Matt Smith got bitten by the wine bug when he was 16 and took a French class at Grosse Pointe South High School.
Two French teachers back then — he only remembers the name of one of them, Francis Granger – took students to France every summer, and he made the trip in 1985, which included a visit to a winery in the Loire Valley, with a tour of the underground wine cave in Vouvray.
“I still remember the smell of the cave,” says the winemaker for Kendall-Jackson in California during a recent visit to Detroit
Smith went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in French language and political science in 1990 from the University of Michigan.
After jobs and studies in France and the U.S., he landed at Kendall-Jackson in 2004 and now is in charge of making all wines in claret bottles — aka Bordeaux-style wines, meaning all the Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and dry red blends, plus Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.
Kendall-Jackson, by way of background, is the iconic winery that ignited fine Chardonnay production in the 1980s and went on to mushroom into Jackson Family Estates with a plethora of brands under its umbrella.
Smith and I tasted a selection of Grand Reserve and Vintner’s Reserve wines, and as if the winery were an onion, he peeled back layers of information on the K-J brand.
If you weren’t into wine in the 1980s, then I can tell you this: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay was the bottle that wine enthusiasts aspired to. We ran in droves to buy it. Still today, according to Smith, it is the No. 1 selling Chardonnay ($15) over $10 and has been for 20 years. And 100 percent of it is barrel-fermented — in 60-gallon barrels on racks stacked to the roof. “Each one has to be taken down and stirred by hand,” Smith says.
The Vintner’s Reserve wines have evolved,” Smith says. In the beginning, he says, the emphasis was on Lake County in Northern California, where K-J opened its first facility and planted its first vineyards. Today, the emphasis is more Central Coast appellation, especially the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County.
K-J wines started out with the term Vintner’s Reserve, but in the late 1980s the Grand Reserves were released. According to Smith, they represent the best 3 to 5 percent of all the wine K-J makes. All are 100 percent from Jackson-owned vineyards.
According to Smith, 75 percent of the Vintner’s Reserve wines are made off Jackson-owned vineyards or vineyards that comply to K-J’s standards.
Indeed, a brand as huge as Kendall-Jackson competes with boutique wineries for consumer loyalty and slots on restaurant wine lists.
But there is just no denying the quality and consistency that Kendall-Jackson sustains.
“We’re a large winery that thinks like a small one,” Smith says.
A TASTE OF KENDALL-JACKSON WINES
These wines are widely available; prices will vary.
Avant Chardonnay 2010, $15: The Avant is K-J’s answer to the popular unwooded style. Half the juice is fermented in stainless steel and half in neutral oak to broaden the mouth feel. It’s made in a crisp, light style with lots of green apple, lime and lemon zest.
Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011, $13: It says California on the label, but winemaker Matt Smith is more specific. It’s from cooler Lake County. It has a complex style, with lime, guava and mango, herbaceous tones and minerality. Ten percent is fermented in barrels and 20 percent in a reductive style to emphasize aromatics.
Vintner’s Reserve Merlot 2010, $19: In 2008, grape sourcing changed to all-Sonoma. It’s spicy, with dusty tannins and a wallop of black cherry, black plum, brown sugar and brown baking spices. Yummy.
Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010, $19: The fruit is off K-J’s Alexander Mountain Estate vineyard, east of Geyserville in Sonoma County. The mountain berries are small and intense, producing a Cab with cassis, blackberry and black cherry tones.
Grand Reserve Merlot 2008, $26: All the fruit is off hillside sites with well-drained soils that yield small berries with high skin to juice ratio, which means this baby has color and intense aromatics. It’s packed with berries, plums, mocha and toast. It’s dense and highly structured with vibrant acidity. For this Merlot and the Vintner’s Reserve, fruit is sourced from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.
Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, $28: The linchpins are the two vineyards: Trace Ridge in Knights Valley and Alexander Mountain Estate. This is a dark, intense, brooding wine, still closed in but offering a glimpse of its power: black plums, cherries, currants and chocolate, with cedar and violet tones. Robert Parker gave it 90 points.