Wine That Says “Count On Me”


When he started Kendall-Jackson Winery thirty-two years ago, Jess Jackson's vision was that everyone should have access to a luxury bottle of wine, wherever or whoever they are. The goal was to make premium wines at accessible prices. Judging by the scope and scale of Kendall-Jackson today, we can all agree he made good on his vision. Kendall-Jackson, affectionately known as “K-J”, may be one of the first wines you ever loved. The operation has grown considerably since its first eighty acre orchard purchased in 1974. And not despite, but perhaps in spite of this growth, Kendall Jackson continues to produce some of the best value priced bottles coming out of California today. These are reliable, dependable, timeless wines. You can always count on them to deliver what you need. The question is: how does a large scale operation like Kendall-Jackson make this profound consistency and quality a reality?
Randy is how. I had a chance to sit down with Randy Ullom, Winemaster at Kendall-Jackson, during the calm before the excitement of their 20th annual Heirloom Tomato Festival. One of my first questions was "What is a Winemaster?”

Randy has a big job. He oversees wine making, blending and wine growing for all of Kendall-Jackson’s winemakers and grower teams up and down the coast from Sonoma to Santa Barbara. After twenty-four harvests he's very much up to the task, and he projects his relaxed confidence with the role and in the teams with whom he works. For Randy, harvest is a favorite part of the job, when he travels up and down the coast, visiting the vines, tasting lots and organizing the huge effort required to get all of the grapes picked and safely to the presses at exactly the right time.

I was lucky enough to share some of what Randy calls “breakfast wine”. In this case it was a glass of Jackson Estate Camelot Highlands Chardonnay 2014 from the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara. It’s a breakfast wine because, quite simply, there’s a bowl of fruit in the glass. The fruit is so powerful that it leaps to the nose. Furthermore, it received 91 points from Wine Spectator.

Randy also says the Santa Maria Bench is the Filet Mignon of Santa Barbara County, and is genuinely excited about the wines he can produce from the region. He wants these wines to be full of approachable fruit but also creamy. His team stirs the lees every two weeks to ensure the finished product matches their intention. It's a lovely wine with cool fruit notes of peach and mango and a soft creamy finish.

Randy's winemaking strategy at Kendall-Jackson is to produce wines with full-on ripeness, that are fruit forward and rich, voluptuous, with developed aromas and flavors that leap from the glass and beckon for another sip. The process is a never-ending endeavor, and during harvest the challenge is to get the grapes from the vine to the presses as fast as possible. All of the grapes are pressed locally to where they are grown, but eventually the juice travels to Sonoma where bottling happens every day of the year.

Kendall-Jackson produces five levels of wine: Stature, Jackson Estate, Grand Reserve, Vintner's Reserve, and K-J Avant. Each level is suited to a particular day of the week, from Tuesday night’s K-J Avant California Sauvignon Blanc with Cajun Chicken Stew and Netflix, to Saturday night’s Stature Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon with candle-lit Beef Tenderloin on a white-clothed table. Each bottle gives you exactly what you want, when you want it. It's humbling to consider the scope of operations that would support an effort at this scale with such consistent quality. But like any superior leader, Randy won’t let on how integral to this process he truly is.

The Heirloom Tomato Festival itself is lively and bustling already by the time we begin talking about it. After 20 years, the event is refined and impeccably delivered. Restaurants from the area share foods prepared from their best tomato recipes. We sampled tomato inspired lobster rolls, chocolate covered cherry tomatoes and vanilla bean ice cream with tomato jam. The center of the event sports a large tent with one hundred and fifty varieties of heirloom tomato, diced and served raw with fleur de sel. Attendees are invited to vote for their favorite tomato to win best in show. It’s well worth scheduling your visit to wine country around this particular event.

The festival was started in the Kendall-Jackson tomato gardens and has grown into a food and wine show that brings fans and wine club members from miles to enjoy the day under the tents. The wine is of course flowing freely. Randy's suggestion is to match the color of the tomato with the color of the wine. For green tomatoes, try Sauvignon Blanc. For the yellow gold varieties, Chardonnay. Merlot goes with the yellow red and medium red tomatoes, and finally the purple/black/deep red tomatoes are good for Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Tomatoes are still abundant right now, so it’s not too late to try something like this at home.

This isn’t the end of Kendall-Jackson’s story. Under Randy’s leadership, their wine program is continuing to evolve. Look for an expansion in K-J’s Rosé program to account for the growing demand of this popular style. Randy and his team are also are working on a Pinot Noir that will carry the new Petaluma Gap appellation on the bottle. Petaluma Gap is not an AVA yet, Randy says, but it will be soon. Keep your eyes on the bottle.

What are your favorite dependable wines? Which producers can you count on to give you what you want, when you want it? Let us know in the comments.

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