Story By: Layne Randolph // Photos Courtesy of Kukeri Wines

Wines with the Wow Factor

The Kukeri is a centuries-old Bulgarian tradition that begins after the new year and continues through Lent. Townspeople dance in costume and animal-like masks to chase away evil winter spirits, celebrate new beginnings, and give blessings for good health and a good harvest. So, it was fitting for Winemaker Petar Kirilov to use Kukeri as the name of his California wine brand in honor of his country’s history and traditions.

“I lived in small Bulgarian towns where 80 percent of the people made their own wine, so I was introduced to wine at a very early age, helping my father with grape harvesting and winemaking. We used no chemicals or other winemaking additives, just what nature gives you. In Bulgaria, we produce intense, tannic, and mainly Bordeaux varietal grapes.”

Naturally, Kirilov is an enthusiastic fan of Bulgaria. He raves about the Black Sea, skiing in the mountains, the great food, and the developing wine country. He studied winemaking at the University of Food Technologies in Bulgaria and received a master’s degree in winemaking. He then came to the United States to make wine with small family wineries like Truchard Vineyards. But he did not plan to stay this long.

He explained why he chose to stay and said, “I liked the weather a lot, and I liked how clean and nice the vineyards were, and each one was different and unique. So I decided to stay here and explore the quality wines and the winemaking process behind them.”

Explore, he did. In 2010, he crushed his first fruit—cabernet sauvignon from Mount Veeder—and bottled it under his Kukeri label in 2013. Less than a decade later, the awards and achievements are piling up. His 2018 Kukeri Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon received 100 points and won Best of Class at the 2020 Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition, the 2017 Kukeri Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon won a Gold Medal from the 2021 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and the 2018 Kukeri Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon won Best of Class and 99 points from the 2021 Santé International Wine and Spirits Competition.

The boutique, hand-crafted, small-production Kukeri wines reflect a deep, intense Bordeaux style, and the Cabernet Sauvignons have a touch of Bulgarian intensity. They are meant to enjoy now and age beautifully. “I want to make wine that lasts and has that “Wow” factor,” Kirilov shared.

Kukeri Wines are available direct-to-consumer online, but they are also favorites in steakhouses, such as Las Vegas’s Barry’s Downtown Prime and The Cosmopolitan Casino Restaurant, and in Bay Area shops like Sonoma Wine Shop, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, and Mission Bay Wine and Cheese Shop. Kirilov has increased his production accordingly. “I started with fifty cases a year, and every year it grows a little bit more. Now it’s 1500 cases a year.”

The choice of the Kukeri name was foretelling. His native country’s Kukeri celebrations include rhythmic dance for blessings of prosperity. After almost two decades in California, Kirilov’s wine is a success; he has married and has two daughters. The Kukeri have undoubtedly bestowed their blessings.