Tasting Kenwood wines from the store is nothing like tasting with the winemaker himself. So much the better if you can do it after a tour of the vineyards and winery. Seeing the historic estate sitting amongst acres and acres of vines, really gives the “big name brand” wines a sense of time, place, and personality.
A lot of people don’t know that Kenwood Vineyards has roots as far back as 1906 when it was Pagani Brothers Winery. Feel free to picture overall-wearing farmers carrying jugs of wine in and out of the barn doors, because that was pretty much the extent of the operation. No single-vineyard varietals, no real finesse of viniculture or winemaking, but I suppose that was the style of the day.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Kenwood we know now was born. Of course, that era of Sonoma wine history had its own challenges. The famed Robert Mondavi had just began his empire on the other side of the mountains — aka Napa — and that seemed to be where all the cool kids were setting up shop. Those who chose to farm the coastal-side Sonoma were deemed, well, not smart. But Mike and Marty Lee, and brother-in-law John Sheela were smart — smart enough to cultivate the land and grow the grape now synonymous with Sonoma — Pinot Noir.
Of course, back then they didn’t have an American name for the varietal yet, so simply referred to it as “Burgundy.”
Obviously the winery has come a long way since these early days of wine experimentation. In fact, it seems that Kenwood has this winemaking thing down to a science, with its fancy equipment and its 550,000 plus annual case production.
And while that may be more or less true, there’s a certain homegrown, grass roots quality when you visit the estate and that has mostly to do with chief winemaker Pat Henderson. As an intern, he actually studied under original founder and winemaker Mike Lee, learning all the nitty gritty of wine work and forming a foundational relationship with the land the grapes are harvested from. Indeed, Pat Henderson is as hands-on as any boutique winemaker in the industry and he takes pride of place and product when it comes to Kenwood Vineyards. In fact, he told me that, as the chief winemaker, there is not one bottle that goes out that he hasn’t personally vetted.
And that means tasting everything at all stages of production. From the lip-smackingly sour fermenting Sauvignon Blanc…
To the fruit-bomb that is a yet-to-be-oaked-and-aged Cabernet Sauvignon…
And even making sure the final product is bottled correctly…
You can’t truly appreciate all the time and effort Pat and his team put into winemaking without actually tasting the wines. On a recent trip, Pat allowed me to taste each of their most popular varietals (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon) and experiment with the difference between their Sonoma Series (their appellation series), Six Ridges (wines consisting of grapes from just a few specially selected vineyards), and their Single-vineyard Series (self explanatory). This is something I’ve never had the opportunity to do. Sure, I’ve had several appellation series from various vintners and recently I’ve accumulated quite a few single-vineyard wines. But to taste them side-by-side was truly enlightening. Because what I learned was that one isn’t necessarily better than the other, rather each has its own unique flavor profile that can be appreciated for what it is.
For example, the most popular Sauvignon Blanc, hands down, the Sonoma Series Sauvignon Blanc for its balance in fruit, acidity, and just a pinch of softness due to the use of oak.
But I must admit, when it came to the red wines — namely the Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Sauvignon, my palate was most pleased by the single-vineyard offerings. Again, it’s not that they were better, more like they were more specific. Which, may sounds like a “duh” statement, but I’d never noticed before this experience how much more detail I can taste in a single-vineyard wine — and that’s something I’m learning to appreciate more and more.
So, thank you Pat for letting me play palate games with you!
Visiting the Winery
I absolutely recommend visiting the winery to taste and experience these wines for yourself. And, if you can, do a comparative tasting of the Sonoma Series and the Single-Vineyard Series (maybe bring a friend to help you sip all those wines). The other reason you may want to visit sooner rather than later is that the historic barn slash tasting room you see pictured above may no longer be the tasting room in about a year from now. Don’t be scared! Pat assured me they’ll find a way to preserve and utilize the old building, but that it’s just not ecologically or economically logical to keep it open to the public like they do now.
Instead, the new tasting room will feature elevated tasting and tour options amongst Kenwood’s beautiful vineyards.
What to Try:
Like I said, when you’re on location, try as much as you can and ask questions. Let this be a learning opportunity — all of the staff works directly with Pat, so if they don’t know they answer, they’ll know who to ask.
But if you’re looking for a few specific recommendations, please read through a few of my specific Kenwood reviews:
Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc 2014
Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Chardonnay 2015
Kenwood Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2013
Kenwood Vineyards Six Ridges Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2014
Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Zinfandel 2013
Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Zinfandel 2012
Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
If you haven’t read my one-on-one interview with Pat Henderson, visit Winemaker One-on-One: Pat Henderson. Of course for more information about Kenwood Vineyards, their tasting room, and wines, visit the Kenwood Vineyards website. Again, many thanks to Pat Henderson for hosting me. I can’t wait to come back…Cheers!
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