Army Pilot Lands in Wine Country : Vintner Keehn Heads Up a Promising State Operation

Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Richard Keehn, proprietor of McDowell Valley Vineyards, is a former Army pilot who opted for a slower-paced, closer-to-the-ground career of boutique vintner. After service in Vietnam he landed at Hopland in Mendocino County in 1970 to launch McDowell Valley Vineyards, which has become one of California's most promising wineries.

Although new to wine, Keehn selected an old vineyard site that can be traced to Paxton McDowell, who planted grapes in this tiny valley in the last century out of frustration in a futile search for gold. It is a perfect spot for this 360-acre vineyard, generally drenched by the summer sun and cooled by gentle ocean breezes.

Many of the McDowell Valley vines are 35 to 65 years old, adding a maturity and complexity that is hard to find in any part of California's vine land, especially in a renewed wine region. The maturity of vineyards is largely responsible for the quality of the winery's major varietals: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel. The latter no doubt contributed to the winery's Zinfandel Blanc, which recently captured a best-of-the-show honor at the recently concluded National Restaurant Assn. Wine Competition.

Elegant, Jammy and Intense

Unquestionably one of McDowell's best is Syrah, 1982. It is an elegant, jammy and intense wine, full bodied and rich. There is a lot of peppery, raspberry flavor here coupled with a silky leanness that makes for easy generous drinking. Because of high alcohol at 13.8%, sip rather than quaff the wine. It is a most attractive red at less than $10.

The Syrah grape is used primarily to make France's Rhone wines, namely Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and is generally a slow-maturing, high-tannin wine, not to be confused with California's widely grown Petite Sirah variety. Few California wineries today are making Syrah, adding a dimension of uniqueness and encouragement for holding on to 65-year-old vines that provide a meager yield of 2 1/2 tons to the acre.

The 1981 version is even better with an assertive, spiced berrylike nose in a medium-bodied, chewy, soft style. Here again, sip rather than quaff and consider it as an after-dinner wine to better enjoy its layers of complexities and subtleties. The 13.6% alcohol heats the finish a bit. It is also an attractive buy at the same price as the '82.

Keehn is assisted by John Buechsenstein, a UC Davis enologist, who has worked under veteran wine makers Walter Schug (Joseph Phelps Winery) and Dr. Richard Peterson (Monterey Vineyard).

'Assistant Wine Maker'

"I am also helped by the sun, which is our assistant wine maker," Keehn said. "We are the first of the solar wineries of the world, and our solar capacity has been so futuristically designed that eventually it can be doubled to include electrical solar panels to generate electricity. At the moment it is a definite aid in the preservation of hot water. Moreover, we believe our solar system is a showcase of conservation and environmental concern."

Keehn never seems to lack help. Keehn, his wife Karen and their eight children designed and built their 25,000-square-foot ultramodern winery, relying considerably on Keehn's aviation engineering background. They also petitioned and received McDowell Valley's "viticultural appellation," a title given to a wine region by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, when soil, climate and area are distinctively defined.

Chardonnay at McDowell is distinctive. The 1983 suggests a more austere steely style with forward flavors without oppressive fruitiness and 13% unobtrusive alcohol. A neutral finish with only a hint of fruit tones completes the wine. Its slight buttery character derives from partial malolactic fermentation and 35% barrel fermentation in French oak barrels. An attractive Chardonnay, it is priced at less than $11.

Fume Blanc, 1984, at $8 is an even better buy with strong but not excessive fruity aromas in a round, full-flavored style that finishes nicely with appropriate crispness. Made from 95% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Semillon grapes, the wine's anticipated grassy flavor is tempered by the latter grapes, according to Keehn.

Cabernet Sauvignon, 1981, aged in French limousin and American oak barrels, is different from the kinds of Cabernets found in Sonoma or Napa counties. More blackberrylike flavor with a hint of mint is evident in a light to medium structure with some tannin showing and a lean and peppery finish. It should develop nicely the next four to five years. Produced from 35-year-old vines, the wine at 12.9% alcohol provides easy access and can be purchased at around $10.

Zinfandel Reserve, 1980, also is different from those generally found farther south in the state's vineyards. This has a spiced, peppery nose and light-textured silkiness with good but not great flavor. Twelve months of barrel aging may have hurt rather than helped this wine, since it lacks depth, but nonetheless, several more years of bottle aging may improve it. Produced from 90% Zinfandel and 10% Petite Sirah, a bit of heat is evident from 13.4% alcohol. It is reasonably priced at $8.50.

When tasting Mendocino County wines, and especially those of McDowell, keep in mind new taste perceptions, separate from such traditional areas as Napa, Sonoma and Santa Clara. According to Keehn, the area is coming of age, and it is the new distinctions that have helped his winery grow from an initial production of less than 6,000 cases to 55,000 cases in 1986. So popular is the region today that before Buechsenstein's selection as wine maker, 62 enologists applied for the position. Indeed, at many of America's wine competitions, Mendocino County wines are challenging for honors that used to go to wineries of other counties, many of which were using Mendocino County grapes.

"A good part of our success comes from the quality of our vineyards, which we have set out on seven different types of soil," Keehn said. "All are alluvial and gravelly loam formation, a structure favoring vine root development. At 750 to 1,000 feet above sea level, we believe our bench land is best."

Better Balance

Apparently this is also the opinion of Prof. A. J. Winkler, a noted California viticulturist, who said, "This soil promotes desirable slow ripening of grapes and at maturity the fruit is firmer in a better balance and has a rich and more pleasing aroma and flavor."

Whether or not this is bench land at its best, McDowell Valley grapes survived last winter's disastrous storms nobly, even after an 18-inch drenching during a too-brief period. Severe flooding resulted, but Keehn's vineyard was spared because it is nestled in the mountains 300 feet above Hopland, aided by its own drainage system, a large dam, cement spillway and a type of protective island location.

The winery is keenly interested in the flavor affinities of its wines. A prearranged visit will likely bring not only a wine tasting, but also the sampling of the family's recommended food combinations, such as red peppers with Fume Blanc, Chardonnay with pistachios and a host of desserts with a sorbet made from Cabernet Sauvignon, bing cherries, cinnamon and grated nutmeg. The Cabernet sorbet recipe blend can be obtained by writing to McDowell Valley Vineyards, P.O. Box 449, Hopland, Calif. 95449.

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