Using a unique method to cultivate their offerings, this family owned winery is creating the perfect pairing to complement any type of food.
By Kristen Taketa, Contributor
Some of Kale Wines’ best products are not made in oak barrels or stainless-steel tanks. They’re hatched from concrete eggs.
“It gives it a little bit of a different body and mouth feel. It’s the more expensive way of making the rosé,” said Ranko Anderson, proprietor of Kale Wines and a fourth-generation Yonsei Japanese American.
Concrete egg winemaking is just one of the things that characterizes and distinguishes Kale Wines, which is located in Napa, Calif.
The wine operation was founded with the direction of Kale Anderson, Ranko’s husband, who is also a wine consultant for several wineries in the Napa region.
Kale Anderson is known for specializing in Rhone varietals of wine, rather than the pinot noir or cabernet, which Napa is better-known for. Kale Wines currently makes four red wines, two rosés and one Grenache blanc.
“Napa is mostly known for pinot noir and cabernet,” Ranko said. “Our kind of mantra is to source the finest grapes and fruit from vineyards in Northern California that grow Rhone varietals.”
With Kale Wines, Kale and Ranko Anderson pursue making wines that pair well with the foods they like to eat, Ranko said. For example, they make a syrah-grenache that makes for a great backyard BBQ wine, Ranko said, and goes well with lamb dishes and hearty stews in the winter. Their rosé is entirely dry, meaning it has no added sugar, and it pairs well with pretty much any Asian food, according to Ranko, whether it be Japanese, Indian or Thai food.
“Anything spicy and fresh is the perfect thing for the rosé,” she said.
Ranko and her husband, Kale, first met as undergraduates at the University of California, Davis. Kale had first been a premed student at Davis, to follow in his father’s footsteps. But, he eventually decided that he would rather work with plants than humans, Ranko said.
And it was not really much of a surprise, either.
Kale had already grown up with the winemaking industry. He had been raised on 14 acres in Sonoma County and attended school with lots of kids whose parents owned wineries themselves. Many of his family members are artists, and Kale saw winemaking as his own way of making art.
In addition, he has a strong affinity for the outdoors that also drew him to winemaking, Ranko said. A teaching assistant had noticed that Kale enjoyed being out in nature — participating in a water ski team, going often to Lake Tahoe and Alpine Meadows. So, the teaching assistant suggested that Kale try out the viticulture department instead, which would allow Kale to combine his love for the outdoors and plants.
“That kind of sealed the deal for Kale,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Kale switched his major to plant biology. This technical and scientific knowledge of how plants work would serve him well as he sailed into winemaking.
“There is quite a bit of chemistry and biology to the vineyard on the winemaking side,” Ranko said. “He gets to be really artistic and really show his wine and his self through what he makes.”
After graduation, Kale moved to Napa Valley and began taking on internships at various prominent wineries. He worked his way up from assistant winemaker, to associate winemaker, to winemaker.
The roots of what would become Kale Wines began to grow while Kale was an assistant winemaker at Cliff Lete Vineyards in 2007. Kale asked the owner, Cliff, if he could start experimenting with his own wine label in the back of Cliff’s cave. The owner gave Kale the green light, as long as he did all his own paperwork. That’s where Ranko stepped in and took charge, in 2008. That year, Kale Wines was born.
“We were only still in our 20s, and we started making our first 200 cases of Kale wines,” Ranko said.
Now, 10 years later, they make 1,000 cases.
Unlike many wineries that grow their own grapes and use only their own grapes for wines, Kale Wines uses grapes from several different vineyards and doesn’t grow grapes of its own.
Kale has several contracts with carefully chosen vineyards that produce grapes for its wines. The contracts specify that those vineyards farm grapes to Kale’s exact specifications, down to the block of land.
By contracting with other vineyards for grapes, Kale saves money by avoiding the costs of owning and maintaining its own vineyard, which is very expensive, according to Ranko.
Kale also saves on costs by renting space from a larger winery, where it keeps its winemaking barrels, tanks and concrete eggs.
“It’s more like a start-up tech model,” Ranko said. “We don’t own a vineyard.”
On every bottle of wine it makes, Kale makes sure to label the name of the vineyard that produced the grapes that are contained in that wine. Every vineyard that Kale works with practices sustainable grape-growing and grows the grapes organically, Ranko said.
“Each wine is a little bit different, depending on the vineyard,” Ranko said. “All our wines are vineyard-designated because we’re so proud of the vineyard that they came from.”
Instead of having its own tasting room, another expensive part of wineries, Kale wines are showcased in a collective tasting room, which also saves on costs. Kale and about a half dozen other wineries share the same tasting room located in downtown Napa’s Oxbow District. So families, couples and wine enthusiasts can stop by such a collective tasting room and try a variety of wines from different vineyards.
To the general public, perhaps the best-known ways of making wine are using wooden kegs or stainless-steel tanks. But the practice of using concrete eggs to ferment wine has caught on around the world and is producing some of the best wines, including those made in Northern California.
Winemakers see several benefits with concrete eggs. Unlike stainless steel tanks, wine in concrete eggs can breathe because the concrete is porous.
The egg’s unique shape has no “dead corners,” so it naturally stirs the lees, or the chunky leftovers that are produced during wine fermentation, Ranko said.
The shape and concrete material also keeps temperature cool and even throughout the wine. Concrete is a natural insulator and stabilizes the temperature of the wine, according to Sonoma Cast Stone. The stable temperature helps the wine ferment gradually and steadily.
And unlike oak barrels, concrete eggs do not add any spice or taste to the wine, Ranko noted. “A concrete egg is completely neutral,” she said.
Kale used to import concrete eggs made in France, but it became too expensive to ship them. So, they approached Sonoma Cast Stone, a company based in Petaluma, Calif., that mainly specialized in concrete countertops and sinks. Ranko said they teamed up to engineer the concrete tanks that now dominate much of Kale’s winemaking.
Kale Wines’ eggs each hold precisely 400 gallons, which makes about 200 cases of wine, or 2,400 bottles.
Ranko has received copies of the Pacific Citizen since she was a little kid, she said.
Her father, who is Japanese American, was the president of the Japanese American Citizens League Stockton chapter and attended JACL conferences.
Ranko, who is half-Japanese, a quarter Polish and a quarter Filipino, has Japanese roots that stretch back decades. Her grandmother grew up in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, and her grandmother’s family name is inscribed on the sidewalk where the family sewing machine store used to be. Ranko’s grandfather grew up in north Central Valley and went to Stockton High School. Ranko’s grandparents first met at the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas.
Now that she’s an adult and has two boys, ages 7 and 4, Ranko remains aware of her Japanese roots and searches for ways to keep them alive in her kids.
“It’s something that I grapple with every day now that I have two kids of my own,” she said.
But that’s difficult to do, she says, as there doesn’t really seem to be a Japanese American community in Napa Valley. She thinks of taking her boys to a Buddhist church, but she doesn’t know of one near where they live. She also tries to speak a little Japanese at home with them and became known at their preschool for being the onigiri snack mom, she said. And she tries to get them out of Napa as much as possible, such as on their annual trips to Hawaii.
In the meantime, Ranko said she is happy with Kale Wines’ success. In the future, she and Kale plan to keep their wine operation entirely family owned. They hope to use Kale Wines to continue educating the Napa region more about Rhone varietals, which Ranko said are “more of a red-headed stepchild in Napa Valley.”
“I think we’re very happy at the point we’re at now,” she said.