Winery Profile: Kenwood Vineyards
Kenwood is Deep Rooted in Sonoma
by David Lawrason
Sonoma County has deep sense of history, more so in my view than neighbouring Napa, or any other California wine region for that matter. One only needs walk the famous square in the town of Sonoma to feel it; or visit Buena Vista, the oldest winery in California. My favourite way to soak in the history and ambiance of Sonoma is to drive north out of town on the Sonoma Highway (12), and wind slowly through the bucolic Valley of the Moon. Past rolling vineyards, beneath forest canopies, through the tidy villages of Glen Ellen and Kenwood, and nowadays past some pretty impressive wineries.
I can’t remember when I first did this drive – 40 years ago perhaps. But in 1984 I spent almost a week camped in one of the several regional and state parks while I visited wineries in the area. One of them was Kenwood Vineyards, in the village of the same name. And I well remember meeting a very enthused young winemaker there by the name of Mike Lee, who had a particular passion for sauvignon blanc. We tasted through several batches and vintages one afternoon. He had only begun making sauvignon three years before.
This sticks in my mind partially because sauvignon seems to fit the verdant ambiance of this region, and partially because very few California wineries were taking sauvignon blanc seriously at the time. This was before New Zealand sauvignon took the world by storm, and before “sauv blanc” became one of the world’s leading ‘varietal’ wines. In California in the eighties it was a grape more closely associated with Bordeaux, often barrel aged and bottled as Fume Blanc.
Today sauvignon blanc remains a calling card at Kenwood. Mike Lee has passed away, and the winery is now owned by Pernod-Ricard of France, but Kenwood continues to make sauvignon blanc every year, most of it in their Sonoma County series wine. And it is in the hands of an experienced winemaker named Pat Henderson who is just as passionate and knowledgeable about this grape. He did his first crush at Kenwood as a student in 1983, and has been the chief winemaker since 2003.
He recalled that in the early days the approach with sauvignon was to “blend in a bit of chardonnay and use a fair amount of oak” very much in line with the style of the day. “But that has completely changed,” he said. “No chardonnay, and just a small portion rests in large, old, neutral balance for a bit of texture. We are increasingly using more fruit from cooler area like Carneros and Russian River Valley to achieve more freshness”.
In fact, they are using fruit from 30 different estate and contract vineyards in Sonoma. “It takes a month to pick all our sauvignon”, he explained. “Our philosophy is to pick only at peak ripeness, so that moment is coming at different times in different sites”. The blending of the wine takes considerable time and effort, but the result is a sauvignon that is very complex and detailed, combining fine herbs, lemongrass, citrus and sub-tropical guava. And it manages to exude richness and freshness at the same time.
Sauvignon may be my sentimental favourite, but Kenwood actually makes more chardonnay than sauvignon. The Sonoma County series edition that is available in Ontario is sourced from several sites but 80% are in the Russian River Valley – and specifically the Green Valley sub-region – to capture good acidity. It is 75% barrel fermented, aged and lees stirred for six months, then blended. I found the oak in the 2014 sitting a bit heavy at the moment, but there is good fruit and complexity, and indeed firm acidity pushes through on the finish.
Among collectors, Kenwood is likely better known for their work with cabernet sauvignon, and particularly two more expensive labels. The Artist Series Cabernet has long been one of the most collectible cabernets in California, a selection of best barrels and destined for long ageing. It is seldom seen here in Ontario.
The Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon is a personal favourite that often shows up at VINTAGES. It is also historic, and a signature cabernet of the Sonoma Valley appellation. It is from a single mountainside vineyard once owned by famed American novelist and social activist Jack London, who penned some of his most well known works on the property, like Call of the Wild. He died there in 1916 at the age of 40.
According to Pat Henderson, this mountain was also actually the site of one of the largest wineries in Sonoma in the 19th Century.
Jack London farmed this site, which is now encompassed by a state park bearing his name. He was called a progressive farmer at the time, planting several crops which he farmed sustainably. He also introduced eucalyptus trees, which to this day lend a unique mintiness to the cabernet sauvignon. The deep lava-based soils of this extinct volcano provide excellent drainage to help create the power and structure of the wine. And although it is above the fog line its east-facing aspects means it is catching cooler morning sunlight, and is in shade during the heat of the late day.
I have been very impressed by recent vintages of Jack London Cabernet, and Mr. Henderson has the explanation. “We have been in drought through 2012, 2013 and 2014. It was the driest three year stretch in 180 years! The crop loads have been good, but the berries didn’t size up.” (Which has meant wines of deeper concentration).
“If you liked the 2013, wait until you try the 2014. It just may be our best ever” he added.
Some of the concentration can also be experienced in the 2013 Sonoma County series Cabernet Sauvignon, another fairly regular listing in Ontario. It too is a large production wine sourced from warmer Sonoma sites like the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek and home vineyards in Sonoma Valley. It contains a small percentage of cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, and is aged about 23 months in French and American oak.
Kenwood doesn’t source fruit from outside Sonoma. And to me that says something about a winery’s sense of place in the world. There is just something solid and authentic and honest about the place, the people and the wines. That feeling comes I guess from my history with the property, and the fact that Kenwood is going strong 45 years onward and writing the modern history of wine in Sonoma.
Click on the wine name or bottle image to see full reviews from four WineAlign critics on the four Kenwood wines now available in Ontario. Wishing that there were more.
For Licensee orders, please contact Courtney Henderson, Wine Specialist, Corby Spirit & Wine Ltd: [email protected]
“This is always one of the most impressive Sonoma cabernets. It’s full bodied, energetic, powerful and dense with nicely sculpted tannins.” – David Lawrason
“Kenwood makes a clean, ripe, nicely balanced warmer climate style sauvignon blanc without oak influence…Quality/price and pleasure line up quite nicely here.” – John Szabo. MS
“This is a well structured, fragrant, dense red with ripe cassis and black cherry fruit with dark chocolate and nutty tones with some herbal complexity.” – Steve Thurlow
Kenwood Chardonnay 2014 (in VINTAGES Sept. 17, 2016)
“This is rich and fully built by the barrel. The vintage’s warmth means tropical fruit, namely pineapple, as per the Kenwood style.” – Michael Godel
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More about Kenwood Vineyards
Kenwood Vineyards was established in the 1970s in the very heart of Sonoma, where together with a handful of wineries, we started premium winemaking in this region, long before the region’s AVAs were even created.
As one of California’s premium wine pioneers, we now benefit from a strong heritage and pedigree. We initiated our passion in an original Sonoma barn building that dates back to 1906 where we have remained since . We stay true to our historical past by producing wines from each vineyard separately, as we did 46 vintages ago. We have been crafting the iconic Jack London single vineyard wines for nearly 40 years, and as we look towards the future, we craft new premium wines and invest in our home and our vineyards. Our new ranges are pure expressions of the rich and diverse terroir of Sonoma.
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