Living with Luck at His Side
Karah Estate Vineyards
Michael Karah sees his life as an expression of luck, an idea that is not uncommon among highly successful people. Is it because they understand the limits of hard work and even good choices? Maybe highly successful people take greater risks and appreciate that they could be either rewarded or punished, depending on how unknown factors influence their situations. Maybe they are doggedly compelled to persevere and are surprised when success smiles at them from around a corner. Are they simply psychologically optimistic and blind to bad outcomes that they can’t control? Regardless of how we define luck and whether or not we believe in its existence, Michael makes a powerful argument on its behalf. “Everything is luck,” he says simply.
But luck or no luck, we all have certain patterns that seem to influence the trajectory of our lives although most of us are unaware of them until enough time passes. Michael’s propensity for agriculture has dominated his choices throughout his life. He was born in Tripoli, Libya, which was an Italian colony from 1911 until 1943 when British troops captured the area toward the end of World War II. To avoid bombardment, the Karah family left Tripoli and moved to a farm several miles away.
Michael was six years old when they arrived. He says the three years that the family lived there created some of the best memories of his life. “I remember every single day, everything I did, every moment, the flowers, the cows, the birds, the vegetation. At that time, Libya was the third in the world for exporting table grapes. Grapes, vineyards were everywhere.” Those three years engendered a love for farming that would endure for the rest of his life. “I always say that I believe in luck and that it’s always on my side. Even what might have been initially bad comes out well.”
In 1991, Michael purchased 143 acres in the Sonoma County town of Cotati. He was the first to plant vineyards in what today is known as the Petaluma Gap, a wine region now know for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, which flourish in its cool climate. “I was the first one, the pioneer.” The Gallo family then purchased 200 acres in the area. Today over 3000 acres are planted to vines.
The Petaluma Gap is so named because a gap in the coastal mountain range between Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay channels cool air from the Pacific Ocean inland up to San Pablo Bay as far as the mouth of the Petaluma River. “It’s always cool, always a breeze, and that makes the grapes mature slowly and create aromas instead of sugar. That’s what’s so unique about the area. Always at one o’clock, a breeze blows through the area and across my vineyards.”
After Michael’s early experience on the farm outside of Tripoli, agriculture continued to command his attention. He was offered four scholarships after high school. The first was to the College of Medicine at the University of Cairo in Egypt. He and a friend, who was offered the same scholarship, arrived too late to claim their places for medicine, so the University suggested that they enroll in the veterinary school. Both Michael and his friend refused. But they accepted places at the agriculture school, mostly because they saw girls in attendance. “I ended up in agriculture, so I became a business man. If I had been a medical doctor, I could not have been in business, and business is part of my nature.”
The next scholarship took Michael to the University of Arizona, where he earned a Master’s degree in Agriculture and met his first wife. Returning to Libya, he went to work for Exxon, which offered to pay for a degree in finance and taxation. But Michael didn’t want to return to school, nor did he want a career “pushing paper.”
Michael then took a job with Occidental Oil Company to manage a farm project. Occidental’s agreement with the Libyan government, then led by King Idris, was that it would spend five percent of its net income from oil to develop agriculture. Occidental chose Kufra for development, a remote 25,000-acre area in the Sahara Desert. “The company wanted to develop this area to please the King, who had lived there when he was young. It’s very remote, no airports, no roads, nothing. It was an oasis. But we found ground water.
“During the planning phases of the project, the revolution happened, and Muammar Gaddafi came to power. Occidental didn’t want to administer the project so turned it over to the new government. I assured Gaddafi that we could put that area under intense agriculture. And we did. It was very successful. We were growing alfalfa and wheat, and within three years, we were producing more per acre than anyplace in the United States at that time. It’s still there, but if it had been in the United States, it would have become more successful. If it had been in Russia, it would have failed. I knew it would go downhill because we needed spare parts, technicians, an infrastructure to support it. And I needed an administration, an entity for the project. Of course, everyone wanted to put his hands in it, especially the army. So I walked out after three years.”
Around that time, Harvard offered him a scholarship for a PH.D in regional development, but Michael said no again. “My life would have been different a hundred times if I had accepted. But I just didn’t want to go back to school.” He returned to the United States before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war broke out, led by Egypt and Syria against Israel. As a result of the war, the Suez Canal closed, an important gateway for oil, and prices rocketed from $1.60 a barrel to $40 dollars. Oil producing countries were suddenly awash with money and began to purchase commodities of all kinds from the United States and Europe. “I had a lot of contacts there, so I started to export farm machinery. But I got bored with that because I had to travel all the time.”
The parents of two children, Michael and his wife wanted to buy a house. When a deal fell through, he saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a 57-unit residential property in San Francisco’s perennially depressed Tenderloin neighborhood. “There was another building for sale nearby. I went there and was talking to the manager to get some information. He seemed to be drunk and wanted to know why I was asking questions. I told him that I might be interested in buying the building. He looked at me and said, ‘You couldn’t even buy a hole in the ground.’ It didn’t bother me. I know who I am. Luckily, I didn’t buy that building. I ended up with the better one. That was the beginning of my real estate focus that would never have been possible if we had been able to buy the house.
“But I always dreamed of vineyards,” Michael says quietly. “To me the vineyard is a piece of art, rows of beautiful green when everything else is dry in the summer, especially in this area. There’s no vegetation. Napa and Sonoma is all dry range land. I love to see things growing. It’s even better when I am responsible for the growing. When I bought this land, there was not a single tree, no road, no well, no house, nothing. It was a cattle ranch, grazing land. I moved there from Sausalito, from a big house with a private beach, into a trailer. I bought a big Caterpillar V8 tractor and started to plow the soil myself. Then I began to build a house. I lived there for almost ten years, and now I’m back in Sausalito. But I go there about three times a week.”
