Kendall-Jackson should need no introduction. Topping wine sales charts since the ’80s, the winery’s popular California Chardonnay has been joined by everything from Pinot Noir to Muscat Canelli, while their Sonoma County-grown Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from has won praise from the critics.
But do you know Randy Ullom? Winemaster at Kendall-Jackson since 1997, Ullom oversees this large, but family-owned company’s winemaking operations.
I sat down for a chat with Randy at Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Estate and Gardens, to find out how he got into wine, a winemaster’s perspective on Sonoma County, and the secrets of Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. With his easygoing manner and cowboy mustache, Ullom appears more like he’s just walked out of a dude ranch than the offices of one of the nation’s top wine brands — with maybe more than a passing resemblance to Sam Elliot’s character, “The Stranger,” from the cult film The Big Lebowski.
What was your first wine inspiration?
Well, it wasn’t an epiphany wine, it was just that — I hate to admit it in public — but I liked wine better than beer in high school! And then I ended up down in Chile — not realizing it was a big wine country — and really learned a lot about wine and winemaking in the vineyards down there. I decided to get a degree in viticulture and enology in lieu of the mining degree I was going after.
I went down there, actually, to go skiing. I was studying mining in Utah, with a little minor in skiing, and that took me down to Chile. And there I really learned the world of wine. So, it wasn’t any one single wine, it was just the life of wine, the life around wine: great people, great food, great wines, good dirt.
Did you start out in Sonoma County?
My first official job was in Ohio, Lake Erie, and that was followed by five years in upstate New York. And then I came out to California around ’81, working for 12 and a half years for Cecil DeLoach at DeLoach Vineyards, and in the past almost 22 years for Jackson Family Wines.
I was the international guy, the startup guy, my first five years at Kendall-Jackson, and started the winery in Chile, the winery in Australia, the land and the winery in Argentina, and did a lot of projects in Italy and the south of France.
I’m an East Coast kind of guy, who moved to California … and looking at all the places up and down the state, Sonoma kind of fits more with my personality. It’s more diverse, it’s got the canoeing, the river, the redwoods, the camping, the ocean, close proximity to a city; it’s a really beautiful place. Things are more spread out here. It’s got everything. And I’ve never left, and probably will never leave, ’til the day I die.
If you found yourself, in your international travels, on a desert island, do you have a desert island wine?
Desert island wine would be Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. I’d drink that all day, all night. Not sure how I’d keep it cool, but …
Oh, assuming a solar-powered refrigeration unit washed up on shore, as well.
Do you have a favorite wine bar in Sonoma County?
I enjoy Willy’s up in Healdsburg, it’s one of my favorite places, and they always have a nice wine list.
Is there a favorite wine that you make here at KJ?
On the red side, my favorite would be our Cabernet called Trace Ridge, and that’s from Knights Valley. The grapes come from the slopes of Mount St. Helena there, with spectacular views. A very pristine spot, very magical.
In your day-to-day business of making wine, do you use the word “terroir”?
Oh, we use terroir all the time, yeah. We, especially myself, have a firm belief in the fact that “wine is made in the vineyard.” It starts with the dirt, and then on top of the dirt, it all starts with the site, which encompasses the dirt, the weather pattern, your location, your climate, be it cool or warm, the elevation of the vineyard, the aspect of the vineyard, the percent slope of the vineyard, all of that is terroir. Yeah, terroir is huge.
What’s the secret to Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay?
We have fantastic coastal vineyard sources, most our own! Getting the proper ripeness and nice nuances of oak to start. It’s just that we have good alcohol levels, which brings on the air of sweetness, and a lot of fruit. And the other thing that we do, that helps make it America’s favorite Chardonnay, it’s all barrel fermented — real barrels. Really, honest to God, every single bottle. Everything we do at K-J is done—if it should be in a barrel, it’s in a barrel. We don’t use any staves, any chips—we have a lot of barrels, and we stir every one of those barrels. For Vintner’s Reserve, that wine is stirred every month—for Grand Reserve, twice a month. That adds that richness and roundness and fleshiness, and the lees stirring does all the creaminess, so it comes across as a nice, solid wine for the price.
Do you have time to punch down some special lots, or is the job more pushing papers?
You won’t find me punching down, but you won’t find me pushing a lot of papers, either. For me, it’s calling the pick at the appropriate time, and letting the guys in the cellar do their job. From there, once it’s converted to wine, I’m the only one in the company that tastes every single lot that we’ve got. It’s when you do those tastings that you fall in love with your special lot, because we have so many of them.
Does it take a lot of Sonoma County microbrews to make great wine?
It’s palate cleanser at the end of the day! Lord knows we have plenty of great beers here. I like that IPA from Lagunitas, and I like the Russian River Brewery. The folks down there on Fourth Street they make some pretty good stuff.
What’s your favorite Sonoma County getaway?
I love to go on a canoe trip down the Russian River. I love that river, and I love those canoe trips. To go up towards Alexander Valley, hop in there and canoe down to Healdsburg, it’s heaven for me.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.