MERLOT: Michael Keenan on His Favorite Varietal

There is no mistaking what Michael Keenan thinks about his favorite grape. “Merlot is unquestionably one of the greatest varietals in the world,” the president and owner of Keenan Winery said. “And Spring Mountain is one of the best appellations in the world for Merlot, a runaway winner in my mind.”

Keenan anticipates the obvious question: Recall the time when mediocre Merlot flooded the market, and it couldn’t be given away? His ready response involves a belief that the varietal’s bad reputation from the movie “Sideways” in 2004 actually helped eliminate mediocrity in the vineyard by improving the gene pool through deletion.

Founded in 1977, the second generation Keenan vintner is proud to be growing terroir-centric fruit in Napa’s Spring Mountain District, high in the Mayacamas mountain range above the town of St. Helena. In nineteen separate blocks across four different vineyards on the property, healthy Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc vines of 20-plus years thrive in ideal soil and climate conditions.

Merlot Heaven

Keenan believes his ten steep hillside acres planted to Merlot vines produce some of the finest Merlot in all of Napa Valley. Blessed with plenty of sunshine, tremendously rocky soil that provides excellent drainage, and just the right amount of stress from the leaner high elevation sites, Michael believes that this is truly Merlot heaven. The higher elevation above the fog line ensures markedly cooler temperatures than in the valley below. As a result, the vines produce smaller berries with more tannins, great intensity, and a higher acid profile for wines that are bold, full-bodied, profound, deep, and long-lived.

Every year, four different 100% Merlots are bottled, three of which are single-vineyard bottlings, the Carneros Merlot (400 cases), The Reserve ‘Mailbox’ Merlot (300 cases), and 50 cases of the “Original.” The 4th Merlot bottling, and their most significant bottling, is the 2500 case Napa Merlot. This bottling is usually 75% estate fruit, 25% Carneros fruit, and is the Merlot that the Court of Master Sommeliers has used for years as the ‘Benchmark’ North-Coast Merlot. At the moment, Merlot vintages dating back to 1983 are available from the library.

Mother Nature at Her Best

In so many ways, 2020 has been a strange year, and that goes for the world of wine as well. Keenan observed his latest bud break in living history (April 10), as if the vines knew what the weather would do. Indeed, May was consistently perfect, sunny with no heat spikes.

Those who know him expect that to hear that one thing Michael Keenan says again and again, “The real point of wine is to better enjoy the accompanying food.” And if food pairings are one of the great things about drinking wine, Keenan is all-in on his top pick: Mexican molé with earthy, spicy Merlot. Spring Mountain District is one of Napa Valley’s oldest wine regions. Pointing to the 1904 winery building, Keenan pointed out, “There are certain things you can only see at the winery.” Visitors are welcome and invited to bring a picnic and enjoy sitting in the shade under the trees overlooking the vineyards. Open seven days a week by appointment.


Keenan Winery

Article By: Laurie Jo Miller Farr // Photo By: