Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center near Fulton, at the northwest edge of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County.
I work for a winery that produces 3,000 cases of wine each year, all the varietals unblended, all the grapes from one organically grown vineyard. Our Chardonnay is from great grapes, and we let them shine, fermenting and holding the juice in stainless steel, and foregoing secondary, malolactic, fermentation.
Kendall-Jackson is the opposite of the winery I work for in so many way. First, it is a giant, a Goliath, no longer merely a single winery entity, but an empire made up of many successful wineries, about three dozen, bought up by the late wine industry icon Jess Jackson.
Looking at Kendall-Jackson as a stand alone winery, ignoring Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, and the other wineries within it’s domain, Kendall-Jackson produces about 5 million cases of wine each year. The most popular Kendall-Jackson wine sold is their Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, accounting for roughly 20% of their wine quantity sold, or 1,000,000 cases each year.
Stylistically, this Chardonnay is significantly oaked. The wine also undergoes malolactic fermentation; a secondary fermentation that changes malic acid, the green apple flavor notes often found in the juice of Chardonnay grapes, and converts it to lactic acid, cream or butter notes that do not exist in Chardonnay grapes. It is often suggested that this wine packs a sugar punch, either from adding back sugar directly or in the form of added grape juice concentrate.
Kendall-Jackson has a Chardonnay with dominant oak, toast, cream and vanilla notes, buttery, smooth, sweet, and round. It is worth noting that none of these are notes or attributes that come from the Chardonnay grape, all are winemaking manipulations.
There are many in the wine industry who suggest privately that good grapes don’t need such manipulations, winemaking tricks, and that Kendall-Jackson’s style spawned a host of heavily manipulated cheap wine imitators, notably Two Buck Chuck, similarly producing wines without variety correctness, vintage variations, or sense of place.
There are others who would characterize such assertions as “sour grapes.”
It could easily be argued that most consumers of wine prefer the complete predictability, the absolute consistency, that a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay offers; that sameness of experience being preferable to the unpredictability of a single vineyard designate wine, a wine held in stainless steel without malolactic fermentation, a wine showing different fruit notes year to year, as terroir – the interplay of land, weather, and grape within a vintage – and the changes that brings to the wine, becomes a factor in the final bottled product.
In addition to the Vintner’s Reserve wines, sourcing grapes from throughout California, making consistent wines using every tool at the winemaker’s disposal, Kendall-Jackson makes smaller lot wines, many from single vineyards, and many with much greater varietal character and vintage variation.
Notably, many of these smaller lot Grand Reserve and Highland Estates series vineyard designate wines garner 90 plus ratings from Robert Parker Jr in his Wine Advocate, Steve Heimoff in Wine Enthusiast, and Charlie Olken in the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines. Whether that is owing to making wines to Parker’s palate, jammy fruit bombs, heavily oaken, tannin laden, not shy with alcohol percentage, or whether the wines made coincidentally in this style happen to be appealing to Parker is beside the point; what matters for Kendall-Jackson is that, in addition to making consumer friendly Chardonnay, they are able to make wines that capture critical claim from the country’s top wine scorers.
The folks at the Wine Center were uniformly friendly, cheerful, informed, and justifiably proud of their wines. They have heard the criticisms about overly consistent wines, and understandably are not overly concerned. What some see as a fault, is just as easily seen as an enviable result of winemaking choices, reinforced by spectacular sales success.
Again, when your winery sells a million cases of just one Chardonnay, five million cases overall, owns almost three dozen other wineries, and enjoys critical acclaim for the small lot, vineyard designate, hand crafted wines released; well, it becomes pretty easy to let small criticisms roll off your back.
For my visit to the Wine Center, rather than a simple tasting of wines, I enjoyed the Reserve Wine & Food Pairing tasting. Regularly $25, I tasted complimentarily. A definite benefit of being a hugely successful wine enterprise, Kendall-Jackson employs professionally trained, very skilled chefs creating seasonal expressions using the bounty of their own on-premises culinary gardens to pair with “small-production, limited release wines.”
Chef Matthew Lowe delivered each food course, describing the food, the wines, and how they pair well.
Here is the tasting menu from my visit:
2009 Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc $20 - Grilled Estate Baby Fava Bean Pods
2008 Jackson Hills Chardonnay $25 - English Pea Soup
2006 Highland Estates Seco Highlands Pinot Noir $35 - Buckwheat Crepe with Smoked Ham Hocks and Bellwether Farms Carmody Cheese
2006 Highland Estates Alisos Hills Syrah $35 - Sweet Tea Brined Niman Ranch Pork Belly Slider with Syrah BBQ Sauce
2005 Highlands Estates Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon $70 - Lamb Kefta with Pomegranate Molasses
2008 Late Harvest Riesling 375 ml $25 - Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry Gelle and Icebox Cookie
2006 Late Harvest Chardonnay 375 ml $25 - Mama Frischkorn’s Caramel Corn
First came the fava bean pods and English pea soup. I know most people would write about the wine, but these two taste treats were nothing short of brilliant. Regularly, fava beans need to be shucked then peeled before preparing, but these little pods were just babies, tender, and completely edible. Grilled with just a little sea salt and lemon juice, they paired perfectly and played off the lemon and grassy notes of the Sauvignon Blanc.
The English pea soup was cold, a chilled soup made from tender spring peas, topped with a couple of drops of olive oil. The oil allowed for a smart pairing with the buttery styled Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. The chilled soup was the most delicious dish, perfect, flavorful, amazing.
Up next came the Buckwheat Crepe, Slider, and Lamb Kefta. Chef Lowe also brought out a glass of the 2006 Highland Estates Taylor Peak Merlot $40 and I tasted the foods with the four reds, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The earthiness of buckwheat paired nicely with the Pinot Noir. Pork Belly anything is always welcome, and this slider was delicious with both the Syrah and the Merlot. The Merlot was pretty tasty, big and rich, a Cab lover’s Merlot.
The Cabernet Sauvignon was a food, in and of itself. Bigger than the lamb, this may have been the least successful pairing. Both were delicious separately, but they didn’t really elevate each other like some of the day’s other pairings.
Late Harvest wine is not the first wine I reach for, but both the Riesling and Chardonnay were delightful, especially paired with the fantastic buttermilk panna cotta with strawberry gelee. The caramel corn was a fun and pretension busting snack, not really my favorite, but perfectly made.
The wines were all good, some were great, all were worth tasting. Coming from a very small production winery, managing a tiny tasting room, made me appreciate what Jess Jackson achieved with Kendall-Jackson: palatial manor house set on 120 acre garden and vineyard estate, an enormous tasting salon, a team of on-site chefs, enormously successful wines by any definition, industry changing embrace of social media marketing, both a dedication to growing awareness of Sonoma County and it’s wines and a regional outreach beyond Sonoma County, empire.
I had a really enjoyable time at the Wine Center, I recommend a visit, and further I recommend taking advantage of the professional chefs on property; spend the $25 for the constantly evolving Reserve Wine & Food Pairings tasting (one wine and four of the seven food creations have changed since my recent tasting), your experience will be unrushed and top flight – mine was.