Whether Chris Kenefick ’06 was in Saxtons River attending Vermont Academy, or in Denver at college, or in San Francisco working for Four Seasons Resorts, he savored his visits to his family’s Calistoga, California vineyards. He loved the quiet and the slow rural pace. When Chris grew tired of living in a city as well as the long hours and changing shifts that came with a career in the hospitality industry, he knew he wanted to settle down and work at Kenefick Ranch.
Tucked into the foothills of the craggy Palisades, the ranch looks out onto a beautiful valley set within two mountain ranges. Chris’s father bought the ranch in 1980. Dr. Tom Kenefick was a practicing neurosurgeon in San Francisco when he first fell in love with the Napa Valley. A third-generation physician from a long line of midwestern farmers, he purchased the 250-acre ranch knowing little about viticulture.
Kenefick Ranch is planted primarily to Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc. Rhone varietals -- Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Petite Sirah -- complete the portfolio. Ten percent of the production is used in Kenefick Ranch wines while the remaining fruit is sourced out to other small producers.
In the summer of 2016, Chris left his hospitality career to follow his passion for wine, taking over national sales. “Napa is old school,” he explains. “Wineries only sell to people who see the property. Dad wanted to get on the road. Talk to people and shake hands.” Chris took over this role, traveling around the country setting up tastings and meeting consumers every other week. “I had friends from Vermont Academy and college spread all over the country, so the travel was fun.”
The independence Chris needed to make it on the road was fostered by his time at Vermont Academy. “High school is a time when you’re growing a lot and changing on that path,” he explains. “For me as a boarder – it was an interesting time being across the country. Independent. Making decisions for myself. Being there twenty-four-seven, live, sleep, work. You fully dove into it while you were there.”
The small size of the school was a big attraction. “I developed a close relationship with my teachers. I relied on the faculty in many different ways. They were my teachers. My dorm parents. My coaches.”
Chris enjoyed being a proctor and helping other students succeed in the dorms. Since he was a skier, Winter Carnival was his favorite tradition. When he meets up with classmates they still joke about the competitions.
He found himself well prepared for his move to college. The University of Denver was a big step-up size-wise. “I was over the adjustment of living in a dorm, having a roommate, getting my work done,” he explains. “I didn’t have the freshman problem of going to do whatever I wanted.” He graduated with a general business degree and a degree in hospitality administration and management.
Chris has recently experienced some big changes again in his life. Wildfires threatened the ranch and destroyed a quarter of the crops. “The grapes get smoke tainted – no one wants to drink an ashtray.” The COVID-19 pandemic kept him off the road, so he needed to find new ways to engage people. He created virtual tastings and “Friday Happy Hours” as a way for people to see the property.
Chris’s father passed away in May at the age of 85. Chris is now the Chief Executive Officer and second-generation proprietor of Kenefick Ranch. “The day-to-day is now on me.” He’s trying to fulfill his dad’s dream to build a winery on site – a process that takes ten years to get approval for. The plans for expansion should be complete in two years. He’s taking his time to get everything right.
And he’s getting married on July 24 -- at a resort across the street from his vineyard. The resort offers a few amenities that he doesn’t have at the ranch with the same perfect view.