Over the past few months, we've been focusing this blog on more of the higher liquors and distilleries popping up throughout the state, but not everyone is into vodka and whiskey. There's always going to be fans of wine, no matter the year or flavor, who absolutely love everything about them. From the grapes to the processing to the bottling to bouquet to final sip. We luckily have some impressive wineries within Utah, one of the more prominent being Kiler Grove Wines, which just embarked on its fifth year of operations out of South Salt Lake. Today, we chat with founder Michael Knight about his long career making wines, coming to Utah and working with La Caille, starting up his own business and the success they're having today. (All pictures courtesy of Kiler Grove Wines.
Gavin: Hey Mike, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties of California. That's where I acquired the “habit.” I began picking grapes when I was about eight years of age in one of the vineyards in northern Napa County, and also in southern Lake County near Middletown. As I got older, I was able to work the harvest. Kids were actually let out of school for some of the harvests because sometimes the Braceros laborers from Mexico didn't make it there in time and the growers were short handed. Later on, I was able to pick up summer jobs working the vineyards and wineries in the Windsor and Sebastapol area. So that's the imprint for me.
Gavin: What first got you interested in wines and wine making?
Having been around wineries, wine making and some of the best grapes on the planet, I figured I owed it to myself to try making my own. I probably made my first wines when I was away at college in Sacramento. When I moved to Reno in the early '70s, I got more active about making my own wine. I even took a jab at making brandy.
Gavin: What was it like for you picking in the vineyards as a youth and learning the processing end of the business?
I was so young when I began working in the vineyard that it seemed more like torture than wonderful. There were snakes in the vines. There were spiders as big as my hand. Wasps, sticky stuff, and I only got 10-cents per tub. Later, when I was able to work with the pruning crews, I gained more of an appreciation for what the grape vine is, and how the care with the pruning produced a direct effect on the quality of the grapes and therefore the wine. Now I view the vineyard work as the key ingredient in the making of the wine. This is a complete reversal of my early disposition.
Gavin: How did you eventually end up at the University of California, Davis as a teacher and what was your time like there?
I was hired at UC Davis right after obtaining my MA at Sacramento State College (now University of Cal Sac). I began with a part time schedule of classes teaching sculpture, printmaking, and English at night. I still lived in Sacramento about 15 miles from the Davis Campus so I found a way to make myself useful to the staff in the Viticulture lab. That's where I picked up some important vine care experience. But you need to understand that I had no inclination at that time to become a wine maker. I thought I was going to teach at colleges and universities.
Gavin: What was the moment when you decided you wanted to pursue it as a career?
Back in 1985, when I moved to Salt Lake City to enjoy the skiing and to get work teaching at the high school level, is when I had what I call the epiphany. That was the first time in my 40-plus years that I had no access to vineyards, wineries or even wine for that matter. I liked Salt Lake, and I knew there was a “disposition” about adult beverages, but I wanted to stay even though I felt out of synch; weird. I knew I had to do something about that. As if preordained, I came across the vineyard at La Caille. I found out that they had not much use for the grapes except as window dressing, so I jumped in and grabbed some grapes for my own winemaking adventure. As it turns out, making grapes from the La Caille vineyard taught me a great deal about matching the vine to the site. I had a constant struggle with the way those people managed the vines. I learned a volume of "don'ts" in wine growing and vine care. Fortunately, I had some old buddies back in California and up in Idaho whose brains I could pick for solutions to some of the problems. Those guys were great mentors and fine wine makers in their own right. I was very fortunate to have their guidance and council. So it went year after year for 15 years at La Caille. Some of the wines were very good. Some were distinctly forgettable. But that was where I had the baptism by fire.
Gavin: How did the opportunity come about to work with La Caille making in-house wines?
Back in 1986, I had done some work for a fellow who was related to one of the then-owners of La Caille. He was pleased with the outcome and paid my price for the work plus gave me a couple worth a dinner for two at La Caille. Back then that was about a $200 value. So my wife and I trotted out there with coupon in hand. And can you imagine my amazement at seeing a vineyard surrounding the restaurant? That night, I made arrangements to come back on the weekend to grab some of the grapes and scratch that itch. When the wine was done I took some back as a "thank you" and asked if I could revisit the vines in the autumn and do it again. I was granted that permission. This cycle repeated for about five years when the primary owner of La Caille decided the wine was good enough that it should be the house wine. We came to terms on equipment and compensation and set about licensing an in-house winery. Our first legal vintage was 1993. My final vintage for them was 2008.
