Alex Kongsgaard loves working with his hands. As the winegrower of Kongsgaard Winery he spends much of his time out in the fields, alone, caring for the grapes. He drives the tractor and does the green-trellising by hand, operates the press in harvest time, and does the bottling. It’s up to the grapes to grow.
“We like to say that we’re ‘minimal interventionist’ winemakers,” says Kongsgaard, 31. “Which is, of course, relatively silly, because the idea of planting a vineyard is an incredibly intentioned, deep, manipulative activity over the landscape.”
Kongsgaard himself is no stranger to deeply intentioned endeavors, which, considering that winemaking is the family business, is either ironic or makes perfect sense—once you know his reservations about winemaking. And don’t let his California drawl fool you, he has enormous self-possession and intensity, and throws himself wholeheartedly into anything he does. After all, Kongsgaard is a guy who once hosted meat orgies during his time at St. John’s, who built his first boat when he was ten years old, who spent almost an entire year boring a hole deep into the earth from atop a giant Edgar Rice Burroughs-like machine referred to as The Mole.
Kongsgaard hails from Northern California winemakers, a clan whose Stone Crush estate produces one of Napa’s premier Chardonnays. Nevertheless, upon graduating from St. John’s in 2005, he had no desire to join the family business. Instead, he set his sights on circumnavigating the globe.
Not solo, but with his friend Evan Frazier, with whom he bought the Alert, a thirty-six-foot, cold-molded wooden sloop designed by Tom Whyle. It was a beautiful boat meant to take them around the world. Unfortunately, it had trouble taking them out of the harbor—it needed a new keel.
Unfazed, Kongsgaard found himself a job at a wooden-boat yard in Sausalito—he’d teach himself how to fix the keel, and in the process learn plenty more about large-scale wooden boats and how to repair them. He scarfed in new masts; he patched leaky hulls. And after only a few months, he felt confident enough to quit the boatyard and start in on the Alert.
If that looks like hubris to some, to Kongsgaard it was a natural progression. He built his first boat in his backyard when he was just ten. At twelve, he took a weeklong course from the WoodenBoat School (sponsored by WoodenBoat magazine). His classmates were mostly retired cabinetmakers. Kongsgaard could’ve been their grandson. He loved it.
“I learned what a block plane and a spoke shave was, and how to sharpen a chisel and how to predrill holes and how to know what size drill bit for what size rivet,” he recalls. “I learned the basics. I thought, That wasn’t that hard, I’m going to try it.”
“It” meaning building his own boat. So that summer, a week after graduating from the WoodenBoat School, Kongsgaard set to work on his first plank-on-frame wooden boat. Whenever he ran into mechanical or design problems, he’d fax his complicated geometric drawings to his old WoodenBoat school instructor, who was too deaf to carry on a conversation over the phone. It took him a year to complete. It was seaworthy and didn’t leak—too much.
The Alert took him much longer. He was still at work, dropping and recasting the six-thousand-pound lead keel and mating it to the forty-year-old wood-and-epoxy yacht, when his parents decided to open up a new vineyard. Naturally, when Kongsgaard found out they needed someone to dig a wine cave into a hill on the eastern side of Napa Valley, he saw it as too good an experience to pass up.
Kongsgaard left the shipyard and joined on with brothers Ed and Steve Hawk. The Hawks had a machine they called “The Mole,” a thirty-foot-long, dragon-like coal-digging machine they’d reanimated from some industrial graveyard. Equipped with a twenty-four-inch spherical cutting head at the end of a long arm, it looked like a tank with a tail. It also required two people to run it. Slowly and persistently, The Mole grinded its way through the volcanic rhyolite of Napa Valley. Sitting at the edge of an articulation that swiveled when the machine moved, Kongsgaard did all of the “mucking”—removing the dirt and rock that the machine had ground up.
For weeks the three of them dug into the mountain, on a good day managing to cut fifteen feet of rock. If they hit a vein of harder stone, “some guy who came from Nevada who was someone’s buddy” may have appeared out of nowhere to loosen it up with dynamite. They certainly didn’t have a permit for anything like that. But one year after having broke ground with The Mole, they were making wine on the new property, complete with a seven-thousand-square-foot wine cave.
It was an incredible hands-on experience, one most people wouldn’t have even attempted. Kongsgaard, though, speaks of it as an opportunity to live well. The search for real experience carries over into all aspects of his life. “When you do all of the work yourself it changes your perspective on the reality of things,” says Kongsgaard. “On what things are important.”
