Reevaluating Kendall-Jackson Wines - Confronting a Stereotype
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 5, 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
When you see Kendall-Jackson's familiar grape leaf logo on a wine label, what do you think?
Let's be blunt: Call it wine-snobbery if you must, but for many serious wine enthusiasts, this giant Sonoma County producer - particularly its ubiquitous Vintner's Reserve line - has gained a reputation for bland, sweet and one-dimensional mass-market wine.
Consider Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay in particular: Undeniably popular, it sells more than 2 million cases of wine - 24 million bottles every year! But few of those bottles end up in the hands of wine geeks, who decry the very formula that made it popular, a recipe that began literally by accident in the 1982 vintage, in which fermentation is stopped short of the finish to reserve a distinct note of sweetness in the wine.
It sold famously, and won major awards; but critics likened this method to McDonald's purported practice of adding a taste of sugar to its french fries in a similar bid to heighten the product's appeal to mass-market tastes.
So when Kendall-Jackson's PR chief George Rose invited me to lunch with the company's wine maker Randy Ullom during their quick visit to town this week, I prepared to smile politely and say noncommittal things.
Ullom, an affable, rather quiet chap with a ready smile and a whisk-broom mustache, smiled as he poured out samples of the just released 2002 Chardonnay and 2001 Merlot.
These wines did not taste like the Vintner's Reserve I remembered. Ullom's grin broadened as I sniffed, swirled, looked confused, swirled and tasted again.
I was pretty blunt about it: "There's tannin in this Merlot," I said, perhaps a little accusingly. "And acidity, and ripe black-cherry fruit. Isn't Merlot in this price range supposed to be soft and easy stuff?"
"Times are changing," he said. "It's baby steps, but we think the market is changing, and our wines are, too."
The Chardonnay, too, jostled me off my expectations. Not just malolactic butter on the nose, it showed a frankly interesting blend of smoke, buttered toast and ripe pineapple fruit. On the palate, remarkably, it carried the pineapple flavors on a bone-dry structure, with no trace of the familiar Vintner's Reserve sweetness.
In fact, Ullom said, the Chardonnay is down to 0.5 percent residual sugar in the 2002 vintage, below the so-called "threshold of perception" of sweetness for the average taster. He said it has come down gradually, a little more each year, from a distinctly detectable 0.8 percent when he took over as the company's winemaster in 1997.
Despite the size of production, Ullom said, he takes care to vinify all the Chardonnay destined for Vintner's Reserve in separate lots identified by source - more than 1,000 lots, 100 percent Chardonnay from sources in Monterey, Santa Barbara and the North Coast counties of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino for the 2002 vintage - in the interest of maximizing flavor and fruit intensity. All but a tiny fraction of the wine is barrel-fermented and all of it is put through malolactic fermentation, procedures that Ullom says bring body and balance to the fruit from cool "coastal" regions. (Kendall-Jackson was one of the prime movers behind a controversial, and ultimately unsuccessful, recent proposal to create a new "California Coastal" designation that could be applied to wines made from grapes grown throughout a broad swath of coastal regions.)
Enough technical talk: The proof is in the tasting, and this is a new breed of Vintner's select. I'll be tasting it again, analytically and "blind," when it reaches our market in coming months, but based on this first tasting with the wine maker, I'm provisionally dropping my knee-jerk negative reaction to Vintner's Reserve.
Ullom brings an unusual background to his post. In contrast with many of his peers with degrees from the University of California and all their experience in the Golden State, Ullom, a Michigan native, earned his viticulture and enology degree on the distinctly Midwestern campus of Ohio State University in 1975. He spent three years touring Chile's wine regions (and has hair-raising stories to tell about being in Santiago during the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in 1970). He worked at Eastern U.S. wineries in Ohio and New York before moving to California, where he made wine at De Loach before moving to Kendall-Jackson in 1993, where he worked on the company's Camelot brand and its Chilean and Argentine properties, Vina Calina and Tapiz, before taking over as Kendall- Jackson wine maker in 1997.
