Corkscrew - A time for change

A turnaround at Kendall Jackson

Kendall Jackson has grown tired of wine writers poking fun at it.

"Vapid," "overrated," "ordinary" and "boring" are only a few of the endearing descriptors we (I) have bestowed upon this astoundingly successful winery. In my memory, KJ Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay became the ubiquitous call wine brand in bars and restaurants starting around 2001, but it has reportedly been the nation's most popular wine for 15 years – initially for its quality and then out of habit. However, following the tracks of easy-to-loathe, indomitable companies like Wal-Mart or McDonald's, profits began to overshadow quality. To feed on the budding popularity, local distributors slashed the price of the KJ flagship to sometimes $8 at grocery stores (and, pathetically enough, convenience marts), a price point founder and visionary Jess Jackson never aspired to occupy. With a sweet, quaffable flavor and obscenely low cost, American wine drinkers couldn't help themselves. To meet their incessant demand, KJ started purchasing lesser grapes and stoked production to an all-time high of 4 million cases. But with the growth came not only free-flowing cash – its well-made, higher-tier labels suffered snubs due to the shoddy KJ discount reputation. The press, with a principled preponderance to challenge all things big and successful, maligned them mercilessly. And no winery, no matter how rich, likes to hear its wines suck.

Then, in 2003, Jess Jackson couldn't take it anymore.

To shirk its increasingly negative standing as a mundane hack brand, Jackson backed off the precipice and instigated drastic changes. The company cut annual production levels by 500,000 cases annually – more than what most wineries make in a year – reducing the stress on resources, both human and mechanical. This change allowed it to source mostly from its own vineyards, where quality and costs can be controlled. And on the pricing front, the company paid closer attention to local wholesalers' strategies – upping the Vintner's Reserve to a still-affordable and respectable $12 per bottle.

The original quest for quality started 25 years ago when Jess Jackson and his family bottled their first Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. This came after many years of raising and selling grapes from their first 80-acre vineyard. In 1983, the wine won a hard-earned Platinum Award in the American Wine Competition, and this once-minor company embarked on its ascent to winery wunderkind. Slowly, as demand spread for its wines, it acquired numerous vineyards throughout California, mostly in cool-climate, maritime-influenced regions. Today, this still-family-owned and -operated operation farms 14,000 acres (out of a total of 35,000), in Santa Maria Valley outside of Santa Barbara, Alexander Valley in Sonoma, newer AVA Bennett Valley, Napa Valley, Monterey, Lake and Mendocino counties. They cultivate all their expansive land sustainably – limiting chemical use to improve and maintain soil health – and have since 2000, before "sustainable" became cool. The many salient practices they use include collecting rainwater for irrigation use, reforestation and providing productive wildlife corridors on their property, such as homes for owls and other beneficial animals. These venerated environmental efforts have not only earned them admiration from other wineries, but awards from the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House. In addition, of the 25 percent of grapes they outsource, Kendall Jackson requires similar viticulture efforts from these growers, a crucial quality-control step that unquestionably affects every bottle.

And in every bottle from the last two vintages, you can taste the difference Jess Jackson's determination makes. Vintner's Reserve, a label I have consistently berated, has recently won blind taste tests against much more expensive brands. Deservedly. It's nice to know that in this competitive capitalist world, people, companies and even the wine can change for the better.

Recommended wines

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve 2005 Chardonnay Sw = 2. $22. 4 stars.

Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Sw = 1. $25. 4 stars.

Kendall Jackson 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Sw = 1. $16. 3.5 stars.

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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