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A Kendall-Jackson Cabernet and Merlot Showdown

Reserve versus reserve

When I received two sets of wine samples, both Cabernet and Merlot from the 2012 vintage, and both labeled “Reserve,” I got to thinking about that term. There is nothing inherently fishy about “Reserve,” yet it isn’t an official designation in the way that “Sonoma County” is an appellation. In their World Atlas of Wine, preeminent wine critics Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson describe “Reserve” as a “much-used term which generally has very little meaning.”

A winery can slap “Reserve” on anything, and Kendall-Jackson did just that way back when, with their successful Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. That’s their entry-level label, so what to call it when they kicked it up a notch? Grand Reserve.

KJ doesn’t make it too hard to trade up — the Grand Reserve wines only drain your dinner-wine budget by an extra $2 to $4. And there are differences in production: For instance, the Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is fermented and aged in both American and French oak, while the Grand Reserve is usually treated to 100 percent French oak, according to Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson’s wine master. But can I taste the difference?

At first whiff, it would be difficult to tell these wines apart from one another. All are a deep, opaque ruby hue, and smell, at first, mainly of oak dust and iron filings. This is after decanting in carafes for about half an hour, and then letting the two-ounce pours rest in big, Schott Zwiesel glasses for another half hour.

If you plan to open these young wines in the near future, I’d recommend a long decant — that the (covered) pours were still solid the following day, and smelling not of day-old wine, may be a clue.

But if they aren’t revealing so much aroma right now, the wines did reveal something to me: their identities. Blind tasting through a randomized lineup, I guessed every single one correctly.

That’s not to toot my own flute — just to emphasize my surprise and satisfaction with the discovery that yes, KJ’s Vintner’s Reserve and Grand Reserve, with only nominal differences in price, do indeed show themselves true to tier.

Kendall-Jackson 2012 Vintner’s Reserve Sonoma County Merlot ($24)
The Merlot hints only at sandalwood and dusty oak at first, revealing raspberry and vanilla on the first sip. A spunky twosome of tannin and fruit flavor spreads swiftly across the palate, finishing longer and with deeper, iron-tinged fruit after a day open. Just as you might expect from the varietal and price, this is the most accessible of these wines.

Kendall-Jackson 2012 Vintner’s Reserve Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($24)
Despite this wine’s comparatively easygoing, plush palate, its subdued but telltale aroma of dark berries — what the English call black currant, but I call ornamental shrub berries that your mother told you never to pick — gave it away as a Cab. A bit of blackberry on the finish, both jam and fresh, with seeds. Not overly complex, but for a major brand’s entry-level Cabernet, it’s got a serious feel.

Kendall-Jackson 2012 Grand Reserve Sonoma County Merlot ($26)
After performing retronasal gymnastics, I had to resort to an elimination round to guess this one. There’s a relative of the infamous “bell pepper” aroma here, but more like dried jalapeño pepper powder—put your nose into a jar of it at the Savory Spice Shop and you’ll know what I mean.

If there’s cassis and dark fruit, it’s held back by some aroma descriptors from the local butcher counter: meat and blood sausage. Dark and grapey on the palate, it finishes with the bitterest of unsweetened cocoa.

This reminds me that ever since the funny guy said the funny thing in that movie — you know, the thing about Merlot — every other maker of Merlot jacked up the tannin like it was armor plating against insult. Or so it seems.

Kendall-Jackson 2012 Grand Reserve Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($28)
Stone dust, steel, iron, and oak dust — sound good, so far? Maybe it didn’t start me salivating, but the persistence and quality of the wine’s savor reminded me of some mostly forgotten stroll through a high-end boutique filled with expensive, questionably useful but beautiful things handcrafted from wood, and inspired me to think about the winemaker’s choice of oak: The better French oak wine barrels can cost as much as nice piece of furniture, and you can bet that the wood smells nicer, too.

The Grand Reserve spent just a few months longer in oak than the Vintner’s, with just a few percent more of it being new, but it’s got a much different character. The tannins are the hairiest of the lot here, fine yet grippy, a little like — if you’ll allow me this cross-sensorial hallucination — hearing a cat lick her fur with that rough cat’s tongue.

Meanwhile, a shadow of deep, sweet fruit — plum sauce, cassis, take your pick — sidles past the palate. Nicely priced for the quality, nevertheless this Cabernet should reward the buyer if cellared for a year or two.

This recipe from Kendall-Jackson Chef Justin Wangler is supposed to pair with Merlot; I’d try it with the Vintner’s Reserve.

Recipe: Grilled Rib-Eye with Bearnaise Mayonnaise

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Serves: 4


  • 4 rib-eye steaks (12-14 oz. each)
  • Vegetable oil
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the béarnaise mayonnaise:

  • 4 black peppercorns, crushed
  • 8 sprigs fresh tarragon
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup white wine, such as Chardonnay
  • 1 cup good mayonnaise, such as Best Foods or Hellmann’s
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • 8 sprigs tarragon, picked and chopped
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh parsley, picked and chopped
  • Kosher salt
  • Tabasco sauce


Remove steaks from refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat the grill and scrape the cooking grate with a wire brush. Using tongs, take a folded paper towel coated with vegetable oil and carefully rub the cooking grate with oil. This helps to prevent sticking and ensures a nice sear.

Pat the steaks dry using a paper towel. Rub the steaks with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill over medium-high heat* for 2 minutes, flip steaks over and grill for 2 minutes. Flip steaks, turning them 90 degrees this time and grill for 2 minutes. Flip steaks over again and grill for 2 minutes more.

Remove steaks from grill, flip and place on a plate. Flipping the steaks will help them to not overcook during the resting process. Cover loosely with aluminum foil. Allow to rest for approximately 10 minutes.

* This recipe is perfect for the average gas grill. If using an open flame, make sure the cooking grate is not too close to the heat source. You may want to keep a spray bottle with water close by, in case the fire flames up due to the marbling in the steaks.

For the béarnaise mayonnaise:
Tie the peppercorns and 8 sprigs of tarragon in cheesecloth. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, simmer with the shallots, vinegar and wine until the liquid has been reduced by approximately 90 percent. Allow to cool.

Place mayonnaise in a stainless steel bowl. Fold in the lemon juice, béarnaise reduction, chopped tarragon and parsley. Season to taste with salt and Tabasco sauce.

To serve: Place steak on serving plate and serve 1 to 2 tablespoons of béarnaise mayonnaise on the side.

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