Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens 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 has won praise from the critics.
Randy Ullom, winemaster at Kendall-Jackson since 1997, oversees this large, family-owned company’s winemaking operations. 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.
If you found yourself, 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, that's assuming a solar-powered refrigeration unit washed up on shore, as well.
What’s the secret to Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay?
We have fantastic coastal vineyard sources, mostly our own. To start, it's getting the proper ripeness and nice nuances of oak. We have good alcohol levels, which brings on the air of sweetness, and a lot of fruit. And the other thing, which helps make it America’s favorite Chardonnay, is that it’s all barrel fermented — in real barrels, every single bottle. Everything we do at K-J is done right — 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.
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. I have a firm belief 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. Terroir is huge.
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 the IPA from Lagunitas, and I like the Russian River Brewery. The folks down there on Fourth Street make some pretty good stuff.
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.
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.
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. 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’m an East Coast kind of guy, who moved to California … and looking at all the places up and down the state, Sonoma County kind of fits more with my personality.
It’s more diverse, it’s got canoeing, the river, the redwoods, camping, the ocean, close proximity to a city; it’s a really beautiful place. Things are more spread out here. It’s got everything. I’ve never left, and probably will never leave, ’til the day I die.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.