Sonoma Roots Run Deep
Rough wooden boards frame the century-old barn that houses the Kenwood Vineyards tasting room. Kenwood was a stop on our whirlwind tour of Sonoma as part of the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference. While the rustic barn exemplifies the winery’s connection to the region’s history, Kenwood’s focus on small lot wines is certainly contemporary.
Kenwood Vineyards was established in 1970 at the site of the Pagani Brothers Winery, a historic wine cellar built in 1906. Kenwood was founded by John Sheela and his brothers-in-law, Mike Lee and Marty Lee. Mike Lee, who passed away in 2011, was considered a master winemaker and helped establish Sonoma Valley as one of the first AVAs.
As we walked from the van to the tasting room, the sign, “the love in the air is thicker than the smoke,” provided a stark reminder of the fires that ravaged Sonoma and Napa. Luckily 95% of Kenwood’s grapes had already been harvested and none of the estate property burned.
Inside the historic barn, we were greeted by hospitality coordinator Joshua Brown and a rare sight: a sparkling Kenwood wine. We sampled some fermented “love,” the first-ever Kenwood Blanc de Blanc, as we kicked off our visit. This is a delicious 100% Chardonnay sparkler.
Layers Of Quality
Kenwood is a bit of a paradox. They produce a lot of wine – more than 500,000 cases annually. You can find their entry level wines from coast to coast in the $15 to $20 range.
While this lower range is clearly geared toward mass consumption, don’t confuse them with a “beverage wine” producer. They also manage the iconic Jack London Vineyard, which produces superb Zinfandel and Cabernet. The Kenwood Artist Series has been a critical success and one of our favorites.
In an effort to make sense of the conundrum of quality, we grabbed a fresh glass and sampled the special edition 2016 San Francisco Giants Sonoma County Chardonnay. Light and crisp, it has tropical notes.
We ascended to the next quality level with a pair of Six Ridges wines. Grapes from this series are sources from some of the best vineyards in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Coast. The Six Ridges 2016 Russian River Valley Chardonnay has bright flavors and muted oaks. It undergoes battonage (stirring) every two weeks and has a malolactic fermentation. The result is rewarding complexity. The Six Ridges 2015 Pinot Noir, also from Russian River Valley, is another winner that is aged for 13 months in small European oak barrels.
The wines from Jack London Vineyard are perhaps the best known produced by Kenwood. Since 1976, they have been the exclusive producer of wines from this historic vineyard. The vineyard is on the ranch once owned by author and adventurer Jack London. In case you forget who he is, the wolf’s head on the the bottle will remind you of “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” two of his most famous novels.
I’ve always considered the Jack London Vineyard wines to be a great value, delivering a premium wine experience for much less than expected. The 2013 JLV Zinfandel and 2013 JLV Cabernet Sauvignon each have a splash of Syrah and are aged in a combination of 75% French and 25% American oak. They benefit from the red volcanic soils in the Jack London Vineyard. The Cab sells for $35 and is excellent.
After a tour of the winery, including the tank room and an impressive array of processing equipment, we wrapped up our visit on a high triple-note.
Other wineries have artist series, but the best I’ve experienced is Kenwood. There is artistry in the bottle as well as outside.
The 2013 Kenwood Artist Series sports an abstract work by Clare Rojas. The shifting shapes and colors are a good match for the wine.
Chief Winemaker Pat Henderson, who has been calling the shots since 2003, selected Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards primarily on hillsides in the Sonoma Valley AVA. To add complexity and balance, 1.5% each of Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc were added to the blend.
We then enjoyed a taste of the Lone Pine Vineyard 2013 Cabernet, which is part of the Single Vineyard series. Josh informed us that this Cab is the backbone of the Artist Series wine. This was rich with ripe berry notes and a whiff of cocoa. It has a luxuriously long finish. At $44 SRP, it was too good a deal for me to overlook.
The grand finale was a taste of a library wine, the 30th anniversary Jack London Vineyard 2006 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. While the other reds we sampled had boldness, this one had finesse that comes with age. The tannins were beautifully integrated in this smooth, elegant wine.
Yes, you can reach for Kenwood Vineyards for a dependable budget-friendly wine – but the Kenwood crew is crafting small lot wines that will delight seekers of premium vino. If you haven’t tried Kenwood in a while, consider this your invitation.