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Kendall Jackson continues to add to its Napa holdings.

Kendall-Jackson continues to add to its already omnipresent vineyard and winery holdings
in Napa Valley.

Napa Valley (AVA)

Kendall Jackson’s Napa Valley
Holdings Are Impressive

...and so is its reliance on AVA designations for its wines.

by Alan Goldfarb
March 14, 2007

Quietly, and curiously somewhat inconspicuously, Kendall-Jackson – the U.S.’s ninth largest wine company – is deepening its footprint in Napa Valley’s varied soils. Through KJ’s fine-wine division, Jackson Family Farms, and further with its high-end Artisan & Estates entity, the corporation finds itself going head-to-head in the valley with Constellation Brands (at No. 2) and Foster’s (No. 5).

Constellation, with its Icon Estates brands in the Napa Valley (Opus One, Robert Mondavi, Franciscan, Mount Veeder) and Foster’s with its Beringer-Blass division (Beringer, Stags’ Leap Winery, Etude, St. Clement) seem to be concentrating on single vineyards. KJ, on the other hand, is focusing more on producing wines from 11 of the valley’s soon-to-be 15 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). (Note: Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, listed at No. 10, has just begun to make single-AVA wines as part of its Conn Creek Winery portfolio.)

A&E’s winemaker, Chris Carpenter
KJ’s Artisans & Estates winemaker,
Chris Carpenter.
With its Atalon and Lokoya brands and its recently purchased La Jota and Freemark Abbey Winery, A&E winemakers Thomas Peffer, Ted Edwards and Chris Carpenter are sourcing fruit from just about every region in the valley beginning with the 2005 vintage. A&E owns three of the 11 vineyards in the Napa Valley from which it uses fruit – Keyes on Howell Mountain, La Jota Vineyard it bought last year, and Veeder Peak on Mount Veeder.

A spreadsheet of those 11 vineyards reveals these variables: Altitude ranges from 40 feet (Carneros Hills) to 1,800 (Keyes). The age of the vines runs the gamut from four years (Côte de Geyser, Keyes) to 10 (Carneros Hills, To Kalon). With the ’05 vintage, the pH goes from 3.50 (Carneros) to 3.89 (Spring Mountain). The listed alcohol percentages range from 12.3 (Freemark Abbey Ahern) to 15.3 (Spring Mountain).

All wines used 100 percent new French oak with the exception of the Atalon Carneros Merlot (10% used American, 72% used French), and Atalon Calistoga Cab (50% new French). All toast levels were medium-plus, save for the two aforementioned wines, which were medium. All the wines spent from 14 to 16 ½ months in barrel except for the Atalon Merlot, which remained in wood for only 10.4 months.

With the exception of A&E’s Cardinale Estate brand in Oakville (which shares a winery with Lokoya) that produces a single Cabernet Sauvignon from a blend of AVA vineyards, each of A&E’s wines does and will get an AVA designation on their labels.

Atalon, which is in Calistoga (whose AVA is pending) and is made by Peffer, has and will have a Los Carneros-designated Merlot (from the Carneros Hills Vineyard), an Atlas Peak Cabernet (Stagecoach), an Oakville Cabernet (Beckstoffer To Kalon), and a Calistoga Cabernet (Côte de Geyser). A Napa Valley-designated Cabernet and Merlot are also produced at Atalon.

Atalon vineyards and barn
Atalon’s vineyard and barn in early Spring.
Edwards is the winemaker at historic Freemark Abbey in St. Helena, which was purchased by A&E a few months ago. Freemark has been sourcing Cabernet since 1970 from the equally historic Bosché Vineyard in Rutherford and will continue to do so. The Sycamore Vineyard, also in Rutherford, which has been used by Freemark for 23 years, will also be continued as a vineyard/AVA designate. In addition, the Ahern Vineyard at the winery will be given a St. Helena AVA designation.

