Oh, Kendall-Jackson. Do we talk history first…or get right into that experiential garden and its world-renowned culinary gardener? Or, do we start with the food and wine pairings? Oh, or all of the must-have bottles?
OK, let’s talk history first.
Since the 1980s, Kendall-Jackson has been a leader in the wine community in Sonoma. The vineyard’s story starts in 1974 when Jess Jackson purchased an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard and replanted it with Chardonnay grapevines in Lake County, just north of Napa Valley. Come 1982, the vineyard made its debut in the wine world. Things moved quickly from there, especially when in 1983 the inaugural vintage of Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay won the first-ever Platinum Award for an American Chardonnay at The American Wine Competition, and then-First Lady Nancy Reagan adopted the vintage as her signature wine of choice. By 1992, the Vintner’s Reserve became the No. 1-selling Chardonnay in the United States, a record it still holds today. Eager to showcase all of its varietals as well as to educate the everyday public about wine, food, farming and sustainability, Kendall-Jackson opened the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens in 1996, a destination I visit on every occasion I am in the area.
A chief reason for my fangirl-like obsession with visiting a few times a year is the experiential garden and its culinary gardener, Tucker Taylor. The former grower for Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Taylor joined Kendall-Jackson in 2013 to oversee its seven distinct garden spaces, including my personal favorite: the red and white wine sensory gardens.
What is a sensory garden, you ask?
Let me explain by way of example. Think of a good Sauvignon Blanc. In it, you will likely smell or taste gooseberry, fig, lemon, olive, melon and pear. In the white wine sensory garden, there is a space with each of these items planted together to represent profile of that wine! So, you essentially can experience via touch, smell and, in some cases, taste the actual elements in a great Sauvignon Blanc. There are currently three other white wine sensory experiences in addition to the Sauvignon Blanc, including Viognier, Gewürztraminer and (of course) Chardonnay and then four in the sister red wine sensory garden, including Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.
There are also bat boxes (bats are natural pest control), a teepee made of hops, a chicken coop (for farm-fresh eggs) and even bee boxes. Beyond this, Kendall-Jackson has specialty produce gardens and even a garden with international items growing, each of which is used in the culinary program at the estate as well as provided to several local restaurants and sister wineries across the region.
OK, then…this brings us to the food and wine pairings that I teased you all with earlier.
Justin Wangler leads the culinary operations on property, and he is a master of flavor. Using the estate gardens and the wines as inspiration, Wangler, chef/cheese specialist Tracey Shepos Cenami and pastry chef Robert Nieto work with Taylor to develop epicurean adventures of the highest degree seven days a week. If you visit Kendall-Jackson and don’t do a tour of the culinary gardens and food pairing, you are doing it wrong!
During a food and wine pairing, they bring out the small-production, limited-release wines and combine each one with a small plate that is big on flavor. The menu changes based on seasonality and whatever is looking good in the garden, and the all-time best thing I ever at there was bright orange trout that was smoky and melty (did not know I liked trout until Wangler made it for me), but here is a look at what I enjoyed my last time out to give an idea of the level of culinary prowess:
Farmer Taylor’s lettuce mix with watermelon radish, Cara Cara oranges, Nicasio reserve foggy morning, and Dukkah spice paired with 2019 Jackson Estate Cloud Landing Chardonnay
Red wine and mushroom risotto with Point Reyes toma truffles and truffle butter paired with 2019 Jackson Estate Outland Ridge Pinot Noir (one of my faves!)
Coffee-crusted Snake River Farms Coulotte steak with beluga lentils and roasted sunchokes paired with 2017 Jackson Estate Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon
Chocolate Profiterole with chicory cream, chocolate cake, red wine caramel and candied walnuts paired with Grand Reserve Dessert Red
They end with a bonus treat in a Canelés de Bordeaux, which is a crispy French custard cake.
Closing out my love letter to Kendall-Jackson with a few bottle recommendations: First, the Vintner’s Reserve California Rosè is a delight for anyone who loves floral and strawberry notes. For those who tend more toward inky reds bursting with dark plum and smooth refinement, opt for the 2016 Stature Sonoma County Cabernet. Fans of black cherry fruit with soft, velvety tannins do not want to miss the 2018 Jackson Estate Seco Highlands Pinot Noir. And finally, I just love the 2018 Jackson Estate Winemaster’s Blend for all the bright red fruit in every sip.
To learn more about Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, visit www.kj.com.