After more than a decade in Napa, Keep Wines expand across the pond.
October 5, 2021 — On a breezy spring day, I drove to Napa to meet Johanna Jensen and Jack Roberts of Keep Wines. When I arrived at their beautiful home Johanna greeted me with a huge smile and a sweet old dog, Bebita.
As the couple finished prepping our lunch, they started their story from the beginning.
Wine was certainly not the original plan for Jack, nor for Johanna, even if they both grew up in places where careers in the industry were fairly common — South West France and Washington state, respectively. But in the end, it was wine that brought them together — and it was wine that inspired Jack, mid-pandemic, to venture back to his roots across the Atlantic.
Johanna grew up in Seattle where she attended college and established a career in the very non-wine-related field of Real Estate. That quickly changed in 2008 after she moved to Napa and started working for the wine and cider distributor Revel Wine. Johanna found herself immersed in the wine world with a focus on producers who were working naturally, organically or biodynamically.
Halfway across the world, Jack grew up on a farm in Gascony, but went to boarding school in London (which explains the accent). Later on, as an adult, he moved to Paris and worked for himself buying old warehouses and renovating them into living spaces. Wine was a casual interest at the time, but he frequented wine bars, gaining exposure to natural wine from around the world.
While renovating his properties, Jack would pick up short-term jobs around the city. Particularly memorable was a stint at La Verre Volé, a legendary natural wine bar in Paris’ Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood. His employment lasted for just four months — but this was plenty of time to get hooked.
“Natural winemakers would stop by,” Jack recalled. “I would drink their wines as they told me their stories. I fell in love with the culture and camaraderie of the natural wine community."
With time, Jack’s fascination only grew, and in 2009 he decided to pursue a career in wine. With Bebita in tow, he moved to Napa, where things came together fairly quickly: he met Johanna, and after a brief gig working in a friend’s vineyard, he joined Matthiasson Wines as a vineyard intern. Jack would spend the next decade working for Steve Matthiasson, eventually working his way up to Assistant Winemaker.
“Steve became more than just an employer. He was a true mentor,” Jack said.
While Jack was learning the ropes at Matthiasson, Johanna was finding her own path to the cellar — first as Director of Operations at The Scholium Project (then still in Napa). Abe Schoener, Scholium’s proprietor, had a reputation for encouraging his employees to make their own wine — and Johanna took full advantage, purchasing a small amount of Albariño in 2009.
It was the first wine that Johanna and Jack made together.
Not long after, Johanna left Scholium to in search of more production experience and spent the next season working with Chris Brockway at Broc Cellars in Berkeley.
“It was here that I really learned about keeping a winery in pristine clean condition,” Johanna explained. “This is especially important when making wine in a natural, minimal intervention way, as adding chemicals to fix any issues from bacteria or other contaminants is not an option.”
While Johanna and Jack would continue to pursue separate paths through the industry, the inaugural release of Keep Wines in 2011 marked a new phase. Their stories — winemaking and otherwise — were from this point on intertwined. That first release included just three wines — an Albariño, a Syrah and a rosé (of Syrah) — to which they’ve steadily added a broad array of varieties and styles.
“We like to add one vineyard or grape each year,” Johanna told me while we drank their 2019 Pinot Meunier from the Yount Mill Vineyard in Napa. The wine, slightly chilled, was packed with lucious summer berries and savory notes. It easily became a favorite among the wines we enjoyed that afternoon and paired perfectly with the fresh salads they prepared.
As we moved on to their other wines, I asked what influenced their minimal approach in the cellar.
“We’ve both always had more of a Euro-palate and wanted to make wines that we could enjoy everyday,” Johanna said. “I’m also SO2 [sulfur dioxide] and oak sensitive, so we only add a small amount of SO2 —” around 20 ppm [parts per million] at bottling and no other additions. She explained that grapes’ innate characteristics — high acidity and moderate tannins — give wine natural powers of preservation, in many cases making SO2 obsolete.
Of their vineyard sources, 80% are organically farmed and family owned, including one that Johanna and Jack tend themselves. Located in Lovall Valley in Napa, this vineyard is primarily planted with Syrah, but they recently grafted in Cabernet Franc and Pineau d’Aunis as well.
They also started working with Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that Jack knew well from his time at Matthiasson. Jack: “I forgot how delicate the grape could be.” Unfortunately, due to the fires, they weren’t able to harvest any in 2020, but they are excited to continue working with the grape in the future, crafting an expression very different from the big, bold, high-alcohol style often associated with Napa.
Right now, winemakers across California are wrapping up what has been, at least for many, a mercifully conventional harvest. But for Keep Wines, 2021 has been more than a little unusual. While Johanna made their wine in Napa, Jack was back in his native Gascony with plans to make wine from a Grenache and Mourvèdre vineyard they planted four years ago and other local vineyards. “We wanted our daughter to go to school in France for a year to learn French and spend more time with my parents who still live on the family farm,” Jack said.
Another major inspiration for this project was an abandoned vineyard that Jack discovered in the Saint-Mont AOP. Although the age of the vineyard is unknown, local farmers believe it dates back to the 1800s. For one, the vines are planted on their own rootstocks, a practice that halted with the onslaught of phylloxera in the mid-late 19th century. The vineyard is coded numerically, but its varieties are still a mystery. So far they’ve successfully identified only one: Tardive (which means ‘late’ in French).
In a recent followup, Johanna spoke excitedly about the 2021 Napa wines. “We made our first Aligoté and our second vintage of Carbonic Co-ferment Merlot and Chardonnay with a harbinger of Pineau d’Aunis thrown on top for some white pepper notes. Our Pinot Meunier was 100% whole cluster this year which we’re excited about. Albariño and Delta Blend are delicious too!
Following a successful harvest in Napa, Johanna flew to France to be reunited with her family. Due to a harrowing frost and some hungry sheep, their Grenache wasn’t salvageable but they were able to harvest a good amount of Mourvèdre from their family vineyard. They also sourced a small amount of Fer Servadou and made cider from local apples. An unexpected and exciting twist to their first of many back-to-back American and French harvests to come.
Jill Davis is Head of Marketing and PR at Wine + Peace and is based in Los Angeles.
Photos courtesy of Keep Wines and Jill Davis
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