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Tasting the new K-Js


I was up in Sonoma late last week for my annual tasting of the new Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve and Highland Estates wines. I do this each year with Randy Ullom, who’s K-J’s chief winemaker, and the man responsible for overseeing the winery’s vast production of millions of cases. (I profiled Randy in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)

The Grand Reserves are reserve-style varietals that are priced a few bucks higher than K-J’s Vintner’s Reserves and are worth the extra cost. Like the V.R. wines, they’re produced in significant quantities (except for a spartan 1,000 cases of a North Coast Sauvignon Blanc). The Grand Reserve tier is a solid one; this year I gave 90s and 91s to the Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, whose suggested retail prices range from $21-$27, but in reality you should be able to find them for less than that.

It’s the Highland Estates line, however, that always impresses me. Not that many people realize Kendall-Jackson produces such high-quality wines, in such miniscule quantities, at such fair prices. The highest production, on the 2007 Camelot Highlands Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley, is only 3,700 cases, but most of the wines are well below 1,000 cases. These are truly artisanal wines. Randy has explained to me how the team — which certainly includes Jess Jackson — studies potential vineyard sites for years before making the decision to go ahead and bottle any one of them. Currently, there are 13 Highland Estates wines, including 3 Chardonnays, 3 Pinot Noirs, 1 Syrah, 2 Merlots, 3 Cabernet Sauvignons and 1 red Bordeaux blend, called Trace Ridge. These are serious, pampered wines that can compete with almost anything in California. Pricing on the Pinots, Chardonnays and the Syrah is below $35, making them real bargains. The Bordeaux reds get up to $50-$70, but they’re easily as good as wines costing far more. (The Trace Ridge, at $125, is the outlier.) Two things to know about these wines are that K-J uses only grapes grown in premium coastal regions (i.e., NO Central Valley or Lodi), and that the K-J philosophy is to provide quality for less money than the competition. If all this sounds like I’m shilling for K-J, I’m sorry, but this is a great company, and you have to give credit to Jess Jackson’s impeccable taste.

I also stopped by Hartford Court to taste through 9 of their new 2007 wines, with Don Hartford and winemaker Jeff Mangahas. (Hartford Court is part of the Jackson Family of wines.) If you’re not familiar with Hartford Court, it’s because they keep a low profile, but I can tell you that this is an extraordinary winery producing some of the most distinctive Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels in California. Don Hartford explained how they source fruit only from vineyards with forceful personalities that, somehow, manage to be different from their neighbors. This is, of course, the essence of terroir. You need only to taste the nervy elegance of the Seascape Chardonnay, or the Chablis-like limpidity of the Stone Côte Chardonnay, or the power and authority of the Hailey’s Block Pinot Noir, to understand that these are wines of intricate authority.

My full reviews on all these wines will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.

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