Kendall-Jackson Winery was reported incorrectly yesterday in the Food Section as being "on the verge of closing" the purchase of Corbett Canyon Winery. The purchase agreement deadline passed Dec. 31, but the two companies said yesterday that they are continuing discussions that could lead to a relationship. (Published 1/7/88)
The Kendall-Jackson Winery has come streaking out of nowhere like a comet above the firmament. Founded in 1982, the once tiny Lake County (California) winery has grown in five short years to a point where it owns or purchases about 8 percent of all the chardonnay grapes in California, and wins far more than its share of precious metal in the American Wine Competition and other prestigious wine judgings.
In the American Wine Competition of 1987 Kendall-Jackson has finished in the top 10 percent in every category in which it makes wine. In several cases more than one Kendall-Jackson wine has finished in the top 10 percent. In the chardonnay category two Kendall-Jackson wines won platinum medals, and three more won silver medals. In the sauvignon blanc, four Kendall-Jackson wines won gold medals. In cabernet sauvignon, Kendall-Jackson won a gold and a silver. In riesling it took another gold.
At the end of each year the editorial board of International Wine Review magazine studies the results of the American Wine Competition, and chooses the American Winery of the Year based on the overall performance of every winery in the United States. The award represents outstanding achievement in wine making. As you might imagine from the impressive list of accolades above, there was no contest for the 1987 award.
This remarkable performance is all the more impressive when one considers that Kendall-Jackson has been doing this since it began. In fact, the first Kendall-Jackson wine made was the 1982 chardonnay, and the first medal Kendall-Jackson won was a platinum medal and the title Best American Chardonnay in the 1983 American Wine Competition.
How did a winery so new that it doesn't even appear in many wine books rise so rapidly to the pinnacle of American wine?
Ask Kendall-Jackson's proprietor Jess S. Jackson and he'll reply, "Good grapes and good people."
Good Grapes Jackson and his former wife, Jane Wadlow-Jackson (Kendall was the name of two of her ancestors), had a long-time interest in wine. They took their interest commercial in 1973 when they bought property near Kelseyville in Lake County and planted grapes in 1974. Today the farm near Kelseyville is 110 acres.
In 1985 the couple divorced. As a result, Jackson acquired ownership of the vineyards and wineries. In 1987 he acquired a large part of Tepusquet Vineyards near Santa Maria for about $6 million, and is on the verge of closing a $15 million deal for the Corbett Canyon Winery in nearby San Luis Obispo.
The Kendall-Jackson part of Tepusquet is a 700-acre vineyard managed by Louis Lucas, a legendary figure in California viticulture because of his knowledge of grape growing, and his reputation for supplying fruit to wineries that consistently won major awards. Another part of Tepusquet was sold to Robert Mondavi Winery.
Corbett Canyon was originally called Lawrence Winery when it was built in 1979. In 1981 it was purchased by Glenmore Distilleries and renamed. Although Corbett Canyon has no vineyards, it is a large modern winery capable of producing more than 400,000 cases per year. Its wine quality is certainly below Kendall-Jackson quality, but is often good enough to win medals and best-buy awards.
Corbett Canyon also comes with the Shadow Creek line of sparkling wines. Most are made by the expensive French methode champenoise, and some have been exquisite. Recent vintages have been good, but also not up to Kendall-Jackson in quality.
When asked about his goal, Jackson replies that he is not goal oriented, but "opportunistic." He does, however, plan to reach a production of 500,000 cases in the near future. That would make him one of the largest U.S. wineries.
In 1987, before the Corbett Canyon acquisition, Kendall-Jackson produced 140,000 cases of chardonnay (the new acquisitions are primarily chardonnay), 25,000 cases of sauvignon blanc, 20,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon, and 15,000 cases of riesling, zinfandel, moscat canelli and late-harvest sauvignon blanc.
Because his operations have expanded so rapidly Jackson feels obligated to debunk a common misunderstanding: "We are not buying finished wine. We ferment all our wines ourselves." In fact, Jackson claims to be the country's largest producer of barrel-fermented chardonnay. In 1987 the winery fermented more than 90,000 cases of chardonnay in more than 3,500 barrels.
Why such rapid expansion? Chardonnay and cabernet are the most popular wine grapes, and many forecasters predict a shortage of these grapes in the next five years. By purchasing top vineyards Jackson is insuring a fixed-cost supply of quality fruit.
