What People Drink: Timothy Keith
What did you drink with breakfast?
Ritual Coffee in Napa if I’m going out, and Dunkin Donuts brand from home.
What’s the first wine that really blew your mind?
Well, I could say Carlo Rossi Senior year of High School but I don’t think that’s quite the spirit of the question. For my Grandfather’s 88th birthday he and I shared a ’95 Far Niente Cab, I wasn’t even 21 yet, but that moment, that wine, in that company, it was an experience… The bottle was corked… Just kidding.
Where did you get your start in winemaking?
Well, through college I was always making wine, I graduated in 2004 and started doing internships in Napa, Oregon and New Zealand but it really wasn’t until 2007 while working for Green and Red Vineyards in Napa that I really think I started making wine. That was really the first year I started to conceptualize the craft a lot more, thinking of style, technique and what I can do to guide the wine in the direction that it should go.
What are you drinking when you aren’t drinking wine?
In the cocktail world I tend to flip between Hendricks and Tonic or Knob Creek with a couple of rocks… I do enjoy Ginger Beer and Whiskey. I grew up in Oregon and live in Northern California and you’d have to be crazy not to enjoy some of the best craft beers around; Sonoma Springs Noma Weiss is a favorite.
Why did you decide to branch out and start your own label?
Sticking it to the man? Just kidding. It was always the real goal, even while I was working for other wineries in the back of my mind it was always there; just the moment to seize was lagging. 2010 was the year and I’m not looking back.
How do you see micro wineries contributing the future of wine in America?
Well, it’s a tough question to answer because defining a “micro winery” is tricky; are we talking home winemakers making there one barrel a year or custom crush facilities that can range in size but allow smaller guys like myself the ability to produce their 2000 cases a year using there equipment? I think either way the micro winery, the microbrewery, the small producer is always going to be the soul of the industry. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a young brewer starting out that says he wants to be the guy making Coors Light one day, much the same you’re not going to find a young winemaker saying she’d like to make boxed wine. Truth is the industry needs both and everything in-between to survive and thrive. The economics of this business are not friendly to small producers, the odds are stacked against you but it’s the perseverance of the small producer that keeps people passionate about what they’re drinking, and that is ultimately what pushes the entire industry forward.
What the last spectacular wine list you ordered off of?
Who’s carrying my wine these days? Lately I have been cooking at home more often then not but every time I go to ZuZu in Napa I always walk away pleased with their selection of small producers, foreign and domestic, at manageable prices. Also wines ability to transform due to your mood, environment and memories makes the wine and wine list there so good for me. I’ve got some really great memories there with friends and family…
What do you look for in a wine list?
Small producers, range of price-point and regions. I love a wine list that can have a focus i.e. single vineyard, Rhone varietals but not just from the Rhone, have a take or a concept I guess, sadly you can tell when one’s been just chosen by what a distributor has to offer and that’s the worst. I get queasy when I see the same label pop up as the only Zinfandel or only Sauvignon Blanc available.
What are your go-to food and wine pairings that you prepare at home?
Slow cooked meat dishes and red wine, for me preferably Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Petite Sirah… Always drink Sauvignon Blanc while cooking. Hamburgers and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon are great together; taco night is strictly reserved for beer though. We’re nearing spring, or at least it feels that way, and I’m getting all antsy in my pantsy for breaking out the barbecue again.
What do you find exciting in the world of American wine right now?
Chaos… The wine industry can be utterly chaotic and in many ways I thrive more in those conditions. Everyone has a take these days and it pushes things toward extremes and I think that’s where great things happen. I worry though that in people’s push to be esoteric they just become pretentious. I do single vineyard wines because I think if you can express what the vineyard is giving you then you’ve made a quality wine, but I’m not going by a formula, if the wine is above or below a certain alcohol or acid level then so be it. But what makes me most excited is that my generation is making it clear that the status quo and the old stand bys aren’t going to be good enough, old name recognition is losing it’s cachet and I think that benefits someone willing to adapt.