Sometimes living well is building your own boat or embarking on your own reenactment of At The Earth’s Core, other times it’s a bit more playful and in-your-face—as when Kongsgaard staged his so-called “meat orgies” in the hidden corners of St. John’s. He’d grill the meat late at night, almost in secret. He kept it dark and personal (there was no music), and people tore into their blackened hunks of meat with bare hands and greasy teeth. People laughed, but nervously. It was a party, but one verging on primeval ritual. He loved meat (and still does), and this was his way of sharing. Of living well.
Living well, for Kongsgaard, isn’t just about living large, it’s about living deeply, taking things as far as you can—and mostly, it’s about taking them into yourself. Maybe that’s in Kongsgaard’s genes, maybe it evolved through his life experiences, maybe it came about through his time at St. John’s. Wherever it came from, Kongsgaard embraces it. Fully and intentionally.
“It’s the idea of living a life that’s small enough in scope that you can really do it yourself,” says Kongsgaard. “It’s a possibility that’s provided by making wine, though it’s not the generally accepted way of doing it. It’s an opportunity that I feel people don’t take themselves up on.”
Kongsgaard has definitely taken up that opportunity himself, and his family’s Stone Crush property had plenty to do with it. Set on five acres of rocky, soil-depleted land originally slated as a quarry back in the 1920s, the Kongsgaard Crush now produces some of the best Chardonnays around. The grape for the family’s best reserve wine, The Judge, is an atypical one for Napa. Kongsgaard’s father, John, planted it there on a whim when he was his son’s age.
Kongsgaard took over the agricultural side of his father’s business in 2010. The decision came as a bit of a surprise for everyone, including himself. “The danger for a guy like me is that wine tasting is a sort of poncy, bullshit activity,” he says. “And that’s something that I struggled with, especially as a teenager: that winemaking was a horrible, embarrassing pursuit.” It wasn’t the idea of subtlety or even aesthetics that turned Kongsgaard off, it was the idea of becoming an aesthete—“the danger of connoisseurship that leads you away from appreciation and into crapping on things,” as he puts it.
The Mole showed him a different side of winemaking. It showed him winemaking as an experience—a physical as well as mental pursuit. “The opportunity is to be both the guy that washes his own barrels and grows his own grapes and digs his own irrigation ditches,” says Kongsgaard. “And also the guy who not only makes the winemaking decisions, but has to be able to articulate to the public or the sommelier crowd the importance of those decisions. It requires a philosophical and a cultural aspect as well as a physical aspect.”
Embracing both the physical and the mental, Kongsgaard refers to himself not as a vintner but an “agriculturalist.” He has also switched from the chemical fungicides his dad used (to combat the destructive grapevine powdery mildew, the worst of the vinicultural pests of California) to an organic spraying routine. Around harvest time, he dons a backpack sprayer and hunts for outbreaks himself. It’s more work for him, but it’s his way of finding harmony between the crop and his own actions.
“In Napa, there are a lot of people who have a lot of money and say that they want to make wine, and they want to make ‘the best’ wine—it’s a noble endeavor to make really good wine,” observes Kongsgaard. “But when you’re just writing checks you lose touch with priorities. If you’re doing it yourself, it changes which things seem important. I feel like there’s a real grounding in a more old-fashioned, more Old-World way of doing it, where it’s a father and son, and you do your own work and grow your own grapes. There’s a conscience that comes from doing the work. That’s something I see as a guiding force for us, both as winemakers and as grape growers.”
Kongsgaard embraces that smaller, more old-line scale. The winery only produces two to three thousand cases a year, and most of their grapes are sourced from their neighbors or from friends in Carneros. “I either want to be the farmer,” says Kongsgaard, “or know the farmer.”
Usually he’s the farmer. He grows most of his own vegetables and butchers his own meat. He forages for mushrooms, too—and hunts rabbits, and free-dives for fish and seafood. And he is learning how to cure off-cuts of meat. Mostly, though, Kongsgaard tends his grapes. The new vineyard, complete with cave, is set to produce its first crop of Cabernet this year. It’s taken four years of diligent, hands-on work to plant and graft the rootstock, stake the new vines, and let them mature. Once they’re staked, it’s largely a waiting game—like the fermentation process itself.
Meanwhile, Kongsgaard has finished refitting the Alert. She is seaworthy now, and although she’s ready to sail, Kongsgaard demurs.
“It’s hard because you get into growing your grapes and driving your tractor, and you would have to subcontract that stuff [in order to sail], which goes against my understanding,” says Kongsgaard. “There are big swaths of time off, but they’re all in the winter—not such a good time for voyaging in the sea.”
Not that he’s given up hope of making it out there.
“I feel like there might be a way to synergize both things,” Kongsgaard muses. “If you did a true Pacific crossing to Japan”— one of The Judge’s stronger markets—“you would be able to check yourself off as a real salty dog.”
Published in Rational Animal Magazine.