Insuring supply and feeding his expansion are not the only reasons that Jackson goes so far and wide for his fruit. While most wineries are striving to mimic the French tradition of producing a wine entirely from one region or appellation, Jackson believes that blending different taste characteristics from different regions can often make a better wine than a single appellation wine.
Jackson's practice of blending wines from different regions came out of necessity rather than philosophy: in the early years he was skeptical of the quality of Lake County fruit. Now he is a great proponent of it, but his necessity has mothered his cross-regional invention.
"It's really tough for any single vineyard to make the perfect wine, especially the perfect chardonnay," he says. "Tepusquet chardonnays have a hint of pineapple and tropical fruit. Mendocino chardonnays have an apple-like quality. Lake County chardonnays are lean and hard with a very floral nose, but a little short in the finish. Taking fruit from all over the state allows us to layer flavors and create a wine with real depth and complexity. We're not handcuffed to one vineyard or clone." As a result, most of his wines carry the appellation California rather than any prestigious single appellation.
But doesn't this theory sacrifice consistency? Jackson admits that from one year to the next his wines might be less similar in style than single vineyard wines, but he believes that they will be similar in quality. "We want the consumer to believe they will always get a good wine under our label. That kind of consistency is more important than stylistic consistency. We make wine for a broad market. We make wine for consumers, not for collectors."
Jackson's commitment to good grape growing is demonstrated in the first line of his contract with grape growers, which reads: "Let it be understood that the best fruit makes the best wines."
Good People Jackson, 57, is described by his employees as "innovative," "eccentric," a "risk addict," and a "workaholic." He is a lawyer, but in the past year he has put his law practice on the back burner, devoting 90 percent of his time to the winery.
His first exposure to wine came while he was a law student at the University of California at Berkeley in 1951, when Robert Mondavi, then a principal in the Charles Krug winery, conducted a wine tasting at Berkeley. "Mondavi piqued my interest so that afterward I had to ask him a bunch of questions. He was a real gentleman and he talked to me for about 20 minutes."
Jackson is a remarkable man, but much of the credit for his success must go to the considerable talents of his wine-maker, Jed Steele.
Steele, 44, did not really get into wine until his late 20s. He studied psychology at Gonzaga University near Spokane, where he also played basketball. Then came a string of jobs ranging from railroad brakeman to bartender. In the summers of 1968 and '69 he worked in the Stony Hill vineyards part-time, and got his initiation to wine from owners Fred and Eleanor McCrea.
In 1973, at age 28, he entered the University of California at Davis and got his degree in viticulture and enology. While in school he worked part-time at Edmeades Winery in Mendocino County, where he got his first exposure to Mendocino and Lake County grapes.
Upon his graduation, in the thick of the wine boom, wine makers were in short supply, so, with little experience, he was hired immediately as Edmeades' head wine maker. Eventually he became a partner.
After nine vintages at Edmeades, and a philosophical difference among the five partners, Steele was ready for a change. In 1982 he was brought in by Jackson as a consultant to help with the first vintage at Kendall-Jackson. There was a problem with the 1982 chardonnay, the new winery's first wine. The fermentation was not going smoothly, the wine was cloudy, and Jackson feared his first wine would be a disaster. In addition to hiring Steele, Jackson brought in other high-powered consultants, including Rick Forman.
"The 1982 chardonnay was being called dog meat," says Steele. Although Forman and Jackson gave up on the wine "I knew it could be salvaged." Eventually his efforts paid off in the form of the only platinum-medal chardonnay at the 1983 American Wine Competition. Steele now had a full-time job.
His philosophy of wine making is controversial. His chardonnay frequently has 10-18 percent pinot blanc in the blend. And his chardonnay and sauvignon blanc have been criticized by purists because they frequently contain minute, but measurable, amounts of natural residual sweetness. The amounts are usually less than 0.7 percent, detectable only by the best palates, but purists argue that chardonnay and sauvignon blanc should be fermented totally dry.
Steele scoffs, "I don't make wine for philosophers. We're in a hedonistic business. We make wines for consumers. Besides, it's more difficult to make a good, clean, stable wine with 0.7 percent residual than to ferment it totally dry. We have found another color with which to paint our canvas."
As Kendall-Jackson grows, the major challenge will be to manage the growth. But then, to appear on the scene in the early '80s when the wine boom was losing steam and make such a mark so quickly indicates the winery has the stuffing. Smart money is betting that Kendall-Jackson will continue to shine.
1988 by Craig Goldwyn, International Wine Review magazine