangman’s (from Hudson vineyard) contains 7% Viognier and was aged 18 months in 50% new French oak. Deep garnet-purple colored, it offers a beautiful lifted, floral nose of lilacs, chocolate box and oolong tea over a core baked blackberries, preserved plums and asphalt. Medium to full-bodied, the palate bursts forth with the most beautifully perfumed fruit, frame by soft tannins and finishing long and lively. 160 cases were made.
2016 Keplinger El Diablo – 92
Composed of 98% Grenache and 2% Syrah, the medium to deep garnet-purple colored 2016 El Diablo offers notes of kirsch, black and red cherries, mulberries and spice cake with wafts of black pepper and rose hip tea. Medium to full-bodied and beautifully perfumed in the mouth, it has plush tannins and a long spicy finish. 125 cases produced.
JEB DUNNUCK: Keplinger’s Incredible 2015s
Jeb notes that the 2015s are “brilliant wines readers will be happy to have in the cellar.”
2015 Keplinger Fuego y Mar, Sonoma Coast – 97 Points
Made from 100% Syrah sourced from the cooler Sonoma Coast (rocky, hillside parcels), the 2015 Fuego Y Mar from Keplinger sports a deep ruby/purple color to go with gorgeous notes of blueberry and black raspberry fruit intermixed with complex graphite, scorched earth, cracked pepper and bacon fat. With more violet/floral notes develop with time in the glass, it has full-bodied richness, incredible purity and sweetness of fruit, a seamless, silky texture, and ripe tannin, all making for an irresistible cool-climate Syrah that will keep for a decade or more. While the Syrah Hangman’s is a Côte Rôtie look-alike, this beauty is more Hermitage!
2015 Keplinger Hangman’s, Carneros – 99 Points
A blend of 93% and 7% Viognier from the cooler Hudson Vineyard in the Carneros appellation, the 2015 Syrah Hangman’s offers a Côte Rôtie La Mouline-like bouquet of bacon fat, crushed flowers, pepper, and peach pit that’s ground by a sensational core of pure Syrah fruit. Full-bodied, unctuous, and undeniably sexy, with a pure, seamless texture and no hard edges, this tour de force in Syrah needs to be tasted to be believed. It flirts with perfection and is up with the finest Syrahs from California.
2015 Keplinger El Diablo, Russian River – 92 Points
The 2015 Grenache El Diablo from the Russian River Valley, from a site just off Eastside Road, and is 97% Grenache and 3% Syrah aged in neutral 600-liter demi-muids. This peppery, ripe, black cherry, black raspberry, and earthy effort has medium to full-bodied richness, a plush, upfront, sweetly fruited style, and a great finish. It needs time in the glass to show at its best and will benefit from a year in bottle and keep for 7-8.
2015 Keplinger Basilisk, Russian River – 95 Points
One of the few Grenache-based wines in California that will compete with a top Chateauneuf du Pape, the 2015 Grenache Basilisk comes from the Russian River Valley, from a site planted in 2006, aged in neutral demi-muids. Its deep ruby/purple color is followed by a rocking bouquet of blackberries, raspberries, spice-box, and Provençal herb that reminds me of the Mon Aïeul Cuvee from Pierre Usseglio. Ripe, concentrated and sexy, with terrific purity as well as elegance on the palate, it’s a great Grenache I’d be happy to drink anytime over the coming 7-8 years.
2015 Keplinger Mars, Moon Mountain – 94 Points
The 2015 Mars is a GSM blend that’s heavy on the Grenache, with 52% Grenache, 34% Syrah, and 14% Mourvèdre. Its deep purple/plum color is followed by a meaty, spicy, full-bodied red that boasts loads of kirsch and blackberry fruit to go with lots of spice-cabinet, cumin, and dried earth-like nuances. Upfront, loaded with fruit, and beautifully complex, drink it anytime over the coming 6-8 years.
VINOUS: 2014 Sonoma and Points North: New Releases, Parts 1 & 2 (Feb 2016) by Antonio Galloni
These are without question the finest wines I have tasted from Helen Keplinger. The 2013s and 2014s are simply captivating across the board. Over the years, Keplinger has refined her approach, which includes a greater reliance on large format oak as well as important investments in equipment. The result of those significant sacrifices are very much in evidence. Readers will find a few new wines in the range, all of them welcome additions. As good as the 2013s are, the 2014s have the potential to be even more compelling. I can’ t say enough good things about these wines and the daring spirit they embody. Full Review
2013 Hangman’s | 95+
2013 Diamond Bar | 95
2013 Sumo | 95
2013 Lithic | 94
2013 Fuego y Mar | 93+
2013 Caldera | 93
2013 Basilisk | 93
2013 Mars | 93
2013 El Diablo | 92
2014 Eldorado | 90
Wine Spectator: 2013 Keplinger Reviews
2013 Sumo | 95
Shows excellent purity and intensity to the huckleberry and blueberry coulis flavors, with supple, velvety tannins and an aromatic lift from violet and white pepper details. Notes of sandalwood, black walnut, Earl Grey tea and nutmeg gain momentum on the tremendous finish, where the details and elegance persist.
