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. Prices shown are the manufacturer's suggested retail price.
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay ($12)
Kendall-Jackson 2001 Vintner's Reserve Merlot ($12)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Grand Reserve Chardonnay ($20)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Taylor Peak Estate Merlot ($35)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Piner Hills Estate Merlot ($35)
Kendall-Jackson 2002 Sable Mountain Estate Merlot ($35)
Kendall-Jackson 2001 "Stature" Napa Meritage
Kendall-Jackson 2002 "Stature" Napa Meritage
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.
What do you think? Does your knee jerk like mine does when you encounter certain producers? Should it? This article is available for interactive online discussion in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. If you would like to comment in more detail in a round-table online discussion with wine lovers around the world, see the message topic that begins at
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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003