What: Kenwood Vineyards has managed to create a wine as exciting, bold and imaginative as its namesake Jack London. In fact, they created three of them, but I thought the merlot was even better than the cabernet sauvignon and the zinfandel.
Merlot has a checkered history in California, with too much of it planted in the wrong places and poorly made. But this wine tastes as if Sonoma Mountain were made to grow merlot.
The wine is a deep ruby in the glass with inviting aromas of plum, cherry and blueberry. It is a blockbuster on the palate with the body of a rich cabernet. The flavors include black cherry, with a touch of vanilla, mint and cola. Elegant tannins give the wine good body. The finish is long and complex.
I have loved California merlot since the 1970s and feel fortunate when I come across one as well made as this one. The folks at Kenwood know they have something special, too. They’re marking the 100th anniversary of Jack London’s death with these wines.
I tried all three during an internet video interview with chief winemaker Pat Henderson. Later, I had the merlot with homemade hamburgers.
“Jack London visited the Sonoma Valley and fell in love with it,” said Henderson. He used the money he made from “The Call of the Wild” to buy a ranch on Sonoma Mountain and continued to add to it over several years.
London bought the Hill Ranch in 1905 when he married Charmian Kittredge. They lived there happily until he died in 1916.
“Jack London was an adventurer and a writer,” said Henderson. “He was an oyster pirate, rode the rails, spent time in jail, was a war correspondent, sailed to Australia on his own boat and went to Alaska for the Yukon Gold Rush.”
He didn’t find gold, but he wrote every day. “Call of the Wild” was serialized in magazines and later published as a book. He also wrote a sequel.
Luckily, the family kept the vineyard and now sells the grapes exclusively to Kenwood. The volcanic ash soil drains well and is perfect for grape vines. The merlot grapes are picked at night over the course of a week, as each block ripens. They are destemmed and put into a tank for a cold soak of 48 hours. Then yeast is added and fermentation begins.
The wine is aged in oak barrels for 19 months, and the blending takes place after tasting of each barrel. The wine is 95 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon.
It is 100 percent adventure and pleasure.
Winery: Kenwood Vineyards makes a wide variety of wines, many of them small lots. They are best known for the Jack London series of wines that are grown in the vineyard once owned by the famed writer and adventurer.
The Jack London property on Sonoma Mountain started as the Kohler &Frohling Winery in the 1870s. London bought it and several adjacent sites for a total of 1,400 acres, which he named Beauty Ranch.
Under London’s supervision the hillsides were terraced and he grew grapes and hay until his death in 2016. Then World War I and Prohibition kept the fields fallow.
The family kept the land intact until 1959 when they donated 1,100 acres to create Jack London State Park. The family remained on the Hill Ranch part of the property and replanted the vineyard in 1972, using many of the terraces London used.
The first vintage of Jack London cabernet sauvignon was produced in 1977, with zinfandel following in 1987, merlot in 1990 and syrah in 2002. The superb quality of that first cab bottling prompted neighboring Kenwood Vineyards to enter an exclusive agreement to purchase the grapes from the Jack London Vineyard. That agreement continues today even though ownership of Kenwood has changed.
Kenwood has been around since 1970, with a cellar dating to 1906.
“About three years ago a new group bought the winery and a lot of local wineries wanted to get those grapes (from the Jack London vineyard),” Henderson said. “The family could have walked away.
“Fortunately, the family said, ‘Let’s see what these new guys want to do.’ We have a long-term relationship with them and we wanted to take the wine up to the next level. So everyone’s happy.”
The Jack London series features a distinctive label with a drawing of a wolf’s head in a circle, which London commissioned for the book. It almost looks like Buck, the hero of the book, is staring at you as you sip the gorgeous wine.
The Kenwood cellar has been modernized and now has more than 125 stainless steel fermenting tanks and large oak upright containers. The winery also has 17,000 small French and American oak barrels. All of this supports Kenwood’s small lot style of winemaking.
This spring, the winery will break ground for a new tasting room built into a hillside.
The winery sources grapes from Sonoma County’s best appellations, including Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain. This promotes many small lots of wine, but also allows the winemakers to make many choices when creating blends.
They have several tiers of wines: Artist, Single Vineyard, Six Ridges, Sonoma, Reserve, Jack London Vineyard and Yulupa (which is available only to restaurants and includes a sparkling wine).
The varietals they work with include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, pinot noir and syrah.
Goes With: We had this beautiful merlot with hamburgers cooked on the grill. I make the burgers thick and juicy with chopped onion inside, so they make a fine meal. The juicy flavors of the charred beef and onions was really set off by the fruit of the merlot. It was a great combination.
We even sipped some cab and zinfandel to see which of the three wines would be best with the burgers. We loved all three wines, but the lush merlot was our choice for the best match. I think it would pair well with a variety of dishes, including roasted tomato and pancetta pasta, rich braised beef, or pan-seared duck breast.
- Wine tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, Kroger, 435 Lewiston Road, Grovetown; new wines presented weekly; free; (706) 619-3420.
- Wine and beer tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, 5-7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, Vineyard Wine Market, 4414 Evans to Locks Road, Evans; (706) 922-9463
- Wine tasting: 7-9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, Wine World, 133 Georgia Ave., North Augusta; featuring Jean-Pierre Chambas’ favorite wines of the southern hemisphere; $25; (803) 279-9522
- Wine dinner: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2, Cucina 503 Italian Restaurant, 503 Furys Ferry Road, Martinez; featuring big California reds; $75 person, $140 couple; (706) 994-0142
- Wine tasting: 5-8 p.m. Friday, March 3, Wine World, 133 Georgia Ave., North Augusta; three whites, three reds and cheeses; $5; (803) 279-9522