November 2009

Thirty Years of Redemption

By: Deborah Parker Wong

It’s not uncommon for a winery to be associated in some way with the famous or even the infamous, but few can attribute a vineyard site to one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. For the last thirty years, Kenwood Vineyards has produced compelling wines from the Jack London Vineyard in the western hills of Sonoma Mountain.

Jack London riding in Sonoma vineyards.

The history of winegrowing at Jack London’s namesake vineyard in Glen Ellen, known as Hill Ranch when London purchased it in 1905, began in the early 1870s and was revived a century later by London’s descendant, Milo Shepard, who replanted the site to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972. Kenwood Vineyards produced its first vintage of Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon in 1977 from fruit grown on hillsides that had originally been terraced by the author. Today, Kenwood manages the 130-acre vineyard and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah from the famed site.

London’s Legacy

Known to most for his true-to-life fiction, Bay Area native Jack London was a passionate and visionary farmer; his approach to grape growing 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 profound 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).

Kenwood winemaker Pat Henderson. 
After London's 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 remain in family hands and Kenwood has exclusive rights to the fruit for its Jack London Vineyard Series.

Kenwood’s winery and estate vineyards 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 after 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 winemaker at Kenwood in 2003.

History of Firsts

It seems fitting that Henderson, an educator who has taught winemaking 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 harvests behind him and the last six vintages 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 probably 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 managing this site, and we’re very careful about the way the fruit is handled to control extraction.” Years of experience 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.

Henderson notes a stylist shift in the wines beginning in ’02 that can be attributed 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. Upgrading 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.”
To commemorate the 30th anniversary vintage of the Jack London Series, Kenwood labeled just under half of the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon production with a dramatic full-bottle silkscreen of London’s “Wolf” logo. PHOTO: RYAN LELY 

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