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Cristie Kerr Is Plotting a Comeback Season, but She’s Already Thriving in Her Next Chapter as a Winemaker

Kerr, 44, is taking a hands-on approach to the production of a variety of wines that are drawing high marks from critics.
Cristie-Kerr-Wins

Cristie Kerr is by almost any measure golf royalty. She's a former No. 1 in the world. Winner of a U.S. Open and a KPMG Women’s PGA championship. She has won the most points in U.S. Solheim Cup history, all after turning pro at the tender age of 17.

What about as a businesswoman? Turns out Kerr is a success in that world as well.

Kerr is the first in a series of stories about golfers currently involved in winemaking, including Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Jack Nicklaus, Retief Goosen, Annika Sorenstam, Gary Player and Nick Faldo.

In full disclosure, I co-run a fund that invests in West Coast wineries. Kerr and I have wineries in Napa, Calif., while the Bacchus wine fund also has wineries in adjacent Sonoma Valley and up north in Oregon and Washington.

Kerr Cellars is a relatively small, family-sized operation (about 4,500 cases annually, at least when wildfires don’t ruin a harvest), and Kerr is very hands on, along with her husband Erik Stevens and Kelli Kuehne, a former pro golfer and Kerr's best friend.

For such a small winery, Kerr Cellars produces wines with uniformly impressive “scores,” which are subjective but all-important ratings from industry heavy-hitters like Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, James Suckling and Anthony Galloni.

“If you set out to make the best wine product that you can, then nothing can be sacrificed. Not the grapes, the winemaking, nothing,” Kerr says. “And just like you need a tremendous competitive drive to become a champion golfer, so, too, do you need the drive to make the best wine you can — every year”.

Kerr Cellars also makes wine with disparate grapes, which for a winery of this size is quite ambitious. Reserve propriety blends, Bordeaux blends, Pinot noir, red blends, Cabernets, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay among them. It’s quite an eclectic collection of red and white grapes.

Similar to many wineries that do not own their own estates and vineyards, Kerr Cellars buys its grapes from growers.

But despite its broad and vaulting ambition to make an array of wines, Kerr Cellars has uniformly delivered on performance across the board, with many ratings consistently in the 90-plus range. Impressive stuff. As part of the research for this piece, she was good enough to send me a bottle of her Kerr Cellars 2018 Napa Valley Cab. It’s indeed delicious (and 93 points from James Suckling).

And unlike many big-name sports winemakers, Kerr is actively involved in the business of making Kerr Cellars wine. Constellation Brands, the food and beverage behemoth, is a believer and a minority investor in Kerr Cellars. Kerr’s personal operational specialties, born of a pandemic that necessitated all hands on deck at a small winery, are self-taught and encompass key, though not necessarily sexy, initiatives like bottling and logistics (the latter meaning how does a winery’s finished product get to market, either through distributors or direct-to-consumer). She also assists winemaker Helen Keplinger in blending the KC wine.

“Frankly, being hands on is how I collaborate with my team and ensure our collective vision is being implemented,” Kerr says.

She is still juggling her wine duties with her golf career, family (two children with Stevens) and her insatiable quest for knowledge and credentials — the latter is most recently evidenced by her decision to become a certified sommelier. Kerr has already passed her Level 1 court of sommelier exams, which puts her in a different category; very few winemakers or winery owners are also sommeliers. It’s an indication of understanding both the business and the artistry around wine, which is impressive and rare.

“Knowledge is power. If you do not do the research, you have nothing to teach,” she says.

And just as Kerr has faced sexism since she was young and tried to play on a boys’ school golf team, Kerr’s wine aspirations also bring her cheek to jowl with sexism. The insular male world of winemakers and sommeliers is notorious for treating women as second-class citizens, sadly, although it’s improving.

“Life is evolving, and so has the breadth of winemakers and vintners. In both areas — golf and wine — women have been increasingly accepted in these respective ‘games,’” she says.

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Breaking down barriers is part of what she does. It’s very important to Kerr that she not be viewed as a dilettante, but rather taken seriously as the businesswoman she has become, self-taught, with a goal to produce great wines and leave a tangible legacy for her children.

Her winemaker, Keplinger, has been with Kerr for 10 years. “I was so drawn to Helen as a person and as a winemaker. It’s just like chemistry with a caddy — you have it or you don’t, and if you have it you cannot replace it easily,” Kerr said. In a real sense, a winery owner has many roles, not the least of which is to be like the GM on a pro sports team, whose goal is to put the best talent on the field.

Cristie Kerr and Helen Keplinger at work in the vineyard.

Kerr and Keplinger at work in the vineyard.

Keplinger appreciates Kerr’s instincts. “Cristie has a natural ability to anticipate the needs of her consumers, and that’s reflected in the wines we make,” she says.

And here is an obvious link between winemaking and golf: innate talent transcends both sports and winemaking. There is no question that Kerr (like, in my own view, most world-class athletes) was born with a special and innate ability to putt better than pretty much everyone else. And it’s not just anecdotal — while the LPGA does not keep the same detailed stats as the PGA Tour, Kerr has led her tour in Putts per GIR (2006).

There are of course two kinds of great golfers: those who candidly have no clue about why they are great and fully intend to keep it that way and others, like Kerr, who understand technique and continue to study other great putters to learn and improve.

Kerr is the anti-Dave Stockton in that she, like Stan Utley and many old-school putters, prefers to minimally move the putter handle as opposed to shoving it forward down the target line. Her stroke flows beautifully and is ever so syrupy. Her putter head, as a consequence, releases and visibly so – not unlike Tiger Woods, a pretty fair putter his own self.

Kerr closely studies putting technique, but ultimately all that matters to her is feeling the putter while relying on her gut instinct to trust her read and hit the putt.

My own view, which I believe Kerr shares, is that great winemaking requires the same innate artistry and genius, and that armed with the same recipe for blending, a great winemaker who possesses feel and touch compared to a pedestrian winemaker, will end up creating very different levels of tasty product. It’s similar to great chefs.

Or putters, or golfers.

At age 44, with a winery and busy family on her plate, Kerr has only played two tournaments in the past six months. Her mother passed last year, and her father has survived a recent illness and multiple operations. Kerr is understandably stressed. “It’s OK not to be OK sometimes,” she says.

She still intends to play more tournaments in 2022, and to be competitive, but she’s also working through a swing change. “It remains to be seen if this is a comeback year,” she says.

What still drives her? She never went to college but she’s bright and inquisitive, both about golf and beyond. She grew up in Florida economically challenged with divorced parents who went into debt to fund her junior golf career. She’s a Jim McLean devotee; he honed her skills as a junior and never charged her a dime. To him she is unswervingly loyal.

“Jim is one of the most important people in my life,” Kerr says. “He taught me the importance of caring mightily about your craft above all else if you want to be successful — and I have applied his teachings to my wine goals as well.

“And the wine business is tough, so I need all my weapons!”

At some point her attention will shift primarily to Kerr Cellars, where she will be a businessperson in the prime of her business career. But for now she still burns to play well.

Who are we to count her out?