2013 Hangman’s | 93
Fresh and plump, with a brooding personality lingering in the background. Floral aromas of raspberry and huckleberry combine with rich, layered flavors of black cherry, toasty vanilla and lots of cinnamon spice.
2013 Mars | 93
Well-built and keenly focused, this blend offers an array of flavors, from raspberry jam and dried cherry to spiced cinnamon, loamy mineral and chunky chocolate. The flavors glide toward a plush finish.
2013 Lithic | 93
Power meets finesse in this blend, which offers distinctive aromas of black olive and black raspberry, with accents of licorice and pepper. The flavors are layered and complex, delivering notes of blackberry, crushed rock and espresso. The tannins are big but ripe.
2013 Caldera | 92
Loaded with personality, this offers distinctive aromas of melted black licorice, blackberry and lead pencil. Shows great focus and structure, delivering powerful flavors of black raspberry, smoky pepper beef and mineral. Big tannins frame the finish.
Issue March 31, 2015, Wine Spectator, “California Rhones Come On h3″
Top examples of Rhône-style blends include the perennial favorite Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2011 (94, $80), a blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah that brims with dark and extracted blackberry and licorice flavors; the Keplinger Lithic Amador County 2012 (93, $60), a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah that offers a wonderful mix of ripe blackberry flavors with notes of loam and espresso; and the Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2012 (92, $98), which combines Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise to create a snappy red with perfumed aromas and sturdy currant and raspberry flavors built for the cellar.
The foothills region about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco is little known outside California, yet some exciting things are happening here with Rhône reds. Producers like Pruett, Favia and Keplinger are leading the way with outstanding and distinctive reds.
“I think the soils are so phenomenal,” winemaker Helen Keplinger says of the region. The diversity of soil type is particularly notable, ranging from powdery clay mixed with lava rocks to ancient, decomposed granite.
Farming practices can be a bit laid back in the foothills, but Keplinger sets a Napa-like high standard—and it’s obvious in her wines. The Keplinger Syrah Fair Play Diamond Bar 2012 is bold and layered, with firm tannins cloaked over juicy blackberry and wild berry fruit, while the Caldera El Dorado and aforementioned Lithic Amador County are each distinctive Rhône-style blends offering a complex mix of flavors. All three rate 93 points ($60).
Napa Sonoma Magazine, Volume 13, Summer 2014 –
Issue June 15, 2014, Wine Spectator, Helen Keplinger Cover Story – “Dreaming of Grenache”
Issue March 31, 2014, James Laube, Wine Spectator, “Rough Ride for Caifornia Rhones”
In 2011, cool weather ruled, yet wines surpass expectations
In many ways, California Rhônes are at the cutting edge not only of grapegrowing and winemaking, but also of how Golden State producers market their wines. These blends of sometimes unfamiliar grapes are not the straightforward, varietally uniform bottlings that many American wine-drinkers are accustomed to and comfortable with. Instead, learning these wines’ composition often means looking at the back label and making sense of diverse grapes and blending combinations. Some wines don’t divulge even that much. In this sense, Rhône-style wines have more in common with their European brethren, where blends are common.
Yet there are some historical markers. Petite Sirah, a traditional workhorse grape genetically related to Syrah, remains true to itself and its long history in California. Even in a difficult year such as 2011, Petite merits special attention, both as a stand-alone varietal and in blends.
The confluence of all these elements, as well as plenty of new labels, makes the fast-paced Rhône scene the most dynamic in California. There’s wide-ranging diversity on display among the top 2011s alone. The report’s highest-scoring Petite is the Turley Paso Robles Pesenti Vineyard (95 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $35); Keplinger’s Caldera El Dorado (94, $60) is the top Mourvèdre blend; Keplinger’s Lithic Amador County (94, $60) and Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles (93, $89) showcase Grenache; and the Herman Story Santa Barbara County White Hawk Vineyard (94, $48) is the top Syrah. Only Pinot Noir rivals the range of appellations; no other category rivals the blends.
November 25, 2013, Jancis Robinson, “California Mavericks – Blended Wines” by Julia Harding, MW
Patrick Comiskey of Wine & Spirits magazine selected and introduced this California Summit tasting of blended wines, along with several of the winemakers whose wines were in the line up – and who were itching to get back to the winery to deal with just-harvested fruit. He began with a brief summary of the history of blending in California, from which the following is taken. Comiskey, incidentally, is working on a book on California blending past and present.
The maverick panellists: Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock), Matt Dees (Jonata), David Phinney (Orin Swift), Helen Keplinger (Keplinger), Patrick Comiskey and Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon).
