If there’s one thing Joe Keenan knows, it’s wine.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon at Beer & Wine Craft, I shared a few (or maybe more than a few) tastes of wine with Keenan, who bought the business in 2012 and started a winery in 2014.
Named Sandy Springs Boutique Winery in 2017, Keenan says the business is probably the smallest winery in the state and one of just a couple of wineries in the metro area. Earlier this year, Keenan was rewarded for his winemaking efforts, receiving the silver medal from the American Wine Society, which was established in 1967, for one of his wines.
Here’s a lightly edited version of our tasting.
When I come through the front door, I immediately join Keenan at a small bar in the back corner. We introduce ourselves, and he asks me what type of wine I like – reds, not a huge fan of whites, and I love Pinot Noirs. We start off easy, and he pours me a taste of a Pinot Noir from Sandy Springs Boutique Winery.
“We make all this stuff here,” Keenan tells me, before abruptly standing up. “Here, I’ll show you.”
He leads me to the back room, where I see rows and rows of boxes of grape juice. Keenan says he buys them from a company that has deals with wineries all over the world – there’s Merlot from Stag’s Leap, Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, and Montepulciano from Tuscany, just to name a few.
“All vineyards produce more grapes than they run through the winery,” Keenan says. “This company we buy through has long term contracts with the grapes. So they buy the grapes and bring them in and turn them into juice for us.”
Keenan is from Indianapolis originally, but lived in Texas for ten years and moved from Dallas to Atlanta in 1977. When it comes to making his own wine, Keenan has been doing so for about 15 years, he says. He came to own the 53-year-old Beer & Wine Craft in 2012, and started the winery in 2014. He began teaching classes and selling wine kits, teaching wine laymen how to make their own wines. The shop and the winery moved to their current location, 203 Hilderbrand Drive, in May of 2020.
During my quick tour of the winery, the knowledge spills out of Keenan like a good Cabernet. “This just came in – do you know what this is?” He points to a barrel. While I know what a barrel is, I’m not sure exactly what quality he’s referring to. “Hungarian Oak,” he says. “I haven’t seen these things for years. And I finally got one.”
There are three types of oak, he tells me – American, French, and Hungarian. The cellular makeup of the different oaks create a different finish for wine. American Oak has a vanilla finish, French finishes dry, and Hungarian falls right in between – perfect as far as Keenan is concerned, but of course, the most expensive.
Keenan’s knowledge runs deep, and his desire to share it with people seems to be part of what drives him. He’s been teaching classes at the winery for the past eight or so years. We sit back down at the bar as he starts to explain the class, which starts off with a brief session on the history of wine. When I ask him to go into that, he gets up again and leads me to a small map on the wall in the back.
Georgia – the country, not the state – has been designated by archaeologists as the birthplace of wine, traced back to 6,000 BC. According to Keenan, wine moved south over the next 3,000 years to the Sinai Peninsula, where the royal family enjoyed a prosperous wine business.
“Once it hit Italy, the ballgame was over,” Keenan said of wine. “You can grow it in any place that isn’t a mountain or a rock.”
The class takes place on Saturdays and runs about three hours long. After the history portion, the class moves on to the chemistry of wine. While Keenan knows chemistry is the most important bit, he knowingly jokes that some students find it a little dry.
“I’ve got to be really careful, because I cross people over,” he says to me as we sit back down for our second glass. “They’re asleep because of the chemistry … a lot of people aren’t prone to getting into chemistry, but chemistry is what wine is all about.”
Argentina, and more specifically Mendoza, is known for its Malbecs. But according to Keenan, they’re a little stingy with the best of their grapes.
“They won’t allow the ten best Malbecs to come out of the country,” he says, before giving a small smile. “Now, every vineyard grows more grapes than they run through the winery. This company guys those grapes from those vineyards. So what you’re drinking is probably the best Malbec you can buy in the United States. How about that?”
Around the time I take my first sip of this Malbec, I start thinking about what bottles I’m going to take home with me. Before I could tell Keenan that he’d already sold me on buying a few bottles, a customer interrupted us. They need a good pick for mulled wine, and they don’t know what to pick.
