Karate and Cabernet

ROBERT KAMEN started to make his own wine with the dedication of Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) in The Karate Kid, a bit of the reluctant hero like Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) in The Fifth Element, a touch of the romantic like Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves) in A Walk in the Clouds, a shade of the offbeat humor of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon 3 and the single-minded intensity of Liu Jian (Jet Li) in Kiss of the Dragon.

That Robert Mark Kamen should incorporate all of these personalities into one person is not strange at all, because he is, in fact, them. These characters are all part of Kamen's fertile imagination as he invented all of these roles. Kamen was the screenwriter for these well-known movies and many others. It fact, it was the magic of movies that created the role of winemaker for him.

Like the unwitting hero of a movie, Kamen was led into the world of winemaking without knowing he was being drawn into the plot. Upon selling his first script to Warner Brothers in 1980, Kamen headed up to Sonoma County to celebrate with friends. That day, while hiking through the mountains of the Sonoma Valley, they came to a remote hillside overlooking the valley and Kamen fell in love. "We went to this remote, rugged, overgrown mountainous land strewn with rocky volcanic outcroppings and I fell in love with the place," said Kamen. Yes, it was love at first site, the property happened to be for sale and Kamen headed directly to the real estate agent's office. The agent promptly relieved Kamen of his still warm check from Warner Brothers and in an unanticipated plot twist Kamen found himself a winegrower.

It would take Kamen over twenty years to make his own wine from his land. Although his first script, which financed the purchase, was never made into a movie, his next script, Taps, staring Tom Cruise, was. This was followed by the hugely successful Karate Kid movies. All this success did not make Kamen forget about his steep, rugged piece of the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains. He kept investing in his vineyard, teaming up with the now-famous organic viticulturist, Phil Coturri, to create an outstanding cabernet sauvignon vineyard that produced grapes sought after by Sonoma's finest producers.

In 1995, Kamen's movie, A Walk in the Clouds, was released. In that movie, Kamen had written a scene where the movie's hero, Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves), saves a family's precious grapevines from total destruction in a fire. "People kept telling me that was wrong," says Kamen. "They told me that vineyards don't burn." In an ironic twist on his own script, he received a call from Coturri the following year telling him that his vineyard was on fire. The fire destroyed a third of his vines and his home. "It was a difficult moment," said Kamen. "It made me reevaluate everything."

"Everything happens for a reason," believes Kamen, an accomplished martial arts practitioner and student of oriental philosophies. Using these strengths he decided to rebuild the vineyard. "We replanted with tighter spacing, better vine selections and rootstocks," said Kamen. "The vineyards became stronger and better than before."

Today there is a 40-acre vineyard planted predominantly with cabernet sauvignon and small amounts of merlot, cabernet franc, and petite verdot. The difficult growing conditions plus stringent vineyard work has reduced yields to about 1.5 tons per acre. This is an extremely low yield, but grapes produced at this level have intense, complicated flavors. "It was finally the quality of the grapes that made me decide to produce my own wine," notes Kamen.

"I was really thinking about what I was doing just growing grapes," observes Kamen. "In screen writing you write many scripts that are never made -- just growing the grapes was the same thing. As a screenwriter the idea is to get the movie made. The reward is to see it on the screen. It's the same with growing grapes. The final reward is to see the wine in the bottle. The appeal is the symphony of the whole process."

Kamen brought in winemaker Karen Bower Turganis to complete the team and in 2002 they released their first wine, 907 cases of the 1999 Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. His second release, 1605 cases of 2000 Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, is a gorgeous California Cabernet. The 2000 vintage, like the 1999, is 100% cabernet sauvignon. It was aged for 22 months in barriques (60 gallon barrels) of various French oaks. It is a brilliant dark ruby wine filled with the aromas of spices and dark ripe fruits like boysenberries and plums. On the palate it is rich, creamy, and smooth with round, bright cherry vanilla flavors blended with a touch of cassis. The texture and balance of the wine stand out with the foundation of the wine more based on the firm and fresh acidity than the soft integrated tannins.  As you might expect, the Kamen wines are not cheap pushing beyond the $50.00 a bottle mark.

Defying the powerful West Coast pull of both winemaking and movie-making, Kamen has remained a New Yorker. This has kept his palate firmly in touch with the European style of winemaking. "The first wines I loved were Bordeaux and Burgundy," explains Kamen. "I'm looking for restraint and my palate leans away from the large California style. Sure in California we have more ripeness and bigger flavors, but we make our cabernet in a style that is restrained by Napa standards. We want to balance the ripeness of California with the restraint of Europe."

In the movie The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi karate-chops the tops off three beer bottles. Daniel Larusso says to him, "How did you do that? How did you do that?" Mr. Miyagi replies, "Don't know. First time." Well maybe that happens in his movies, but when it came to making wine, Robert Kamen knew exactly what he was doing right from the first act.