That leaves the Cardinale, Lokoya and La Jota brands under the umbrella of Chris Carpenter. The winemaker harvests grapes from the Stags Leap District (Taylor Vineyard), Howell Mountain (Keyes), Diamond Mountain (Carol), Spring Mountain (Spring Mountain Vineyard), Mount Veeder (Veeder Peak), and from Beckstoffer’s To Kalon for the Cardinale blend.

Carpenter spoke with with me about his philosophy of winemaking as it pertains to the single AVA-designated wines which he produces.

Alan Goldfarb (AG): Why is Artisans & Estates focusing on AVAs and not necessarily on vineyard-designated wines?

Chris Carpenter (CC): I think there’s some value in the couple (sic) of the wineries that are out there doing them as single-vineyard designates. But it gets confusing to the consumer when you have 10 different vineyard-designated wines. It’s so much easier to have it as an AVA designation.

AG: Why is that easier?

CC: The level of detail that has to be asked of the consumer at the vineyard-designated level is much greater than at the AVA level. If the consumer has an understanding of what an AVA brings to the wine – body, flavor, and structure – they’ll have a fairly good understanding of what is in the middle. If you used every vineyard in the Napa Valley, that’s a lifetime of work. Many growers don’t even know that information.
Lokoya's line up of Mountain Cabernets from Napa
Lokoya’s Cabernet program highlights the different terroirs of Napa’s Mountain appellations.

The picking-call and fermentations are identical. The differences are between the vineyard and the AVA. And that is what we’re trying to do at Lokoya.

AG: You’re using Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder and Diamond Mountain as individual wines. What are the differences?

CC: There are some base flavors or appellation-specific flavors that you get out of those wines. They need to stand apart … and they need to be recognized as having characteristics that set them apart from one another.

(For instance), my style is very different from (Diamond Mountain winemakers) Dawnine Dyer (Dyer Vineyard) or Rudy von Strasser’s (von Strasser Winery). It’s like that “Iron Chef” thing – they’re each given the same raw product – say cod from the Grand Banks (of New England) – but they each have their individual characteristics.

AG: Are we going to see more producers going to AVA-designated wines?

CC: The folks at Ridge and at Rosenblum started this. Each winery has its own kind of mission and how it decides it wants to meet market demands. Lokoya has been a great success and it’s worked for us. I don’t know if others want to invest in the knowledge it takes.

AG: Save for a Merlot made by your colleague Tom Peffer at Atalon, all of the A&E wines are Cabernet Sauvignon-based. We now know, after 40 years, that Napa Valley primarily means Cabernet. But since you have several properties, what about product variation?

CC: Lokoya’s style is California Cabernet Sauvignon. Part of embracing an appellation is to do what it offers you. And that’s a ripe style. It’s something that France can’t achieve. Back in the ‘70s, we were making wines to emulate the French. Now, we don’t have to do that. Now, they’re more a reflection of California.

AG: What I’m getting at though, is sameness. There doesn’t seem to be much variation in Napa Valley Cabernets; and many seem to be big, showy wines. That’s why I applaud A&E for at least trying to do this by separating your wines along AVA lines.

Cardinale vineyards
Cardinale Estate vineyards in Napa Valley's Oakville AVA.
CC: I want to make a California wine. And part of making a California wine is (to make) a reflection of the style that this area has to offer. Dialing back over-the-top winemaking is a good thing. Wines have to be balanced. That’s where the critics have to focus. … We all have something to offer and it’s a little bit different, and the consumer can have a choice. You might like redheads and I might like blondes. We don’t argue about it – it’s just a preference thing.

The key is always balance. That’s how you need to approach everything in this business. That’s when you start getting the hemming and hawing about the style. You can still achieve that big California style, but with balance. We’d be losing something if we all went back to wines we made in the ‘70s.

AG: I’m not advocating going back to making wines as were produced in the ‘70s, but something’s got to give. As you point out, balance is everything, but I contend that we’re seeing a lot of wine out there – albeit wines that the consumer seems to like – that are out of whack.

CC: The variety is Cabernet (here) but we haven’t gone to a specific style or a consumer plan. We always deal with the pressures that the critics put on us, but there’s enough integrity in the industry (to make balanced wines).

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