Leaf & Vine: Rural Meets Urban on Treasure Island
In just a couple of short years, Tim Keith, winemaker and co-owner of Leaf & Vine has come a long way (literally and figuratively) from his start as an intenerant winemaker in Napa and Sonoma counties.
A native of Oregon, Tim moved to California in his college days, finishing up his viticulture and enology degree at UC Davis. Then, in 2004, he began “bouncing around” the world of wineries, taking various internships and positions as assistant winemaker. In 2007, he became winemaker at Quixote Wines in Napa, a position he held until 2009.
The drive for creative freedom pushed Tim to venture out on his own and, together with his father, launched the Leaf & Vine label. In 2008, while working at Quixote, had Tim crushed two tons of zinfandel and fermented it in a cave. “It was really grass-roots, old-school winemaking,” Tim told me. “As soon as the wine had fermented, I pressed it off, barreled it, and didn’t touch it for a year. It was probably the cleanest wine I had ever made.” With the bung back in place, Tim left it alone again, making only “sporadic checks.”
In late 2010, Tim bottled the ’08 Zin under the Leaf & Vine label. He also had made a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc and with two wines to his name, stepped into the market.
For his 2010 vintage, Tim sourced fruit from four distinctive California growers. His Amador Zin came from Story Winery’s Quartz block, and his Petit Syrah from Marcus Bokish’s Vista Luna Vineyard in Lodi. Tim’s Sauvignon Blanc was picked at the Grandview Vineyard near Paradise Ridge Winery in Sonoma County (where the wines were then made), and his Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from the Haystack Peak vineyard in Napa, which Tim describes as a geographic bookmatch to Jan Krupp’s Stagecoach Vineyard.
“The pieces of the 2010 puzzle started coming together really fast, and right at harvest,” Tim said, noting that the rush of it all “was pretty fun.” Tim wants his excitement to be contagious, and shares his winemaking, from harvest to the barrel, through video documentaries that are available on the Leaf & Vine website.
“If my experience with the 2008 Zin taught me anything,” said Tim, “it’s that I need to be minimalist as much as I can – without racks and returns and aerating the wine. A lot of the life of the wine, and the ability to build flavors comes from dead yeast cells, and skins that might be left over in the fermenter that can make it into the barrel. I practice what I call ‘dirty winemaking,’ and I keep the wine on the main lees even after malolactic fermentation. Mostly I just stir it up after ML. There’s a lot of anti-microbial stability from those lees – they scavenge oxygen that the bad bacteria need, and they produce mannoproteins that can enhance mouth feel. If you really monitor it correctly, you can really develop a balanced wine with minimal agitation.”
As Tim’s winemaking prowess grew, so did his need to have more control over his winemaking than is possible using a custom crush facility. But where could he make his wine – his way – without investing a boatload of money into a facility? The solution was right in the middle of San Francisco Bay: Treasure Island, home to a growing number of small wineries who have taken up production in various old warehouses and orther buildings on the formar Naval base. There, in the cool bay climate, Tim is gradually increasing his footprint and production of hand-crafted, small-lot, single-vineyard varietals.
While making his wines in the “urban oasis” of Treasure Island, and pouring there on weekends for Bay Area enthusiasts, Tim and his father have their feet firmly planted in the rural soils of their upbringing, and have opened a rustic tasting room in northeast Petaluma where they host Wine Club parties and other adventures. It’s an approach that gives Leaf & Vine maximum reach into wine-country tourism and the growing urban winery scene.
The Leaf & Vine urban winery is located at 751 13th St., Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA 94130, and is open Saturday and Sunday from 1-5, or by appointment. The rural tasting room can be found at 1884 McSween Lane, Petaluma, CA 94954, with identical hours. Tour and tasting appointments can be made by calling Tim Keith at 707-478-1725.