Flying High Over California Coastal Wine Lands

Dining at the Kendall-Jackson vineyard.The seemingly endless table set right inside the vineyard garden was strewn with long cloth runners, potted flowering plants and a white canopy overhead. With place settings for 175 guests, the table became alive at sunset when people sat down to feast on Hog Island Oysters, Tsar Nicoulai caviar and smoked Muscovy duck all paired with an array of Kendall-Jackson reserve wines.

When I look back at times covering California as a wine journalist, two images will always spring to mind: dining at that long table at sunset in the vineyard and flying in a private jet over California coastal wine lands.

During harvest on the third week of September I took a whirlwind tour to four far-flung California wineries. The trip started in Sonoma at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens. I toured the property with longtime “winemaster” (his official title) Randy Ullom with his signature massive white mustache. As I walked through the gardens and gazebos, I sipped K-J Grand Reserve Rosé as Ullom filled me in on some history of the winery, which was founded in 1982 by Jess Jackson, who went on to create America’s best-selling Chardonnay, Vintner’s Reserve.  Ullom explained that Kendall-Jackson’s latest project is to have all of its vineyards transformed to sustainable viticulture in the near future. This is no small task involving water conservation and recycling, solar and alternative energy sourcing, composting and creating biodiversity and natural habitats.

Tucker Taylor, the Master Culinary Gardener at Kendall-Jackson.Next I was handed off to the tall and handsome Tucker Taylor, who sported a prominent straw hat and looked like central casting’s version of a gentleman gardener. Taylor, whose title is Master Culinary Gardener, practices certified organic gardening and cares for Kendall-Jackson’s 2 ½ acres of fruit, vegetable, herb and flower gardens, which also has beehives, bat boxes and chicken coops.  We went on a little tasting tour of the edible herbs. I tasted an oyster leaf, which completely simulated the taste of a fresh oyster.  We munched on petite bok choy, Chinese parsley and Thai basil. Taylor sells his organic micro-greens and herbs to leading, local restaurants like French Laundry and Benu. I decided to forgo inspecting the beehives and instead headed over to one of the many bars set up in the garden in anticipation of that evening’s charity party and aforementioned dinner for 175 guests.

An assortment of heirloom tomatoes at the Heirloom Tomato Festival.The next morning I was back in the gardens to attend the 20th anniversary of the Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival. Under Taylor’s supervision, the estate grows 3,500 heirloom tomato plants representing 150 different varieties. Under one large, white tent, each heirloom tomato type was on display and cut into tiny pieces for tasting with toothpicks. Guests were given paper sheets noting the different variety names organized by color. I made check marks near the ones I preferred. Top among my choices were Kelloggs Breakfast (orange), Orlove Yellow Giant (yellow), and Blue Ridge Mountain (purple). Other pavilions featured chefs who cleverly incorporated tomatoes into their recipes. Of course stations serving K-J wines were ubiquitous and on this 90 degree day, the Grand Reserve Rosé seems to be in everyone’s glass.

In the VIP tent, the Kendall-Jackson’s prestige wine line was poured. There I ran into Christopher Jackson, the youngest son of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson (who died in 2011). With two older sisters working at the winery –Julia in marketing and Katie in charge of the sustainability program—Chris is presently studying law and holds the title of Proprietor along with his two sisters.  His two half-sisters, Jenny Jackson Hartford and Laura Jackson Giron are co-proprietors and also involved in the family business. I asked Chris, being the next generation, what is his most pressing goal. “To bring the winery to full sustainability,” he responded without hesitation. Like his father who had many interests aside from wine—Thoroughbred race horses being paramount among them—Chris, a recent father of a son, has branched out into beer and just launched the Seismic Brewing Co.

The family business is no little enterprise. The Jackson Family Wines portfolio comprises more than 50 wineries in California and Oregon, as well as wine properties in Chile, France, Italy, Australia and South Africa. They have roughly 1,500 employees. Kendall-Jackson is their flagship property and is close to becoming completely sustainable. The company’s professed direction is bringing sustainable viticulture and natural resource management throughout all properties and brands.

The La Crema Estate winery.Next it was off to visit La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in the heart of the Russian River Valley to see the newly opened tasting house built out of a 1900’s historic horse barn.  The handsome, four-story structure with all the original barn beams will be used as a tasting room and also a private lounge for wine club members. The winemaking facility is a mile away.  La Crema’s winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas works her magic with cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. I had a special tasting called North to South Flight of Grant-Douglas’ La Crema wines from Russian River, Monterey and Willamette Valley, Oregon—all beautifully crafted wines that can be found on restaurant wine lists throughout the country.

A panorama view from the private jet.The Jackson family's private jet.On day three I broke through another threshold achieving the ultimate in luxury wine touring. From the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport I boarded the Jackson Family’s private jet for an hour’s flight to Monterey. After a short transfer from the Salinas Muni airport to the Carmel Road winery, I arrived at the breathtaking Panorama Vineyard, 300 acres set inland from Monterey’s coastline, with rolling vineyards on slopes in a high valley surrounded by the Gabilan and Santa Lucia Mountains. The vineyards here benefit from the cooling influences of the Pacific winds and fog.

Carmel Road Vineyard.Being close to harvest time, a husband-wife team of falcon handlers were operating on property and gave a falconry display. Winemaker Kris Kato then conducted a tasting right in the vineyard with a little table set up under canopy showcasing not only different clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but a comparison of wines taken from south facing, north facing, morning side and sunset side vineyard sites. It’s eye-opening to do this side by side tastings and see the dramatic differences in taste from grapes grown with different orientations to the sun.

Cambria vineyards.After a picnic lunch in the vineyards in true jet set fashion I was off again on the private jet for a short 45 minute hop to the next winery, Cambria Estate Vineyard & Winery in Northern Santa Barbara County. This sustainable property has been in the Jackson family for 30 years, with daughters Katie and Julia serving as the second generation of Jacksons involved in the winery’s operations.

Cambria Estate offered another striking panorama onto the immense Santa Maria Bench, its valley floor running east west surrounded by mountain ranges. Only 15 miles east of the ocean, the cold Pacific winds cool off the grapes. Longtime winemaker Denise Shurtleff explained the maritime climate with its ocean breezes and fog gives the grapes one of the longest growing seasons, bringing a distinct freshness to the wines. The soils here are ancient alluvial soils with crushed seashells.

The wines from Cambria were clearly my favorite. Most possessed refreshing acidity and distinct minerality. I tasted the Cambria Seeds of Empowerment Exclusive Clone 4 Chardonnay made from 46 year old vines. It had flavors of pink grapefruit and ripe tangerine and an interesting note of slate. Next I sipped another old vine wine, the Benchbreak Chardonnay, which had fresh acidity with stone fruit and pineapple flavors. We turned to the various Pinot Noir clones: clone 4 with its cherry and pomegranate profile and clone 23 with blueberries, blackberries, spice and mocha notes. And finally, the ultimate, Barbara’s 667—Barbara Banke’s favorite Pinot Noir clone—a smoky beguiling wine, made in only 500 case lots.

Punching down the Pinot in the barrel room.The visit ended in the barrel room where Shurtleff instructed me on how to punch-down the Pinot Noir. I used a long instrument to break through the crust.  Early the next morning I again boarded the Jackson’s private jet and was whisked from Santa Maria to Los Angeles airport for my return flight to New York.  With a sigh, I thought to myself that I’d better not get used to winery hopping by private jet and instead resign myself to the familiar, endless bus treks between far-flung wine estates.