The talented 14 Hands winemaker got into the wine business, appropriately enough, as hands-on harvest help.
WHILE GROWING UP in Hermiston, Ore., Keith Kenison had a view across the Columbia River of the growing Washington wine industry. He didn’t think a lot about it then, as more and more of the brown hills were covered in lush, green vineyards, whose grapes were primarily going to wineries owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
He certainly wasn’t thinking about it when he moved down Interstate 84 to study at Eastern Oregon University. His bachelor’s degree in psychology didn’t position him for a move into the wine industry, either — until he couldn’t find a job in his chosen profession.
When Columbia Crest, a Ste. Michelle winery, advertised for harvest help in 1992, Kenison needed the work, so he applied. That fundamentally changed the course of his life. Today, Kenison, 50, is director of winemaking for 14 Hands, Washington’s second-largest winery, whose 2 million cases of wine took a path to fame that is just as unconventional as its winemaker.
Three to try
14 Hands wines are broadly distributed, and should easily be found on grocery shelves.
14 Hands 2015 Hot to Trot white, Washington, $12: A blend built primarily on chardonnay and riesling, this reveals smoky aromas of tropical fruit and Golden Delicious apple, followed by succulent flavors of clove, lime zest and Asian pear. This is boldly dry, backed by bright acidity that makes this perfect with grilled seafood.
14 Hands 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $12: This nicely priced cab is classic Washington, with aromas of black currant, Baker’s chocolate and a whiff of graphite that leads to dense flavors of Bing cherry, plum and cherry pie, with a hint of black olive in the smooth finish.
14 Hands 2016 Run Wild red blend, Columbia Valley, $12: A Rhône-style red that relies heavily on syrah, this rich, drink-now red is loaded with aromas of ripe plum, blackberry cobbler, vanilla and dark chocolate, as well as juicy flavors of blueberry, cocoa powder and black cherry. A scrumptious wine.
In 1999, Kenison landed a job in a Ste. Michelle lab, which later morphed into an oenology position, working for winemaker Gordy Hill in the Yakima Valley in Grandview on the Northstar project before its move to Walla Walla.
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From there, he moved to Paterson, where he joined the Columbia Crest team as white-winemaker, a position he has held since 2005.
In 2002, Ste. Michelle launched 14 Hands as a restaurant-only brand. Thanks to the delicious wines, affordable prices and smart marketing, demand for the wines rose to the point where the wines were made available through retail outlets. It started with 85,000 cases in 2003.
In 2014, Snoqualmie Vineyards in Prosser was folded into 14 Hands, and all production was moved to Prosser from Paterson. Since 2017, Kenison has overseen all 14 Hands winemaking, including a crew of 15 people in the cellar. Not bad for a guy who came to winemaking unconventionally.