Wed 19 May 2010
I received some wine samples from Freemark Abbey not long ago, and I thought, “Gosh, how nice to hear from this venerable Napa Valley winery,” and then I remembered that Freemark Abbey is owned by Kendall-Jackson. Same thing happened with Matanzas Creek and Murphy-Goode. Other labels owned by the Jackson Family Wines division include La Crema, Stonestreet, Byron, Lakoya, Verite, La Jota, Edmeades and Cambria. Kendall-Jackson itself, which started producing the well-known Vintner’s Reserve line with chardonnay in 1982, has several tiers of labels to accommodate many price points. Though at 5.5 million cases a year in 2009 (according to San Francisco Business Times), K-J doesn’t compete with Diageo, Gallo, The Wine Group or Constellation, the company makes and sells a hell of a lot of wine.
So why does billionaire owner Jess Jackson — or to be realistic, his marketing honchos — need more labels?
Just released are two wines in the new Jackson Hills label, intended to fit between the K-J Grand Reserve and Highland Estates tiers. The basic label, the ubiquitous Vintner’s Reserve line, consists of 11 wines priced between $14 and $18. The Grand Reserve roster includes 14 wines that cost from $15 to $25. The limited edition Highland Estates label offers 16 wines priced from $30 to $75. Obviously there was a crying need for a niche right there between the $15 to $25 range and the $30 to $75 sequence, and the Jackson Hills label is it.
Another new label from Jackson Family Wines is Acre, a line that focuses on grapes from the Central Coast, a vast “appellation” — it covers seven counties south of San Francisco — about as useful as two left arms on an infielder. Since the Acre Chardonnay 2008, for example, derives completely from Los Alamos Valley in Santa Barbara County, why not label it Santa Barbara instead of Central Coast? The narrower the appellation, the more impressive it is (though not necessarily a better wine). In terms of price — $16 — the Acre wines seem redundant; they fall smack in the middle of the Vintner’s Reserve line-up. All right, so I’m skeptical about American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — or AOCs in France — that encompass extensive geographical realms, though the Central Coast is distinguished by proximity to the Pacific and its morning fogs and by its inland mountain ranges, but saying that chardonnays from Monterey and San Luis Obispo share a “Central Coast character” is disingenuous. As far as usefulness is concerned, of course the Central Coast designation serves a purpose when grapes from more than one county go into a wine.
So, how are these new wines in the Jackson empire?
With the exception of the Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, they’re not particularly compelling, or, to put the case another way, I don’t recommend them with much confidence.
The Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, is a clean and bright chardonnay fashioned in an expansively fruity style that’s neither tropical nor too oaky. Typical pineapple and grapefruit flavors are set into a fairly opulent texture deftly balanced by bracing acidity and keen limestone-like minerality. The wine is quite dry, moderately spicy and a little austere on the finish. Does it sound familiar? Yes, this is an exemplar of a specific style of California chardonnay, tasty, sleek, sensually satisfying and undemanding. Very Good+. About $25.
A bigger deal is the Jackson Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, from Knights Valley, the northern section of Sonoma County noted for cabernet production. How big a deal is it? So big that it feels as if woody tannins and dusty oak are sifting through your teeth. This wine is very intense, very concentrated, and if there’s fruit in there somewhere — and there must be, right? isn’t that the point? — I couldn’t find it. I whomped the cork back in the bottle and left this wine to try the next morning; rising fresh from my guileless repose, I was greeted by a mouthful of austere and astringent tannins. Perhaps I simply disagree totally with the way this wine was made, but it gets no nod from me. About $40.
Nothing quite so drastic mars the three Acre wines that I tried; their flaw is to be merely ordinary and free of varietal quality. (Well, the chardonnay is pretty darned flawed.) The Acre label was launched in May 2009 by White Rocket Wine Co., a division that Kendall-Jackson created in Oct. 2006 to create and market “fun” brands aimed at a younger generation of wine consumers; several existing labels, such as Tin Roof, Camelot and Pepi, were shifted to White Rocket, which was based in Napa. I say was because White Rocket was absorbed by Jackson Family Wines in August 2009 and some staff members were laid-off. Other “fun” labels developed by White Rocket included AutoMoto, Dog House, French Maid, Geode, Horse Play and so on.
Anyway, the Acre Chardonnay 2008 is fermented half in oak and half in stainless steel, goes through full malolactic, ages four month in French oak sur lie with frequent stirring of the lees, and boy does it show. This is a very bright, boldly oaky and spicy chardonnay made in a style that does not marry its extremes; on the one hand, its vivid baked pineapple and grapefruit flavors grab your palate with succulent lusciousness, while on the other hand the excessive dryness and woody austerity sear your taste-buds. Unworkable; unbalanced; a Big No. About $16.
The Acre Merlot 2007 and Acre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 are not unbalanced or unwieldy; they merely feel interchangeable. These truly are cross-county wines: The Merlot ’07 derives 72 percent from the small Hames Valley AVA in Monterey, 20 percent from San Benito County and 8 percent from San Luis Obispo; the blend is 80 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent petit sirah. The Cabernet Sauvignon ’07 originates from Raso Robles in San Luis Obispo (68%), San Benito (20%) and Monterey (12%). These geeky details may be tedious to peruse, but they indicate the level of thoughtfulness that went into assembling these two wines, though perhaps “assembled” isn’t the method we most seek in the wines we admire.
The problem is that these two reds feel more generic than individual. Each is quite brambly and berryish, bursting with spicy oak and etched with mocha; each is earthy and minerally, in the graphite-tinged area; each has a circumference of dusty, slightly charcoal-like tannins. The cabernet does offer a hint of black olive and cedar to differentiate it minutely from the merlot, but I don’t call that enough. I’ll give these Good+ and say that wines costing $16 should deliver more personality and dimension.
Now, not to be a complete curmudgeon, I’ll say that I was delighted with the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Summation 2009, California. Introduced to the line-up last year for the 2008 vintage, this wine is perfect for sipping throughout the summer into the fall. It contains a smorgasbord of grapes — sauvignon blanc (33%), viognier (27%), chardonnay (15%), semillon (9%), roussanne (6%), pinot blanc (6%), riesling (2%) and muscat canelli (2%) — from five counties dominated by Lake (63%) with major contributions from Mendocino (23%) and Santa Barbara (21%). The result is a winning and very pretty wine that offers a seductive bouquet of jasmine and honeysuckle, pear and lychee, with hints of almond and just-mown hay. The wine is quite crisp and refreshing, with cheeky acidity to tantalize the palate and lovely flavors of roasted lemon, melon and pear imbued with quince and cloves and an energizing element of chalky limestone. The finish is dry and limestony and brings in a bracing touch of grapefruit bitterness. This would drink nicely with grilled fish and seafood or summery salads and pastas. Very Good+. About $17.
In fact, it seems to me that the most reliable wines for the regular consumer in the extensive Kendall-Jackson line-up are the Vintner’s Reserve wines, that ones that started the whole dance back in 1982. They may not always be exciting, but they are true to their originator’s philosophy and their grape varieties and they generally taste real.