The Tasting Panel magazine

Nov 09

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Page 79 of 92

London's Legacy Known to most for his true-to-life fiction, Bay Area native Jack Lon- don was a passionate and visionary farmer; his approach to grape grow- ing and agriculture was based on redeeming the land, a practice that we now call sustainability. Over a period of eight years, London bought up six farms that were adjacent to Hill Ranch, all of which had been worked out by early pioneers, and skillfully reconditioned them to form the vast 1,400-acre Beauty Ranch. Life on Sonoma Mountain had a pro- found impact on London; he wrote many of his best-loved works from a stump table there and portrayed vivid details of California ranch life in the novel The Valley of the Moon (1913). After his untimely death in 1916, the ranch was worked until 1959, when the main buildings and the surrounding land were donated to establish Jack London State Park. The Hill Ranch and vineyards still re- main in family hands and Kenwood has exclusive rights to the fruit for its Jack London Vineyard Series. Kenwood's winery and estate vine- yards lie just north of Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley town of Kenwood. The 34-acre estate was established in 1970 at the former Pagani Brothers Winery, which dated to 1906, just one year af- ter London purchased the nearby Hill Ranch. Winemaking at Kenwood— which is now part of the F. Korbel & Brothers' portfolio along with Korbel Champagne Cellars, Valley of the Moon Winery and Heck Cellars—is under the direction of Pat Henderson. Henderson's history with the winery began in 1983, when he was hired as a harvest intern while still in school at U.C. Davis. He became senior wine- maker at Kenwood in 2003. History of Firsts It seems fitting that Henderson, an educator who has taught winemak- ing at Santa Rosa Junior College since 1991 and is now updating the second edition of his teaching text "About Wine," creates the wines that are in many ways a living testament to London's own passion for the mountain. With two decades of har- vests behind him and the last six vin- tages as Kenwood's head winemaker, Henderson has devoted his time to the vineyards and cellar much in the same way that London did when he recalled spending two hours a day writing and ten hours a day farming. "The Jack London Series was one of the first vineyard-designated wines in Sonoma," says Henderson. "It's among the many firsts for Kenwood, including our Artist Series, which became California's first artist wine label in 1975." Jack London Vineyard London once wrote of his ranch, "The air is wine." Such was his enthusiasm for the land, but it's fair to say that Beauty Ranch prob- ably smelled more like the 65,000 eucalyptus trees that he planted, though none grow today at the Jack London Vineyard site. The vineyard sits above the fog line on a plateau midway up Sonoma Mountain, with a southeast corner that makes up part of Jack London State Park. The uniform volcanic ash soils of the bowl-shaped site are broken out into a dozen lots with a variety of exposures. Henderson looks to the vineyard for consistency from year to year: "We're familiar with manag- ing this site, and we're very careful about the way the fruit is handled to control extraction." Years of experi- ence with growing conditions in Sonoma County make him adept at preserving the expression of the vintage in these and all of his wines. The majority of the site is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but Merlot, Syrah and southwestern blocks of Zinfandel produce elegant wines that form "a supporting cast to the Cabernet." Henderson's 2006 Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 95 percent Cabernet, three percent Merlot and two percent Syrah. In keeping with his style, the wine is beautifully balanced, showing classic cassis and dark cherry fruit, notes of cinnamon and well-integrated oak, youthful, firm tannins and a lengthy finish. In a tasting of the last five vintages, minerality and tannins remained fairly consistent, while drier years exhibited more a red fruit and cinnamon expression and wetter years show darker cassis and black fruit, chocolate and mint. Hender- son notes a stylistic shift in the wines beginning in '02 that can be attrib- uted to new hygiene practices in the winery. "There were many reasons why Jack London was drawn to the Hill Ranch but it was primarily the quality of the land there. Upgrad- ing our cellar program with better barrels and equipment put all of the emphasis on the vineyard. As a winemaker, there's really not much I can do to improve the fruit from this site; my biggest job is to stay out of the way and let those flavors shine through." Kenwood's Jack London Vineyard series is a California classic Kenwood winemaker Pat Henderson. november 2009 / the tasting panel /  79 PHOTO: COURTESY OF KENWOOD WINERY

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