One of the aims of the tasting was to show how the interest in old vine components of field blends and “mixed blacks” has resulted in new preservation efforts for these old vineyards, including Bedrock Vineyard’, the subject of the third flight, which turned out to be a particularly interesting comparison although the three wines were all Zinfandel dominated.
Calling people who blend varieties mavericks is perhaps itself an indication of how varietal wines rule the roost in California, unlike the much more varied picture in parts of Europe, where blending is de rigueur. But to be fair these wines did represent some of the more left-field producers in the state, and even a so-called varietal wine may have up to 25% of another variety in the mix (just 15% if it is to be exported to the EU though).
Matt Dees of Jonata underlined that blending adds layers of complexity in warm-climate regions and this was incontrovertibly the case with the wines described below, which tended to be not only complex but also expressing art more than science. My favourite wines, Keplinger’s Shake Ridge Ranch Lithic and Bedrock Wine Co’s Bedrock Heritage Wine, were not only complex but also elegant and supremely drinkable.
November 2013,Vinous, Antonio Galloni
This is a gorgeous set of wines from Helen Keplinger and her husband, DJ Warner. Keplinger focuses on single vineyard, Rhone variety wines from a number of hillside sites in the Sierra Foothills and Sonoma. The wines are made with indigenous fermentations, long macerations, and aged in neutral oak with minimal rackings. Sadly, there is no Kingpin Rows, but Keplinger fans can look forward to several new bottlings with the 2012 and 2013 vintages. Readers should drink the mostly easy going 2011s before the richer, more powerful 2010s, all of which will continue to improve in bottle.
2011 Keplinger Caldera, El Dorado | 94
The 2011 Caldera impresses for its elegance and pure textural silkiness. Dark red cherry, plum, spice, leather and licorice notes meld together in a perfumed, fragrant Rhone blend. In 2011, the Caldera is distinctly savory, high-toned and delicate, but it is the wine’s finish that impresses above all else. Caldera is 62% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache and 4% Counoise from Goldbud Vineyard in El Dorado.
2011 Keplinger Sumo, Amador | 93
Keplinger’s 2011 Sumo tastes like a young wine right out of tank, such is the purity of its fruit. Cloves, menthol, tar, licorice and blueberries meld together in an intense, inky Petite Sirah loaded with class. I would drink the 2011 early and cellar the 2010 for another few years. A juicy, expressive finish rounds out this soft, beautifully contoured wine. In 2011 Sumo is 85% Petite Sirah, 13% Syrah and 4% Viognier.
2011 Keplinger Basilisk, Russian River | 93
The 2011 Basilisk (Grenache) is impressive in this vintage. Firm tannins support a core of expressive dark red/black fruit, tobacco, menthol, licorice, smoke and new leather. The 2011 impresses for its length, persistence and overall balance. Sweet floral and spice notes wrap around the finish. I will not be surprised if the 2011 blossoms with even more time in bottle. Today, though, the Basilisk is special.
2011 Keplinger Red Slope, Knights Valley | 93
The 2011 Red Slope is juicy, forward and expressive. Sweet red cherries, mint, wild flowers and licorice meld together in a beautiful, forward Grenache with tons of juiciness. The 2011 is more accessible than the 2010 because of its mid-weight structure, but all the elements come together in the glass. White flowers, orange zest and cinnamon linger on the perfumed, fragrant finish. This is a terrific showing in a tough, tough year. The blend is 96% Grenache and 4% Syrah.
2011 Keplinger Lithic, Amador | 92+
Dark red cherries, menthol, tobacco and savory herbs are some of the many notes that flesh out in the 2011 Lithic. Even with all of its early appeal, the Lithic boasts tremendous depth and has the pedigree to develop beautifully for a number of years. The polished finish is striking, but today, the Lithic is showing just a hint of its potential. The blend is 46% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre and 23% Syrah, with the Mourvedre and Syrah clearly dominating today. All of the fruit was sourced from Shake Ridge Vineyard in Amador.
May 30, 2013, Vinography: A Wine Blog by Alder Yarrow, Keplinger Wines: Current Releases
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’
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—
(Petite Sirah, Syrah and Viognier) and
(Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) from Amador, and
(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.
September 5, 2012, Wine Spectator – James Molesworth’s Blog / Video
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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
February 28, 2012, Sommelier Journal,Terroir
– Keplinger highlighted in an article on Ann Kraemer’s Shake Ridge Vineyard, Amador, by Randy Caparoso
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 h3 effort. Anticipated maturity: 2013-2023.
March 31, 2011,
– ‘Spice of Life’ by James Laube
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.
May 4, 2010 – Karen MacNeil describes the 2007 SUMO…
NEXT BEST THING TO CASHMERE PAJAMAS
KEPLINGER “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.”