The wines of Kenwood, Sonoma
Sonoma winery making some of California's best value wines

Sonoma producer Kenwood offers really good, affordable wines, but perhaps because they’re not expensive, they don’t get taken as seriously as they might by wine nuts.

They’re currently owned by Korbel, whose owner Gary Heck purchased the winery in 1996 from founder Mike Lee. Korbel are the USA’s largest producer of traditional-method sparkling wines, and Gary Heck owns four wineries: Kenwood, Korbel, Valley of the Moon and a brandy production facility in Bakersfield.

Lee, with his family, had bought a winery in Sonoma called Pagani Brothers, which dated back to 1906, and he renamed it Kenwood in 1970. Since its acquisition by Heck, the vineyard and accounting is shared with Korbel. Current production is around 600 000 cases, ranging from $7 to $70 a bottle.

I met with winemaker Pat Henderson, who started here in 1983. He’d done a harvest in Napa, and afterwards cold-called Mike Lee, ending up with a job for four and a half months during fall. Pat then went to study, returning after graduation for a nine-year stint before heading up to Washington State (Hedges Cellars). When Mike Lee retired in 2003, Pat returned to Kenwood to take over as senior winemaker.

Kenwood have a few hundred acres of vines in Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, but still buy in about half of their grapes. ‘It’s a good ratio to have,’ says Pat. ‘It doesn’t always make good business sense to buy land.’ They’ve been buying from some growers for over 30 years. Pat points out that while most wineries in Sonoma are much smaller than Kenwood, the big guys are ten times their size. 

The Sonoma winery does 40 000 tons in an average year. Some Chardonnay is pressed at Korbel, because, as a sparkling wine production facility it is set up for whole-bunch pressing. Some Korbel sparkling wines are made here because their vintage is early, starting in August, and finishes when Kenwood’s Chardonnay begins coming in. It makes for a long three-month vintage period at the winery.

Sonoma County is a diverse vineyard area. The ocean means that near the coast it’s cool, while as you head inland it gets warmer. So you could have 14 °C at the coast, and 33 °C at Sacramento on the same afternoon. This leads to a range of cool and warm sites. ‘We get amazing terroir differences,’ says Pat, ‘which gives us lots of options.’ At the winery, the vineyards are planted to Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. In Knight’s Valley, Cabernet is grown. Russian River Valley specialises in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The valley floor gets lots of fog, but in the hills above the fog it’s warmer, so Cabernet does better here.

As for winemaking, Pat says, ‘It’s all about the fruit. If it doesn’t taste good you are stuck. You can’t put flavour in if it’s not there.’ These wines are consistently good, and offer amazing value for money.


Kenwood Pinot Gris 2009 Sonoma County
100% Russian River Valley. Very fresh, aromatic nose is bright and fruity. There’s a little nuttiness here, too. The palate has nice texture with a bit of residual sugar. Lovely ripe, rounded style. 89/100 ($14)

Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Sonoma County
All stainless steel with no malolactic. This is Kenwood’s most popular wine. Rich and fruity with some green notes as well as ripe fruit. The palate is fresh and fruity with lovely fruity quality. Not heavy, and with no rough edges. 87/100 ($10)

Kenwood Reserve Chardonnay 2009 Russian River Valley
Very rich, toasty, nutty nose with some savoury notes and good freshness. The palate has some soft, buttery texture but also some toast and nut savouriness. A stylish Chardonnay in a rich yet expressive style. 90/100 ($20)

Kenwood Pinot Noir 2009 Russian River Valley
One year in French oak. Lovely fresh bright cherry fruit nose with some subtle herby notes. The palate is fresh with ripe, well defined cherry and berry fruit and a bit of spiciness. Deliciously fresh and sweetly fruited. Great value. 90/100 ($18)

Kenwood Reserve Zinfandel 2008 Sonoma County
sweet berryish nose is ripe and a bit spicy. Lovely berry fruits on the palate. Not a heavy wine. 88/100 (£25)

Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Merlot 2007 Sonoma Valley
Expressive and herby with sweet red berry fruit and a degree of elegance. The palate is midweight and sweet with elegant, expressive berry fruits and good balance. Ripe but balanced. 92/100 ($20)

Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Sonoma Valley
This is the 30th anniversary bottling. A hint of mint and tar on the nose which shows full berry and blackcurrant fruit. The palate is ripe and expressive with nice fruit and some tannic structure. Grippy finish. 91/100 ($35)

Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
This is made with fruit from A list vineyards that gets the best treatment in the winery, and a degree of selection afterwards. Fresh, spicy, minty blackcurrant fruit nose is very fresh. The palate combines ripeness and structure. Smooth-textured with nice berryish fruit. Rounded, ripe and expressive. Very attractive in a ripe style. 92/100 ($78)

See also:

The wines of Kendall Jackson, California
The wines of Bonny Doon, California
Visiting the Napa Valley, California (series)

Wines tasted 02/11  
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