Photography by Jayms Ramirez
Some women talk about getting married in a Vera Wang gown. But not Ana Keller, whose father Arturo Keller’s enviable car collection is arguably the most prestigious in the world. Your big day is all about the vehicle, but the choice of which set of wheels is not yours. You may select your dress, flowers, music and cake, for they are not nearly as important as the automobile.
“My dad just takes in what the spirit of the wedding is and makes the call,” says Keller, who was chauffeured in a green 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost on her wedding day in 1997. “He has his ideas, and that’s the car I got married in.”
Even the phrase “the car I got married in” sounds a bit strange— unless you are a Keller, a family in which children are taught car brands at the same time they learn names of countries. When you are a Keller, you’re forgiven for skipping a holiday family gathering but not—for heaven’s sake—the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The world’s most prestigious car show has not taken place without the Kellers since 1982, and they all better be there.
“You don’t miss Pebble Beach,” Keller, 44, says emphatically. “For us, it’s Christmas. I always think of the Elton John song “[Cold As] Christmas (in the Middle of the Year).”
That’s why you’ll see the entire clan—Arturo, his wife Deborah, his four children, Ana, Grace, Arturo and Lorraine and their combined 11 offspring—at the 65th annual event in August. What you will not see is the 83-year-old patriarch behind the wheel when it’s show time.
For more than two decades, Deborah, who has been with Arturo over 30 years, helped showcase their prized treasures. Only in the last two years did Ana, the youngest daughter, enter the exhibition picture.
Despite her many appearances at Pebble with her family, when it came time for her to show in 2013, Keller didn’t really realize what that meant. She simply went through the motions; sympathetic auto collectors offered advice. How she finished was not a concern. What a difference a year makes! In 2014, she was as deflated as a punctured tire when the 1931 Delage D8 SS 100 Fernandez et Darrin Cabriolet she exhibited placed second in its class.
“I was like, ‘It really sucks to win second place.’ I realized I have a competitive side to me that I didn’t [know existed],” she confesses. “In the wine world, anything above 90 is [a] good rating and you can use [it]; but in the car world, winning is winning—or at least at Pebble Beach. I realize it’s two different playgrounds.”
The driven oenophile is the only one of Arturo’s children involved in the car collection and the day-to-day operations of the family business, Keller Estate, the first winery in Petaluma, where she is the estate director, overseeing the vineyard, production, sales and marketing. We’re sitting in the tasting room, where one of Arturo’s cars is frequently displayed as a shining centerpiece for guests and car enthusiasts to admire. Tucked away, out of public view, are Pebble Beach prizes won by the Kellers over the years strategically mounted on a wall. She sips a glass of rosé and nibbles on the cheese and crackers she’s put out for us as she discusses her unique position in the family in terms of both cars and the winery, which are entwined.
The Keller Collection is housed on the grounds of the 650-acre spread, in a building off limits to the public and boasting the world’s finest Mercedes-Benz collection outside of that belonging to the manufacturer itself. How fitting that the Kellers took home Best of Show trophies with a Mercedes at the Concours d’Elegance in 1986 and again in 2001. That initial victory, 18 years in the making, was especially sweet because the Concours honored the centennial of Mercedes-Benz that day.
“It took many years to get to be a Best of Show at Pebble Beach,” Keller notes. “It’s not something that happens every night. You learn there’s a lot of factors [such as] the competition that day on the field. You don’t know whom you’re going to be up against. This is not like a sports competition. You know the players, but you don’t know what they’re going to show up with. It’s that stress and that competitive nature that also rises that day, which is interesting.”
Some entrants don’t like to reveal what they’re featuring. Even when competitors are aware of what vehicles they’re up again, they don’t know how those cars were restored, adding to the angst. In August, she and her stepmother Deborah will show a 1928 Mercedes-Benz 630S and a 1931 Alfa Romeo 6C 1760 Touring Flying Star, since Carrozzeria Touring is being celebrated as one of the special features. Because Ferraris are being spotlighted this August as well, the Kellers will bring the 1952 Ferrari 340 Mexico Vignale that Phil Hill raced in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana, the first time the family has shown a post-war car.
You try to participate in the spirit of what [the Concours organizers are] trying to achieve,” Keller says. “We really feel like we’re partners with Pebble Beach. We’ve grown together. When we started going it was a tiny show; you’d bring your blanket, you’d sit in front to have a picnic and see the cars go. Now it’s this production… One of the things that my dad holds very dear to his heart is that he really helped promote the fact that the cars needed to be drivable.”
When the baby of the family exhibits the 1928 Mercedes-Benz, she can count on her brother and sisters to root her on from the fairway; Arturo has a special gleam in his eye for his daughter, for they have a distinct connection.
Because her siblings are 11, 13 and 16 years her senior, Keller says “They always joke I’m the worst of everything. I’m the youngest. I’m like an only child, and I’m like the eldest. They always made fun of me, but they sort of understand that I got to my dad when he was maybe not as strong. I got the softer side of him. They’re like, ‘You know how to work him better than we do.’ They give me that much credit, but there’s always some child that’s kind of the flavor of the month. We all rotate through the cycle. [Having] three boys did help me, though. I got my brownie points there.”
For years Arturo had only granddaughters. People at the 1999 Concours d’Elegance may never forget the neck-craning sight of Arturo and Deborah and all eight of their granddaughters crammed in a 1938 Lagonda V12 Rapide cruising along the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links before the car was named “Most Elegant Convertible.”
Keller broke the gender spell when she gave birth to Alex 14 years ago. She scored more points with her father when she and husband Diego, a civil engineer, followed up with two more boys, Marco, 12 and Luca, 8. Now the boys accompany their grandfather to auctions, where they sit like royalty in the privileged first row.