Gavin: When did you decide you wanted to start up your own winery, and where did the name come from?
All the while I was making wine for La Caille, my family who were still in California decided to put together some money and go shopping for a vineyard property in California with the intention of enticing me back there to take up a winery operation at the vineyard site. We found a property that was both affordable (at 1998 rates) and potentially very well suited to be a vineyard. The property is located in Kiler Canyon just west of the town of Paso Robles. It's hidden from view by a massive oak grove, hence the name Kiler Grove Winegrowers. We acquired that property in 1999 and set about putting in a vineyard in 2000. We waited until 2005 to take a harvest and make wine from it to see the quality of the wines. In late 2006, the wines were finished and we were quite pleased with the result. In 2007, we began a process with the County of San Luis Obispo to get a permit for a winery and tasting room. That process took almost three years and many tens of thousands of dollars to complete. When we exited the permit process we were saddled with six significant restrictions to the permit. The most deadly of which was that we were denied a tasting room. The other restrictions hardly mattered because not having a tasting room in wine country is like tying both hands, both legs, and your neck behind your back then jumping into the ring with Mike Tyson. Defeat is certain. We had a choice to make. Either admit being defeated by the bureaucrats of San Luis, or play along with a suggestion made to us that Salt Lake City may be ready for an "urban" winery. We obviously chose the latter.
Gavin: How did you come across the location in South Salt Lake and what made you decide to setup shop there?
Back in 2010, there weren't very many places where zoning ordinances permitted "bottling." It didn't matter if it was water or white lightning. If bottling was involved it was very restricted. Long story short, we opted for the South Salt Lake property. It isn't wonderful. I would rather be on State Street, but State Street was not zoned for our use. So here we are in a semi-industrial area whether we like it or not. That said, the city of South Salt Lake was so user friendly I was amazed. The same process we endured in California of obtaining a "special use" permit was also required by SSL. The difference being that it only took about a month and cost $400 or so all tolled.
Gavin: What was it like turning the place around into what you needed, and how much equipment did you need to bring in?
The building needed little work on the outside as it was only five years-old when we bought it. The inside had to be cleared of all partitions and rewired for commercial equipment. That process took about five months to complete. We have a tiny, micro winery now in that building which includes the manufacturing of wine from grape to bottle. We have a small analytic laboratory, and kitchen, a tasting counter, a sales counter, and one restroom whether we need it or not.
Gavin: How was it working with the state and the DABC to have your business licensed and approved?
The DABC and I already had a relationship via the La Caille experience. Essentially they simply rubber stamped the Federal licensing results. The weirdness is manifest more in the procedures than anything else. We have a gillion rules to follow, many of which really hog tie the marketing of the wines. Too, the DABC originally refused to carry any of my wines (there's a back story to this that I won't divulge). With the upheaval to the DABC in recent years that refusal has softened to some extent, but because my production volume is so small the say until I can supply wine in a quantity that fills the shelves of a bunch of stores they will only make minimal purchases occasionally as people ask for our wines.
Gavin: What was it like for you launching the winery and what was the public response to it?
Launching the winery required in addition to the aforementioned efforts a lengthy marketing process. I had to hold events. I had to "sponsor" (one rule is you can't give away alcoholic beverages, but you can donate money to cover expenses) wine for outside events. I held wine education seminars, and private wine pairing. For those folks that know me, it is well known that I am a reluctant social participant. I would make a good hermit. But then I wouldn't have a customer for my wine. So I bit the bullet and did those things. Lately I have done less. Partly because the demand is diminished, and partly because I have learned how to say "no."
Gavin: What's the process like for you in creating a wine, from picking all the way to bottling?
