-4-(left) Samantha Mueller (right) Bob Mueller◆Bob, how did you get into winemaking, and what led you to start your own winery?Bob―― My great-great grandparents settled in the Valley in the late 1800s and my family has been on the land here ever since. I grew up on a farm outside of Rutherford, with 30 acres in vines and 60 acres in cattle and hay. It was one of the larger properties in Napa. We were growing Zinfandel, Carignan, Golden Chasselas, Napa Gamay and Chenin Blanc for sale to other producers. We didn’t make wines. Back in the 1960s there were a lot of cattle, prune and walnut orchards in the valley, and even cherry orchards. As soon as grapes became popular in the late-1960s everything started going to grapes, and today the whole valley is all grapes. When I first started bare land was US$1000 per acre ‒ if you had a vineyard on it $4000 an acre, and everybody thought that was really expensive. Today it varies, but I guess $100,000 an acre with top vineyards in Oakville and Rutherford up to $500,000 per acre. Bare land is hard to find and usually only in areas that are really problematic to develop.I went to St Helena schools, and then UC Davis where I got a degree in history. I enjoyed the grape-growing business and wanted to do the next step of making the wine. One year I tried making home-made wine, a Zinfandel, and really enjoyed the process because not only was it physical, but also mental, making decisions and taking a raw product and seeing how you can end up with the resulting wine. It turned out very good, so I decided I want to work in a winery. At that time there were only a handful of wineries in the Valley, now there are hundreds, so it was a big step. There had always been winemaking, but first phylloxera and later prohibition wiped it out. There were still people making wine, some for religious uses, and some wineries still limped along. It really wasn’t until the 50s that it started again with family vineyards, Mondavi, Krug, Bealieu, Raymond. The viticultural and winemaking knowledge was there, but it evolved a lot.I worked in the cellar at a couple of different wineries in the Valley dragging hoses, topping and cleaning tanks, just doing core winery work. I got a basic understanding of making wine physically, but mentally I still wanted to learn more of the ‘laboratory processes’, seeing the numbers, evaluating the resulting criteria and seeing how the wines turned out. One of the wineries purchasing grapes from us was Robert Mondavi, and I started working for them in 1974. Eventually they let me do a harvest season in the lab, which meant writer’s cramp writing work orders, but also being involved in the analysis and going to tastings. I worked my way up until they finally gave me a full-time position in oenology, and I kept on until my title was ‘Director of Oenology.’I feel very fortunate, Mondavi was still a family operation just starting to turn into a corporate, and going through the ‘University of Mondavi’ benefitted my winemaking a lot. Even when I left the winery, I stayed on as a consultant and was involved in the development of Opus, and the first Chateau Mouton Rothschild with the winemaker Lucien Sionneau.While I was working at Mondavi, I decided I wanted to have a vineyard which is when we bought Oak Knoll, and later the property in Carneros. That’s when I found out that working full-time in a job and working vineyards and the responsibility they entailed were just too much for me, and I left Mondavi to focus on McKenzie-Mueller. We started off very small, because we wanted to control the source and the quality of the grapes we made into wine. We don’t purchase any grapes. In fact, we also sell grapes which provide cash flow to enable us to do all the things we want to do. ◆What are the differences between Oak Knoll and Carneros?―― Our first vineyard in Oak Knoll was planted in 1979-1980, so it is a little older, the soils are deeper and don’t require much irrigation. We use drip irrigation to augment the roots, but it’s an area where the soils can hold more moisture so the vines can tap into it when they need to. We planted Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, 50-50 red and white, to spread the risk, because every year crop yields and quality can be different, and you don’t want all your eggs in one basket. We later converted our Sauvignon Blanc into Cabernet Sauvignon, so Oakville is now all red. We established our second vineyard in Carneros, a cooler part of Napa, down close to San Pablo Bay at the southern end of the valley in 1988-89. In Carneros the soil is shallower with heavier clay beneath. It is roughly 18 inches of top soil with clay underneath so the vines have to work and survive in those 18 inches. We planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Grigio ‒ which we have since dropped. We went in a lot of different directions because it is fun for me working with all of them. ◆ How has vine age impacted the flavour and quality of the grapes over time?―― It is very clear the older the vines get the more intense the quality and character, giving better balance without being overly energetic like fruit from young vines. The younger vines are more productive with bigger yields, but they are generally more ordinary in winemaking, though there are exceptions to every rule. At the same time, you are always learning about the vines and what they are telling us, and what the soil will give you. And we have to be cognizant of diseases and rainfall during the growing season and react to the weather which makes it fun. So you are adjusting your pruning and viticultural practices, while the vines are adjusting to their age ‒ it is a combination of both.We like to think of ourselves as sustainable because we’d like to ensure there are many years in the future for us to continue to grow and keep the vines healthy. ◆ What is your overall philosophy and approach in the winery?――The simple answer is you make wines in the vineyard and you allow them to show themselves in the winery. In my view, we are only hands-on to help them to get to where they ultimately will go, but you can’t make something it if it isn’t there to begin with. So it is all in the vineyard, and deciding on when the harvest is going to start.In my time at Mondavi and Opus I learnt the importance of French oak, and it is a critical part of our winemaking techniques. We use all French oak barrels and don’t filter our wines. We get the clarity we want by multiple rackings, barrel into barrel and barrel into tank and back to barrels, which helps the wine to evolve and show itself, as any intervention takes away from the wine itself.Regarding yeast, I am still learning. In our earlier Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays we wanted to use native yeast, so we didn’t inoculate and ran into some problems, resulting in wines we couldn’t use. Now we use yeasts that work well with the varieties we have and the wine style we want ‒ full, extracted wines that are drinkable and flavourful, but not so extracted it takes 20 years before they are ready to drink. I am over 70 and am still learning things. It is a crop that you get one chance a year to make, and then you have to wait until the next year. You do your trials and experiments and you evolve once a year. The other thing with winemaking is it has become very expensive. McKenzie-Mueller wines was established in the late 1970s by Bob Mueller and his wife Karen McKenzie, initially planting 10 acres at Oak Knoll in the late 1979, followed by 50 acres at Carneros in the 1988-89. This small family-owned winery exudes the joy of winemaking, with a diversified portfolio of wines (and even olive oil) that keeps the winemaking exciting, while diversifying risk over vineyards and varietal styles. Village Cellars talked with Bob Mueller and his daughter Samantha Mueller who has grown into a full-time role as Director of Operations, as this family business transitions to the next generation. Our feature story : Part 13McKenzie-Mueller Wines (Carneros, Napa County, California)A family-run winery set up by a former Director of Oenology at Mondavi looks to the future.―― Bob Mueller (Founder & winemaker) & Samantha Mueller (Director of Operations)

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