The MacDonald Brothers

USA, California, Napa Valley

The MacDonald Brothers

The better story is not about the To Kalon trademark, but what brothers Graeme and Alex MacDonald are doing today: standing shoulder to shoulder with giants, crafting astonishingly great wine.

The Better Story

Few vineyard names in Napa Valley are as well-known as To Kalon. One of the first sites planted to wine grapes in the region, parts of the vineyard have consistently produced wine for more than a century. Established from 1868 to 1899 by H. W. Crabb, the purported original boundaries consist of over 400 acres—roughly the size of Chambolle-Musigny. This land is now mostly owned by Constellation Brands (the parent company of Robert Mondavi Winery), who also own the rights to use the To Kalon name, which Robert Mondavi trademarked in 1988. 89 acres of To Kalon Vineyard belong to Andy Beckstoffer, who was granted the right by Mondavi/Constellation to use the name, as can the dozen or so winemakers who buy fruit from his section of this land. Smaller parcels are owned by Opus One (jointly owned by Constellation and Mouton Rothschild), UC Davis, Detert, and MacDonald, none of whom can or do currently use the To Kalon name.

But this is not a story about To Kalon.

“We’re very lucky to have this history,” said Alex MacDonald, co-founder with his brother Graeme of the MacDonald label, as we walked across a small bridge spanning To Kalon Creek, entering the vineyard. “To have this family story.”

It’s my fourth visit with the brothers, having come here pretty much since the project started more than a decade ago. Set well back and out of sight of Highway 29, with its gnarly old vines, some of which are still free-standing, there’s a timelessness to the MacDonalds’ vineyard.

The MacDonald story begins with Alex and Graeme’s great-grandparents, who were looking for a retirement property in Napa Valley in the 1950s. They were offered a 15-acre piece of land that was part of the contiguous farmland parcels purchased by H. W. Crabb in the mid to late 1800s, which is now commonly referred to as To Kalon Vineyard. Post-phylloxera and Prohibition, the land was planted with cherry trees. A cherry orchard was more responsibility than their great-grandparents wanted. Nonetheless, in 1954, they settled on paying $500 an acre for this parcel, planning to convert the cherry orchard into a vineyard and sell the fruit. And they did. Their Cabernet Sauvignon was purchased exclusively by Robert Mondavi for 60 years—first when he was heading up Charles Krug Winery and then when he split to create his namesake winery in 1966. In the tenderloin of To Kalon benchland, cozied-up to Mondavi’s Monastery Block, this fruit consistently made it into Mondavi’s To-Kalon and Reserve labels.

Four generations on, not long after the Mondavi Winery was sold to Constellation, Alex and Graeme told their family that they wanted to make their own wine from the family’s vineyard. At first, the family was reluctant.

“They weren’t just going to give valuable Cabernet to a couple of young, eager kids with no track record. But when we explained that we intended to buy the fruit, it was a whole different story,” laughed Alex. “In 2010, we used what little money we had to purchase a small amount of fruit from our family for the first vintage of MacDonald. We only made a hundred cases.”

Now, with a dozen vintages under their belts, the annual production of their Cabernet Sauvignon is still tiny at around 350 to 500 cases, but it is enough for the brothers to earn a modest income. Alex runs the business side, while Graeme, who has a degree in enology and viticulture from UC Davis, is the vineyard manager and winemaker. (He is also the winemaker at Blankiet Estate in Yountville.) The brothers’ wine is made at John Kongsgaard’s winery on Atlas Peak. 

Most of the fruit for MacDonald comes from vines aged 50-70 years old, including a block of vines planted by Alex and Graeme’s grandfather.

“These vines were planted in 1954,” said Graeme as we wandered through this block of thick, beautifully twisted old-timers. “There are also some 1974 plantings and the youngest vines are 28 years old. The older vines give amazing spiciness.”

As for the business side, Alex commented, “Around 98-99% of our sales are direct to consumer, to our mailing list. We’ve been very lucky to have about 99% reorders. Very few people have dropped off our list. We’re in a good position that we can do it all ourselves. We also sell a bit to restaurants locally. And we have a little distribution in New York.”

The use of Constellation’s trademarked To Kalon name on wine labels has sparked a number of legal battles around Napa Valley. Is To Kalon a geographical description, or is it a brand? While Andy Beckstoffer has been granted the right to use the name, he has expressed concern that Constellation could establish a To Kalon brand that has nothing to do with the vineyard or even Napa, which could risk damaging the reputation of one of Napa’s most iconic vineyards. 

But this is not a story about To Kalon.

The better story is about a well-defined, sweet-spot location within the vast boundaries of a variable, though historical, piece of land. It’s about a family’s expression of their land—the fruit from carefully nurtured old vines planted by this family over four generations. It’s about two entrepreneurial brothers and all the obstacles they’ve overcome to make their mark in a region that has mostly priced itself beyond the realms of young talent. And the most remarkable part of this story is what Graeme and Alex are doing today: standing shoulder to shoulder with giants, crafting astonishingly great wine.

Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Svante Ă–rnberg

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