In addition to the new Vintner's Reserve releases, Ullom and Rose brought along barrel, tank and pre-release bottle samples of a variety of Kendall-Jackson wines, which rise from the mass-market level to the tiny-production, dramatically priced Stature Bordeaux blends, Meritage wines that stake Kendall-Jackson's claim on the high end of the wine market at a cool $120 per bottle with fewer than 1,000 cases made.
The company will hold that price line despite the widely publicized California wine glut and downward pressure on prices, Ullom said, adding that they consider the Stature competitive with sought-after labels, and invite blind comparison. He also said there'll be no "Two Buck Chuck" equivalent coming from Kendall-Jackson, as they intend to hold the price - and quality - line on Vintner's Reserve no matter what the competition does.
Here are my brief notes on the wines presented, noting that this was a non-blind tasting in the company of the wine maker, from small glasses in a lunch setting in a private, catered hotel meeting room. Please note also that many of these wines were sample bottles drawn from barrel or tank and still have a long way to go before release; in the natural order of wine making, they may show quite differently when they eventually reach the retail market.
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay.
Clear straw-gold. Attractive smoky, buttered-toast and pineapple aromas. Flavors consistent, rich and appealing, structured and, to my surprise, fully dry. (Released November 2003, about 2 million cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2001 Vintner's Reserve Merlot
Another stereotype-breaking surprise, this dark-garnet wine offers a deep wild-cherry scent with hints of spice and brown sugar. Cherry and chocolate flavors, warm and mouth-filling, are structured with good acidity and smooth but perceptible tannins. (Released October 2003, 338,452 cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Grand Reserve Chardonnay
Pale gold, rather hazy in this unfiltered and unfined tank sample. Smoky, consistent in style with the Vintner's Reserve but showing more forward pineapple fruit and a bit more warmth, apparently due to a higher (14%) level of alcohol. (Tank sample, ready to bottle. Scheduled for release February 2004, 72,245 cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Taylor Peak Estate Merlot
First of three small-production Merlots from single hillside and mountain vineyards, this one from fruit grown at 800 to 1,200 feet above sea level in Sonoma's Bennett Valley near Santa Rosa. Very dark reddish purple. Plummy and a bit vegetal, with a high-toned volatile note that blows off to reveal ripe cherry fruit and rather green tannins. (Barrel sample. Scheduled for release December 2004, 856 cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Piner Hills Estate Merlot
From a Russian River Valley hillside vineyard at 200 to 300 feet. Very dark reddish-purple. Deep, rather closed plummy fruit with a pleaant mineral quality on the nose and palate. Juicy fruit, more forward in flavor than the nose, well balanced by sharp acidity. (Barrel sample. Scheduled for release December, 2004, 276 cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Sable Mountain Estate Merlot
From an 1,800-foot mountain vineyard near Boontville in Mendocino. Inky reddish-purple with a day-glo edge. Refined Merlot fruit, tight and tannic at this point in its evolution. (Barrel sample. Scheduled for release December 2004, 798 cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2001 Stature® Napa Meritage
On the shy and tight side, just a hint of black fruit and spice in the aroma. Mouth-filling, textured and balanced flavors, black fruit, pepper and spice, acidic and tannic. Very immature, and that's why it will rest at the winery for another year or more before it's shipped. (Bottled. Scheduled for release March 2005, 613 cases made)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Stature® Napa Meritage
Very closed and tight. Perfumed, a hint of anise. Showing more on the palate, coffee and tobacco leaf and rich black fruit, pronounced but smooth tannins. Ullom notes that it's a blend of Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder fruit for ageworthiness, plus To Kalon and Rutherford Bench grapes for up-front fruitiness in its youth. (Barrel sample. Scheduled for release March 2006, 945 cases made)
It was a pleasure to meet Randy and George and the local and regional wine folks who came with them; and it was a useful reminder to me - and I hope to you - that it's always a good idea periodically to confront and skeptically re-examine our stereotypes, about wine and, for that matter, just about everything else.
For a virtual visit to Kendall-Jackson, click to the winery Website,