Neither of Keller’s two sisters—Lorraine, a musician, and Grace, an artist whose vibrant work is on display at the winery—nor her brother Arturo, who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford and is now a biogeochemistry professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, desire to be as actively involved—at least right now—as she currently is with the esteemed vehicle collection.
“My dad’s got a big character, as you can imagine,” Keller says with a smile. “They like being around him and sharing family time.”
For their father, discussing cars, “are fair game, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It can be tiring sometimes.”
As exhausting as car talk may be, Keller desires to delve further into automobiles. Why not, when one of the best teachers is at your fingertips? Arturo is, after all, considered the ultimate car connoisseur.He possesses the eye, the patience, the knowledge and the ability to not only select the best restorer for a project, but also communicate with that person, a key in ensuring things are done right.
“My next goal,” Keller reveals, “is to get my dad and me to work together in restoration and for him to let me take the lead on the restoration—have him as my counsel and advisor, and just be able to learn really what he’s developed as a skill in terms of seeing where he wants to see the car.
“I want to learn the variables. I’ve worked with him for almost 20 years; I’ve been his daughter for 44, but I feel like this part of my education is still going on.”
The first car Arturo restored, the 1936 Hispano-Suiza Keller has selected for today’s photo shoot, was also the first vehicle he took to Pebble Beach. She was a mere 12 years old.
“I was fortunate enough to be the one with him when he went to the first car shows,” Keller recalls. “We did [an organized] tour and went to a couple of shows. I felt really grown up being with him. It was always a special place.”
Automobiles, for the woman who sat in restoration shops most of her childhood and waited patiently until her father was finished, symbolize family. Her first car memory is the leather smell in the Mercedes-Benz the Kellers drove to their weekend home in Mexico, where a huge lemon tree stood. They’d fill the car with lemons to take home to Mexico City; remembering the mingling aroma of leather and citrus brings a joyous look to her face.
“Cars have been a part of my life since I was born,” Keller states. “They were always part of the family. We, the children, always felt like the cars were our siblings. We’d get jealous once in a while.”
Love and jealousy sometimes go hand in hand as well. It made sense for Keller, who holds a baccalaureate degree in biopharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Mexico and a master’s degree in pharmaceutical development from King’s College in London, to develop more than a passing interest in the cars, since they are, after all, on the property where she works and lives.
Arturo purchased the land in 1989. For years he manufactured car seats; his clients included the Big Five automakers [General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan and Volkswagen]. His passion for vehicles brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area, where car collectors tend to migrate. He kept his vehicles in Marin until his driving passion led him and Deborah to Sonoma. Arturo envisioned the ranch property as a storage facility and garage for his burgeoning group of wheels. A winding road was built to test drive the cars. The decision to plant vines came later, for no one in Petaluma had ever before attempted such a feat. Coincidentally, the Keller family’s origins lie in Aarau, a small town in Switzerland; the surname comes from the German word for “cellar.”￼￼
“He’s a bit of a pioneer in many things,” Keller says of her father. “He’s a passionate person. That’s what he taught us; his passion for cars, his passion for attention to detail, for perfection, for being the best you can in whatever you’re trying to do.”
That’s why she decided to move her own family here from their native Mexico about five years ago. Her love for plants was the reason she had studied biochemistry. There was no way for her to realize that grapes were in her future when she spent holidays in the Loire Valley, harvesting grapes from the vineyards, or when she took a wine appreciation course while working on her master’s, which she completed in 1996. Two years later she began working at the winery, traveling back and forth between countries.
The first few years were spent just trying to understand the vineyard. As things got going she realized that unless she was here full time, the business would never grow. She credits her husband for being so amenable.
After they relocated, she says, “That’s also when I started being able to do more things with the cars; I would get a call from my dad saying, ‘We’ve got this car at the shop. Go and look at it.’ It got me closer to the cars because they were here.”
Just because the family is most recognized for the Keller Collection, does not mean the wines—Keller Estate produces about 5,000 cases a year of chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and a little pinot gris—are shut out of the spotlight. To celebrate Arturo’s friendship with Sir Michael Kadoorie, the billionaire car enthusiast and owner of Peninsula Hotels commissioned Keller Estate to produce a private label chardonnay and pinot noir for his luxury chain. The two will celebrate the 10th anniversary of production next year.
“We get to showcase the best of California throughout Asia, the U.S., and now Paris,” Keller says gleefully.
It’s terrific exposure for Keller Estate, which released its first vintage in 2001 and opened its gates to the public in 2010. With ponds, rolling hills and plenty of art, the estate is one of the most beautiful in Sonoma; the wines are on par as well. The Keller Estate 2005 Precioso Pinot Noir received a 96 rating from Wine Enthusiast, which more recently gave the Keller Estate 2012 La Cruz Vineyard Chardonnay a 93.
“We had the fortune of having this backdrop, which were the cars; it was always very important to make sure that the wines had their own pedigree,” Keller says.
When she has sustainability questions, she calls upon her brother Arturo.
“He loves wine, so I pay him in wine for all of the consultancy that he gives me,” she says with a laugh.
Her winery, she says, is one of the few to make wine exclusively from the fruit in the region. As president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, she works with fellow grape growers and winemakers to define and promote the area, which is currently part of the Sonoma Coast AVA [American Viticulture Area]. Earlier this year, the group applied for its own Petaluma Gap AVA. The time it takes to complete this process can vary greatly, from as little as a year to many years.
Keller is patient, a necessary virtue for anyone in the winemaking business.
“There’s no accelerating it,” she says of her trade. “You just have to be very patient, and I think that’s something that I’ve had to learn in the past years. It just takes time.”
That goes not just for winemaking, but for winning the Concours d’Elegance as well.