Michael researched suitable vines for the property and together with advice from the California Department of Agriculture agreed that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would be the best grape choices for this cool area. Pinot Noir had not yet taken over the imaginations of Americans. “I planted 50 acres, divided between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But Chardonnay was so cheap at that time. Nobody wanted it. So I converted almost all of it to Pinot Noir. After I did that, the sky was the limit. But I cut the Chardonnay without knowing that Pinot Noir would be what it has become.
“Initially, I was selling grapes, but not for long. I saw that the people, who were buying grapes for wine, were making all the money. So I decided to make wine. If I lost money, I didn’t care because the winery is also a beautiful piece of art like the vineyards, those French barrels, the smell of the wine, even if I don’t drink much of it. I actually enjoy myself more when I don’t drink. When I drink a little bit more, I become too serious. People drink to relax, but I become serious. I was so lucky. And I never really cared about the money. It was never the object because I never had trouble with it. It was the accomplishment that compelled me. So I’ve had a lot of problems with the IRS because they think it’s a tax right-off. But I proved to them that I’ve always loved farming since I was young. This is my love. This is my vacation. This is my enjoyment.
“I have a dream that it’s going to be very successful. Maybe not in my lifetime, but I don’t care. I moved every stone there and built it myself. It has a beautiful view from the top of the hill. All the ingredients for success are there. To me, profits could jump from 10 percent to 100 percent within a year. Once people get to know the quality of the wines, the sky’s the limit. I know two vineyards on either side of the road in Jenner, close to the ocean. One sells wine for $100 a bottle and the other for $15. There is just the road between both of them. It’s marketing and word of mouth. And luck.”
California Wines of the Month
Karah Estate Vineyard – 2012 Windy Hill Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Winemaker Jason Baker’s Notes
This wine blends green apple and golden oak. Its sunshine yellow color foreshadows its fresh flavors. The aromas of green apple and almond blossom are backed with full malolactic and oak structure (alcohol 14.3%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is Chardonnay with a lighter and elegant touch, showing clean acidity and lovely apple and spice aromas. Exposure to oak barrels is probably responsible for its layer of spice, but the oak complements the whole instead of overpowering it. Serve this lovely wine chilled.
Karah Estate Vineyard – 2010 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Winemaker Jason Baker’s Notes
The 2010 Estate Pinot Noir is redolent with aromas of pomegranate, cherry, and clove and is beautifully balanced, round, silky, and seamless. Its long and expressive finish reveals flavors of raspberry, red plum, and strawberry (alcohol 14.3%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The Karah wines are all expressions of the cool and windy hills on which the vines grow. They are elegant and restrained but with fine aromas and flavors of cherry and spice. Serve at cool room temperature with mild flavored foods like frittata, risotto, salmon, and roasted pork tenderloin.
Karah Estate Vineyard – 2011 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Winemaker Jason Baker’s Notes
The 2011 Pinot Noir has initial fragrances of Montmorency cherries and fresh plum pudding. The tastes are of raspberry and Savoy morels with a subtle note of roasting game. We made only 829 cases of this estate blend from our best blocks (alcohol 13.7%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The vineyard is a collection of hills with six different growing areas. Cooling breezes affect one side of a hill differently than another. Fruit from each section is crushed separately, with some sections developing faster than others. The 2011 vintage was the first time that Jason and Michael blended different sections for a Reserve production.
Karah Estate Vineyard – 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir Blend, Sonoma Coast
Winemaker Jason Baker’s Notes
This is the 2010 Reserve blend. We selected the best barrels from 2012 for your enjoyment. Limited availability, rich texture, and oak pour from the bottle for your dinner table. You can also enjoy the wine on its own with appetizers (14.4%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Certainly higher in alcohol that the 2011, this 2012 Reserve blend from vineyards in different areas of the estate is still very elegant and Burgundian in style. Cherry flavors are a given for Pinot Noir but spice is not, and both this vintage and the 2011 have plenty of both in the nose and on the palate. Enjoy!
Menu of the Month
Longing for Spring
Buffalo mozzarella with prosciutto and baby arugula
Pappardelle with rabbit
Organic tricolored salad greens with olive oil-Balsamic dressing
Pistachio ice cream
Recipe of the Month
Pappardelle with Rabbit
This classic recipe is adapted from Lorenza de Medici’s Italy the Beautiful Cookbook. Preparation time is longer than most of the recipes that you see in these pages but worth the effort. Although pappardelle is very easy to make, you can shorten preparation time by purchasing the pasta instead of making it yourself. I make it with organic whole wheat pastry flour because I prefer the texture and added nutrition. Enjoy!
For the sauce
1-1/4 pounds rabbit meat
1 cup dry red wine
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon juniper berries
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Freshly ground pepper
For the pasta
1-3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Cut the rabbit into pieces and place in a bowl. Add the wine and rosemary and marinate for 24 hours. Drain the meat, reserving the wine. Place meat in a saucepan with a little salt. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, then pour off the accumulated liquid. Add the oil, onion, celery, bay leaves, juniper berries, and pepper and cook over moderate heat until onion begins to color, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour in the wine and let it evaporate. Add the tomato paste, diluted with a little water, and simmer uncovered for about 1.5 hours, adding water as necessary to keep the sauce moist. Meanwhile, mound the flour on a work surface and make a well in the center. Break the eggs into the well and mix with your hands to form a dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Roll out the dough thinly and cut into 1 inch wide strips. Discard the bay leaves from the sauce. Bone the meat and chop it coarsely. Return it to the saucepan and reheat, adding more water if required to reach sauce consistency. Cook the pappardelle in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with the sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve. Serves 6.