Keep Wines: Fresh Wines, Unusual Vines

Winemakers Jack & Johanna Roberts in the vineyard they farm organically.

Winemakers Jack & Johanna Roberts in the vineyard they farm organically.

Keep Wines is the passion project of Jack Roberts and Johanna Jensen Roberts, focused unusual varietals (Ciliegiolo, anyone?) from unique vineyard sites. In true Vigneron tradition, Jack and Johanna are hands-on from the vineyard through to bottling. They pick their fruit on the early side, produce their wines with minimal intervention and release them young. Their wines are lively and fruit forward, yet complex—once you try them your'll keep going back for more!

Sorry, I can't help myself with puns...I'm just so excited to be sharing Keep Wines with Vinfluence club members this month—I think they are perfect for summer! Read on for my interview with Jack and Johanna to learn how Keep Wines came to be.

First off, how do you two think about wine?

Jack Roberts: Wine is so many things to me! It's an endless source of fascination, a way to make friends, a way of discovering other cultures, a direct connection to nature, a different way to understand history and our beginnings. Wine is always something different, depending on the moment, but mainly it is delicious.

I love that description. So, how did wine first come into your life?

Jack: I was born and raised in Gascony France near Bordeaux (but I am half American, half English) and my first experience of wine was when I was maybe seven years old. I was having lunch with my Gascon nanny and her father in law, Hector. He mixed a tiny bit of the local co-operative wine into my water glass. Then he wacked my hand when I tried to help myself to a piece of sliced bread from a giant loaf which I did not know was his, exclusively. The wine was delicious though.

Johanna Jensen Roberts: I’m from Seattle and worked at a high end restaurant there throughout college. The sommelier recognized my interest in wine and whenever someone would send a fine bottle back as “corked” and it actually wasn’t, he would share the wine with the staff and give us wine education.

Coming from France and Seattle, how did you each end up working in wine in California?

Jack: I was originally invited to come work in California by Lee Hudson of Hudson Vineyards. When he was a young man in his twenties, learning about wine for the first time, Lee came to visit my family in Gascony and  30 years later he returned the favor! I had worked on the retail side of wine in France, but it was not until I came to California that I realized that making wine was something I could actually do.

Johanna: When I was out of college, I moved to California and I thought that I had to go straight to a desk job—that is what everyone does, right? I went from Real Estate development, to working in Private Equity and then Private Banking. Eventually, I decided I wanted more freedom and flexibility, so I started a healthy snack business in L.A. That went belly up in 2008 and, long story short, I came to Napa for a “sabbatical” to learn more about food and wine. I ended up getting a harvest intern job working for Abe Schoener and his wine brand, Scholium Project. Then, he needed business help, as the downturn really hit boutique wineries hard, and I ended up working for Abe for 4 years before moving on in 2012 to work for Chris Brocway at Broc Cellars. Today, I still have a day job running a label called Convexity and Jack is Matthiasson’s Assistant Winemaker. Keep Wines is our side project, but it is growing fast.

As your careers have progressed, what experience or mentor most influenced you?

Jack: That first summer working for Lee Hudson opened my eyes to how wonderful it is to work in a vineyard. He also introduced me to Johanna 2 days after I arrived in California. After that, without a doubt, working with Jill and Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines has had a tremendous influence on me.

Johanna: Working at Scholium Project was immensely beneficial. I was able to learn more than just one small part of the wine industry, like sales/marketing or production. I learned all of that plus logistic and compliance. We do everything ourselves at Keep, from the farming to the website to the fulfillment. It’s the only way a winery with our affordable prices can make it, so the knowledge I gained while working for Abe has been crucial.

When did you launch Keep and what inspired you?

Johanna: I made a small amount of Albarino on my own in 2009 just for fun and to learn. I totally caught the winemaking bug and made a little more in 2010. Then, in 2011, Jack and I were offered an opportunity to farm a Vineyard in Napa and we grabbed the chance. All of a sudden we had more wine than we could sell to just friends and family. We had to get legal to sell to a broader audience, so we launched Keep.

What’s the story behind the name ‘Keep’?

Jack: My father spent part of his childhood living in an old ruined castle called Beverston in Gloucestershire. His bedroom was in one of the last remaining structures: the ‘keep’. That would have been the castle defenders' last resort in a siege and was where they stored their most precious possessions, especially their wine. Coincidentally ‘keep’ comes from the old English word ‘Kype’ meaning barrel, perhaps because of the shape.

How did you choose the varietals you work with?

Jack: We truly love the varietals we started with, Albarino and Syrah, but I have to be honest, price was a major reason we started with them. Grapes are not cheap, so when you are starting out it helps to buy affordable fruit.

Are there any other varietals you want to add?

Jack: We currently make 12 different wines—Counoise, Carignane to name a few more—and it takes a long time to really get to know a varietal and how to make it. Johanna and I are still experimenting with the same fruit, trying new things in the vineyard and the winery. I would make every varietal if I had time, I really would.

Do you have a specific approach to winemaking?

Johanna: While we don’t classify ourselves as ‘Natural Winemakers’ we use many of the practices: Native Fermentations, no fining or filtering, and low to no SO2 additions.

You also manage a lot of your vineyard sources yourself, how do you farm them?

Jack: We farm exclusively organically and our aim is to one day exclusively make wine from organic grapes, but we are not there just yet. Some of the grapes we buy are not organic, but the vast majority of our wine is made from organic fruit.

What is your favorite thing about working in wine?

Jack: The culture. It may sound generic, but it means a great deal to me that wine brings so many people together. Growing up in Gascony, I witnessed the tremendous agricultural upheaval of the 1980’s when many of the small family farms disappeared and larger scale farming took over. Village populations drastically  reduced and all the youth fled to the city. Small scale agriculture has been under attack for so long, it is so wonderful to see it    finally being valued for what it is. Wine has been a big part of that resurgence.

What do you see in Keep’s future?

Jack: We would like to farm more vineyards and ultimately only make wine from our own vineyards.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

Jack: We’re planning to plant a small vineyard in Gascony.

Johanna: Raising our three year old.

What is the most memorable bottle of wine you’ve ever had?

Johanna: A 2007 Matthiasson Napa Valley White Wine, no joke. I had a bottle at a restaurant called ZUZU’s in Napa in 2009 shortly after I arrived in Napa.  That wine made me want to work for Steve Matthiasson. 

What is your favorite food and wine pairing?

Jack: Pierre Chaude - Domaine l’Anglore with ‘Demoiselles de Gascogne’ (Muscovy duck carcasses fried in duck fat with a little salt and pepper) This is the poor man’s meal in Gascony when you cannot afford anything at the butcher. One of the most delicious things on the planet.

When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?

Jack: If I’ve been really good I’ll treat myself to a dry Martini with Zubrowka Bison grass Vodka. My grandma turned me onto that stuff and I still love it.

If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be?

Jack: Oyster farmer? That sounds like it could be fun.

Johanna: Dream job would be a restaurant critic, I really really love dining out and LOVE food paired with wine. I feel like this is cliché answer though, doesn’t everyone want to do this?