Kitson Wines

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Leonard Maran
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Kitson Wines

#1 Post by Leonard Maran » September 16th, 2020, 5:42 pm

I ceased subscribing to the San Francisco Chronicle, but I was able to access this article anyway. 2016 Kitson Wines Black Knight Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was reviewed by Prince of Pinot (93) as was the 2016 Kitson Wines Haynes Vineyard Coombsville Napa Valley Pinot Noir (92). Delivery to me in San Francisco free! And you know what you are buying. Note: Watch, if you reume "shopping", each time it reduces quantity to 1 bottle.

"The seemingly impossible: an artisanal bottle of California wine for $10
Esther Mobley Sep. 16, 2020 Updated: Sep. 16, 2020 12:05 p.m.

A selection of Kitson wines, which represent an excellent value.

A truly exciting $10 bottle of California wine is a rare find.

It’s not that wineries here are greedy. Doing business in California — honestly, doing anything in California — is just expensive. Land costs a lot, farming costs a lot, employing people costs a lot, all down the line. The economic forces that produced your $7 latte are the same ones that produced your $80 Cabernet.

When you do find a $10 bottle of California wine, it’s generally a high-volume product from a large wine company that can take advantage of economies of scale. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those wines are bad. But what it does mean is that finding a $10 bottle from an artisanal, small, independent producer is virtually unheard of.

Until you hear of East Bay vintners Brad and Svetlana Kitson.

Under their eponymous label, the Kitsons make high-quality, passion-driven wines on a shoestring budget. They are doing the seemingly impossible: low production at low cost. They sell the Kitson 2019 Malvasia Bianca, which tastes like apricots sprinkled with lemon zest, for $10, despite having made just 27 cases of it. Their crisp, minerally 2019 Decko White Blend, at 56 cases, is also $10. (Those wines used to be $15, but they’ve adjusted all prices by one-third for the penny-pinching times of COVID-19.)

It sounds too good to be true, but Brad Kitson says he simply sees the math a little differently than some of his peers. By keeping production costs low, foregoing a brick-and-mortar tasting room and doing all of the distribution themselves, he and Svetlana are able to sell their wines at shockingly reasonable prices and still eke out a little profit.

Some of those cost-saving strategies have been especially advantageous since the coronavirus shutdown began. For example: “We’d been looking at opening a tasting room until the pandemic hit,” says Kitson, who lives in Castro Valley. A tasting room would help attract new customers, but it also carries considerable overhead. Either way, with severe restrictions on California tasting rooms in place, he says, “it’s a moot point right now.”

Not all the Kitson wines are $10, but they all represent staggering values. With the pandemic pricing, their single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from marquee growing regions like Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley and Napa’s Coombsville are $24. They pass for double the price.

“I never felt comfortable trying to sell a $52 bottle of Pinot,” Kitson says. “I’m from Stockton. I couldn’t have afforded that.”

Winemaking is a second career for Kitson. His first was in technology, in Silicon Valley, where he invented a programmable computer chip in the 1980s. But as he and Svetlana, a photographer, got increasingly interested in wine, and increasingly tired of his commute, they decided to make a change. He enrolled in a master’s degree program at UC Davis for winemaking and never looked back.

Kitson got a job at Farella Vineyard in Napa, which led to a job making the wines for Rafael et Fils, a small estate vineyard in Napa’s Oak Knoll District. He continues to make excellent, high-end wines for Rafael et Fils. Around 2010 he began to make some wine of his own, too.

His setup is typical of many contemporary upstart winemakers. He has a day job, owns no land or winery of his own, purchases grapes from vineyards all over Northern California and processes them at shared, custom-crush facilities.

That can be an expensive business model, but the Kitsons have figured out how to work efficiently within it. The starting point, of course, is finding inexpensive grapes to buy — much easier to find in places like Yolo and Lake counties than in Napa or Sonoma. In 2019, their Yolo County Malvasia grapes cost $750 per ton. (As a comparison, Napa County Chardonnay grapes cost more than $3,000 per ton on average last year.)

Kitson’s equation proceeds from there. If he can expect a ton of grapes to yield 720 bottles of wine, he’s paying about $1.04 per bottle for fruit.

Oak barrels can be a huge expense, with brand-new French versions going for more than $1,000 apiece. (Wineries can make back a little money if they sell their used barrels.) Kitson uses oak sparingly. Some wines, like the Malvasia, are aged entirely in stainless steel; for his Pinot Noirs, one in every six barrels is new. (Before bottling, the new and used barrels of Pinot Noir are combined, to create a final blend that has just a touch of new-oak flavor.) He estimates that averages out, per bottle of Pinot, to 67 cents.

Packaging expenses include glass, a cork, a capsule (the foil that covers the cork) and a label, typically around $1.30 per bottle for Kitson.

So for that $750 ton of Malvasia grapes, which did not age in oak barrels, each bottle cost Kitson $4.34 to produce. A standard margin would multiply that by 4, suggesting a bottle price of $17.37. Yet the Kitsons offer it for less, cutting into their profit: $15 pre-pandemic, $10 now, leaving just over $5 per bottle for them.

The only way to justify that, Kitson says, is by selling the wine directly to customers rather than to a wholesale distributor, who would take a cut. “If our normal price was $10, restaurants and shops would want to pay $6.67,” he says. “We’d get next to nothing for our efforts.”

It feels generous to their customers, especially considering how pleasant the Kitson wines are to drink. Some of the most successful efforts include that Malvasia and the white blend, both outstanding aperitifs, and the ethereal, floral Elke Vineyard Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley, impossibly light for how flavorful it is.

The Haynes Vineyard Pinot Noir, from Napa, is just gorgeous: spicy, silky, lush. The fact that Kitson charges $24 for that wine is especially astounding: Failla’s Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay sells for $58, Enfield’s Haynes Vineyard Syrah for $45. (Kitson won’t be making any more Haynes wines in the future, though, since the vineyard was purchased by the owner of Heitz Cellar last year.)

A decade in, Kitson is still, by his own admission, figuring this whole thing out. “Doing a bunch of low-volume wines like this is a risk,” he says. With these razor-thin margins, he can hardly afford to add even $1 or $2 to his per-bottle production cost.

But the biggest problem that Kitson faces may also be his biggest advantage. It’s almost like a wine buyer’s version of Stockholm syndrome: California wine drinkers have become so inured to high-priced bottles that they don’t know what to make of an inexpensive one when they see it.

“Sometimes people look at a wine like this and say, ‘Oh, it’s cheap,’” Kitson says.


Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. Email: ... 611e9028ff

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