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Fifteen Years of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve:
Here's to the Good Ol' VR

by wine writer Richard Paul Hinkle - The author of six wine books, Richard Paul Hinkle also wrote the script for "Wines Of A Place" narrated by the late Raymond Burr. And, while he has no scripted lines, you might look for him as the Warris Family lawyer in the new Disney film "Mumford" starring Ted Danson.

SANTA ROSA, Calif - May 8, 1998 - In the Fall of 1983, without any fanfare whatsoever, the first Kendall - Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay was produced on the south shore of Clear Lake, Calif. In 1998, as the 15th vintage is introduced to market in April, K-J VR (as it is affectionately known) is arguably America's favorite Chardonnay.

Careful sleuthing, backed by personal experience, reveals a unique, even intellectual success story. You see, the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay was the result of an idea, the then-wild notion that the complexity of Cabernet-based wines drawn from a blending of varieties -- the backbone of Cabernet, the fleshiness of Merlot, the aromatics of Cabernet Franc, the color of Petit Verdot, the powerful fruit tannins of Malbec -- could be brought to Chardonnay through the artful blending of vineyards the full length of California's fog-cooled coastline.

This revolutionary thought was first exposed to me and my colleagues at a tasting/blending seminar hosted by Jess Jackson in April, 1985, where he showed all the components that would go into the 1984 Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay...and challenged us to employ those same components and come up with one better.

It was an intriguing challenge. I had the chance to play with 11 different wines, coming from vineyards ranging from Mendocino to Santa Barbara counties, with wines lush and tropical (Tepusquet, Santa Barbara), hard and flinty (Chandon, Napa-Carneros), and lean and lemony (Durell, Sonoma-Carneros).

Fiddling with various blends, it was easy to see that the results were clearly more distinctive, more complex, more drinkable than any of the single vineyard wines standing on their own. "The primary aim is to emphasize the fruit," said Jackson at that very first seminar. "We're not looking to highlight the acid, the alcohol or the wood. We believe that we can get layer upon layer of complexity by blending wines from a variety of vineyards, then add to that with more than 50 percent barrel fermentation and more than half of the wine put through malolactic fermentation."

A 10th anniversary tasting/blending seminar, held in April 1995 with the 1994 vintage, served to re-emphasize the success of this intriguing intellectual exercise. For my blend I pulled from the green apples of Mendocino, the tangy pineapple and mango of Monterey and Santa Barbara to construct a wine crisp with green apple, silky with lemon and cream, and juicy in the mouth, with just a hint of caramel in the finish. The wine is still drinking quite well today. (Indeed, we drank my blend of the 1984 for nine years after the vintage, and when that case was depleted we wished only that we had more!)

"It was this wine that gave Jess Jackson the germ of the idea that became 'flavor domaines,'" says Kendall - Jackson's winemaster Randy Ullom. "The Vintner's Reserve is the wine that everybody likes, a wine that's palatable to the masses. That's because it's a fruit-driven wine, where all that fruit carries through from nose to mouth."

How do you go about constructing the Vintner's Reserve? "We start, of course, with a broad, regional mix of wines. We go after that mineral-like, high acid component from Mendocino County. We get our apple component from the Russian River Valley, while the Carneros region contributes pear fruitiness. Monterey has become a major component, with its lemon-lime citrus aspect, plus some tropical notes. And, of course, there's Santa Barbara County, with its fleshy tropical fruits, from pineapple and grapefruit to mango and papaya.

"In addition to great vineyard sources, there's the huge capital commitment -- we require twice as many presses, for example -- for all the whole-cluster pressing that allows us to retain so much of the grape's natural fruit. We will barrel ferment as much as 80 to 90 percent of the Vintner's Reserve this year."

What's the blending process like? "Oh, it's a challenge," says Ullom, alert behind a drooping mustache. "We start with thousands of components, reduce them to mere hundreds, then down to 20 or so. If we find that we are lacking in forward fruit, we massage the blend with some of our stainless steel lots. If we need more texture, we bring in more of our barrel fermented, barrel aged lots. It's a real challenge, but it's real fun, too."

You can see it in the wine. The 1997 Vintner's Reserve fruit is evident from the first sniff, with plenty of grapefruit and pineapple and fresh lemon, with a creamy texture and hints of green apple and lilac in the finish. "I like the lush texture," admits Ullom. "The barrel fermentation really fills the mouth, from the sides to the back, and it's long on the citrus and tropical fruit, with nice toast from the oak."

The runaway success of the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve ultimately led to the Grand Reserve, a collection drawn from the "star" vineyards, then individual vineyard-designated Chardonnays from the best of those: Camelot, from Santa Barbara County and Paradise from Arroyo Seco, Monterey County.

"The Grand Reserve is entirely fermented in French Oak, and stays in the barrel until July or August with 100 percent malolactic fermentation and some lees stirring to add texture," explains Ullom.

"In a way, it's similar to the Vintner's Reserve, except we turn everything up full blast. We look for the most powerful fruit and oily, rich fat texture that's just short of ponderous and then we smack it good with French Oak!"

And the 1996 Grand Reserve is just that, with forward graham oakiness that's spicy, and plenty of apple and pear-like citrus fruit that is layered and complex and lingers in the mouth, inviting the best cuisine you can come up with to match its ineffable combination of weight and elegance.

The Vineyard Designates shine in their own generated light. The 1995 Kendall-Jackson Paradise Vineyard Chardonnay is flush with delicate orange blossom aromas, and tangy in the mouth with white peach, lemon peel and orange peel fruit. The 1996 Kendall-Jackson Camelot Vineyard Chardonnay is plush with pineapple, mango and sweet lemon, artfully framed with toasty, French bakery-scented oak, finishing with just a hint of crisp anise.

The ultimate legacy of Kendall-Jackson's immensely popular Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay is that it has brought the fruit back into play for Chardonnay in America. You see, Chardonnay was very near the drowning point, about to be dismissed forever as a boring white wine, notable only for its immense alcohol and splintery, burnt toast oak.

Vintner's Reserve saved this noble white varietal from a fate -- dare I say without risk of hyperbolic excess -- worse than death. Best to be quietly grateful and toast that grace-filled state with another glass of the good ol' "VR."

Santa Rosa, CA
James Caudill
Mike Winters

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