This question warrants a huge answer. It's the magic question, because if one asks it of himself and answers it correctly before any move is made to stand up a vineyard or make wine, then the wines will almost necessarily be good. But my time frame and yours doesn't permit the fully fleshed out answer. Here is the Cliff Notes version: Understand the vineyard site. Select from the nearly 2,000 wine grape varietals those few that are not only well suited to the site, but apt to make a good wine. Be patient. Vines go through a five-year adolescence before they are ready to produce sufficient quantities of fruit for wine making. The wine itself takes months if not years to finish development. There is nothing about wine making that can be rushed. Be willing to listen to others when they comment on your wine. Be strong enough to say "no," but listen. The grape is the perfect package that includes everything needed to make wine. It will make wine without you. So the winemaker's job is to not mess up the grape. Be the care taker.
Gavin: How do you go about choosing what kind of product you want to make and how long you'll make it for?
The vineyard site decides for you what grapes it will grow. The vintner decides when to bring in the crop and which type of fermentation will take place. I have four red wine varietals and one white on our vineyard. I do buy grapes from other vineyards in Colorado and Idaho in order to add a bit of regional flavor to my selections. I rely heavily on blending of my wines. Don't misunderstand, blending is not to cure a fault. Bad wines put together only make worse wines. I blend with the objective being to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. There is an alchemy occurrence when wines are blended. I don't know all the chemistry involved, but it's the same kind of thing that happens when you put vinegar on baking soda, something unlike either ingredient is created, namely carbon dioxide. Something akin to that happens with wine blending. Sometimes it's a good result and sometimes it's not. There is no recipe book for a winemaker to consult. There are just too many variables for that. As a winemaker you play a hunch. You experiment, you ask around, then you decide.
Gavin: Right now you make six different wines. For those unaware, what do you have to offer?
Zinfandel was the favorite varietal selection for our vineyard. It does so well there, and it expresses so truly the nature of the place it is grown. Long ago, back in the days when I lived in the Sonoma County wine country, I learned that there is a synergy that exists between Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Fortunately our site is well suited to Petite Sirah so I was able to select that varietal. Then too I found that our site was very well suited to some of the varietals that are famous in the south of France, namely Grenache and Mourvedre. Happily, I discovered quite by chance that a particular mixture of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah and Grenache made the most of the Zin - Petite synergy out of which came the now trade marked wine "Zinergy." That was fun. I make a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, and Petite Sirah that I call "Interpretation" because those wine comprise my interpretation of some of the classic blends of the Rhone and Laguedoc regions of France. I grow a grape that few California vineyards grow called Trebbiano, though Treb is widely planted in the south of France and in Italy. Our site is very well suited to that grape which makes a very flavorful white wine that has some of the characteristics of both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. In fact I describe it as the wine where Chad and Sauv Blanc meet at the grapefruit. So the Zinergy, Interpretation, Petite Sirah, Trebbiano, and a third blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, and Petite that I call "Trio" comprise the main wine offerings at Kiler Grove. I have bottled some Grenache by itself, and I have bottled both Zinfandel and Petite by itself to add to the menu of wines at KGW.
Gavin: You also offer a tasting room as well as a venue for events. For those who wish to take part in either, what do you have to offer and how can people get in touch?
We do host all kinds of gatherings, parties, club events, book signings, etc at our winery. Because we are tiny we are limited to no more than 50 people on-premiss at any time. There are some goofy rules governing events where alcohol is served. Those rules are not prohibitive but they do cause the host and participants to contort their behavior to some extent. I now prefer to hold events at KGW as opposed to going off-site. I have found that off-site activities don't translate to new customers for some reason, but getting the people to show up at the winery does have the desired effect of building customer base.
Gavin: Where do you hope to take the winery over the next few years, both in spirits and as a business?
We are just now entering our fifth year of operation. Our wine sales have been essentially flat from day one to present. I would like our fifth year to be the "break-out" year. Our vineyard is capable of producing about 5,000 cases of wine annually. We are currently making and selling about 600 cases. So as you can see, there is plenty of potential for growth. Our current location could possibly accommodate up to 2,500 cases of production. Until that happens, because grapes from our vineyard are highly regarded we will be selling the majority of our grapes to other California wineries such as 4-Vines, Cinnabar, Aaron Wines, Rabbit Ridge, Clos Solene, Paix Sur Terre, Venteux, Barrel 27 and other fine wineries.