“I’d probably use a Merlot,” Keenan says. As he thinks more about the question, he starts to get a bit excited, becoming more confident in his suggestion. He asks the customer if they’re going to put fresh fruit in the mix – “Oranges are great,” he stresses enthusiastically. Seeing Keenan in action, it’s clear he has a real love for helping people find the right wine for them.
After the customer leaves, I turn the conversation to the award. The American Wine Society awarded him a silver medal in their 2022 Commercial Wine Competition, which has been held since 1986. The wine that won Keenan the medal was a blend, a red 2019 Private Reserve.
“There are over 10,000 varietals of grapes in the world,” he says as we discuss the blend. “There’s over 1,000 that you can make wine out of.”
As he brings out some snacks for us (chocolate-covered espresso beans, a small wheel of brie cheese, and his “secret weapon,” delicious fennel crackers he calls wine donuts. These all come with a purchased premiere tasting), Keenan says he entered the competition on a whim. While talking, he gets a bit introspective about his winemaking journey.
“Because I liked wines, I started making wines and here we are,” he says. “Isn’t that cool?”
I ask him what his favorite wine is right now. He says of course, the silver medal winner – but the Montepulciano is quite good too.
“Isn’t that rich and nice,” Keenan says after my first sip of this Italian red. “And you know, you can drink a whole bottle of this wine, you’re not going to get a headache.”
According to Keenan, all Sandy Springs Boutique Winery wines are made with about 40% of the sulfite used in most commercial wines. Sulfite in excess amounts can cause headaches. I finally tell him that I’ll have to buy a bottle now, if only to test out that theory.
Keenan says for a customer to make their own wine at the Sandy Springs Boutique Winery, it requires three visits over 6-8 weeks. While there are some instances – whether it be a special event like a birthday party, or a wedding – where customers can help create their own wine labels, the standard Sandy Springs Boutique Winery label is based on an old art piece that hangs in the front room of the store. Shanie Mattox, who has worked for the shop and winery for roughly four years, is a graphic artist who helped design the winery label as well as other customized labels for people who make wine at the winery.
After looking at the label, Keenan gets up again and leads me to the picture that served as inspiration. He doesn’t know who the original artist is, but he loves what it represents. The picture shows a number of Chinese immigrants working on a vineyard somewhere outside of San Francisco in the 1890s.
“This shows you the two ways they crush; with a press – see it flowing in there, and so forth, pumping it? – and by your feet, up here,” Keenan says, pointing out the different aspects of the photo to me. “The reason you use your feet is you don’t crack the seed. The seed has very bittering things in it. You can stamp on grapes all day long, and the bottoms of your feet won’t crack them.”
After looking at the picture, we head back to the bar for the real test (at least for me) – white wine.
According to Keenan, Georgia law requires Georgia Farm Wineries to grow Georgia grapes, which requires owning or renting a vineyard in the state. Keenan is a tenant farmer on a vineyard in Ellijay, which is where the grapes that make this next wine come from.
“You are going to try a white – I know,” he laughs at me, probably catching a glimpse of the look on my face as he passes me the glass. The grape was created by a French man named Jean Louis Vidal in the 1930s. Keenan says Vidal took two Trebbiano grapes from Italy and crossbred them. The hybrid was named after him – the Vidal blanc.
The grape is grown primarily in Canadian wine regions, due to its ability to thrive in cold climates. Keenan says it also grows quite well in North Georgia at higher elevations. He has a real love for finding the perfect grapes and the perfect way to grow them – and while I’ll still always choose a red if given the option, even I must admit that this white is pretty good
“It takes being a good viticulturist,” Keenan says about winemaking. “Your wine is only going to be as good as the grape on that vine, and you have to pick it just right….it starts out with high acid, and then as the sugar grows the percentage of acid goes down. You’ve got to get it just right.”
Saving the Silver Medal for Last
After a few other tastings, Keenan finally brings out the silver medal winner. I have to say, the American Wine Society made an excellent choice.
“Pretty damn good, right?” Keenan says with a smirk.