Weekly Interview: Jeff Keene

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 09-16-2011

Each week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Jeff Keene, the winemaker at Cornerstone Cellars.

Cornerstone was founded in 1991, when Memphis physicians Dr. Michael Dragutsky and Dr. David Sloas decided to turn their love for wine into reality. That year, Randy Dunn offered Sloas five tons of Howell Mountain fruit, so a company was launched. Today, Cornerstone is making a number of exciting wines – from extraordinary Howell Cabs to its Stepping Stone line of affordable wines.

Jeff is a relatively recent addition to the team at Cornerstone. He joined the winery last year as its first full-time winemaker – and came with more than a decade of Napa Valley experience. Read more about Jeff below the fold…

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

At the moment, our soon to be released 2009 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Trying these wines with friends, family and with different foods. Tasting for release readiness — working from home, as the saying goes “it’s a tough life but…”

How did you decide to pursue a career in wine?

For eight years in New Zealand I worked as a food science research technician. Poking, prodding, peeling, juicing different fruits and vegetables all in the name of science, but my main focus was grape and wine research. Intrigued by wine and travel and tired of the fluorescent lights and white lab coat I decided to pursue a career in wine, went back to school and here I am.

How did you learn to make wine?

I couldn’t see a future as a home winemaker in my parent’s garage. I sensed my parent’s couldn’t either, so I went back to school and got a postgraduate degree in viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University in New Zealand. After stints at Selak’s Winery in Marlborough and Palliser Estate in Matinborough, New Zealand, I found my winemaking home in the Napa Valley and in particular Havens Wine Cellars where under the guidance of two amazing winemakers, Michael Havens and Peter Franus my learning and training began. And I am still learning, that’s what I love about winemaking.

How do you spend your days off?

As a full-time, unpaid taxi driver. I have two amazing kids whose social lives are always full, but outside of this, kayaking, skiing, exploring, gardening — we love the outdoors and relaxing with friends.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history?

Two guys that are still writing their own history in the Napa Valley, but I have a very special affection for: Michael Havens and Peter Franus. Two stylistically different winemakers who I have learnt and still learning from. They both have an amazing understanding of the relationship between the vineyards and winemaking and an infectious love of wine.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

The wine world is full of up and coming winemakers travelling the globe, learning and training from different viticulturists and winemakers in a vast array of wine regions. These are the ones that excite m — .open to all old and new ideas and techniques to produce the best wine.

What mailing lists, if any, do you purchase from?

I was recently introduced to the Kermit Lynch wine club, which is fantastic. Other than that I try to trade with friends and colleagues as much as possible.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

A huge question — there are so many different styles of wine and so many different friends and situations to enjoy them with. For me it depends on time, place and people. Wines that evoke strong memories of joy, happiness, excitement or even relaxation.

The most interesting is (still slowly working through this one) 1971 Bodegas Toro Albala Pedro Xime’nez Gran Reserva — from my birth year.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

Wine doesn’t last long in my household so imagine my surprise when I discovered a 1986 Heitz Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The other oldie (but not really) I keep for sentimental purposes as it was the first wine I ever purchased is a 1991 Waimarama Estate Hawkes Bay (NZ) Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot.

The most expensive? Still waiting for that gift.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

Bubbles and more bubbles — fresh, lively, dynamic and perfectly balanced to enjoy anytime of day and because every day is a celebration. For an every day red, nothing boring, wimpy or too heavy, I think a zinfandel fits the bill. It can be versatile on its own or with food.


What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Mother Nature loves to keep us on our toes throughout the season, but that’s what makes this industry so exciting.

Winemaking for today’s consumers can be challenging. Wines are consumed so young these days that the challenge is to make an enticing, generous and elegant wine upon release, but also one that will become even more delicious in the cellar with age and patience without compromising your stylistic goals.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

I’m from New Zealand, but all of my winemaking has been in the Napa Valley, so I see this is my region. Therefore my favorite wine region is Central Otago, New Zealand. Amazing winemakers crafting fantastic wines to rival any in the New World and arguably the Old. Stunning scenery. Wine tasting in the morning, bungy jumping off a bridge in the afternoon, what could be better.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Oh yeah. After a day in the vineyards, after a day in the winery, after a day in the office, after a day, beer time!

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Back in my food science research day’s I helped develop a juice product for Ocean Spray which sells in New Zealand and Australian markets.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

Working in a food science laboratory analyzing every last compound in an apple or kiwifruit wondering why I’m not making wine and asking if its time for a beer.

How do you define success?

Success for me is defined by finding happiness, fun and balance in all that I do, and sharing this with friends and family. Doing what I love and love what I’m doing.

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