Kendall-Jackson's Wise Wine Watchers
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Kendall-Jackson's Wise Wine Watchers With Cabernet Tasting Notes

I have always been a devotee of ancient Greek culture; after all, the western wine tradition, among other things like philosophy and democracy, began in Greece. The Greek gods and goddesses fascinate me. Of course we wine people have Dionysus (Bacchus), one of the easier deities to accommodate (all it takes is a corkscrew and a glass), but the Bacchanalian experience of wine is direct and physical. We who spend a lot of time thinking about wine—even if we buddy with Bacchus every now and then— need more cerebral inspiration. Enter Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Athena has a formidable résumé. She gave Hercules the endurance he needed to perform his mighty labors. She stood by Perseus when he took on the terrifying Gorgon Medusa and looked on approvingly as Theseus slew the Minotaur. Athena protected Odysseus during his ten-year ordeal after the sack of Troy; she inspired his son Telemachus to seek his father and protect his mother Penelope. She inspires this writer to taste and re-taste, to write, rewrite and rewrite yet again, to read, to study, to seek excellence in its every form.

But—hey wait—this is an article about Kendall-Jackson's program to sponsor wooden barn-owl nesting boxes in California, so what does it have to do with Athena? If you know Athena, you already know the answer: she is represented by, accompanied by, and in many stories becomes, an owl. In our culture the owl represents wisdom. In the vineyard, the owl represents a sustainable means of controlling rodent populations without the use of noxious chemicals, itself a wise practice.

Kendall-Jackson is working with the non-profit Hungry Owl Project to place 100 owl nesting boxes on the winery's Hawkeye Mountain property in Sonoma's Alexander Valley. The boxes are made out of recycled materials by school students, retired people and other volunteers. The $500 adoption package includes the three (owl-protected) K-J Cabernets I review below, a signed, limited edition watercolor print of the Hungry Owl Project wildlife ambassador, painted by Hungry Owl Project volunteer Mary Blake, as well as a complete report on the activity of the owl box they adopt, including the number of baby owls born during the year.

It's all a super idea, and the websites give the full story, but Athena and I (with the owl looking on) want to move on to reviewing the three wines involved.

The 2005 Jackson Estates Grown Vintner's Reserve California Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $19 and is 96% Cabernet Sauvignon with 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Merlot. Sonoma and Napa grapes make up about half the mix with the remainder from Mendocino, Monterey and San Benito Counties. The wine spends 19 months in French and American oak. The wine is a deep ruby with superb clarity. On the nose I get what I really want: Cabernet (I am getting tired of calling it “cassis,” but if you force me I will weigh in with “solid black fruit.”) On the palate the wine is dry, with a rich note of black cherry, clove, cigar box, vanilla, and a touch of pepper. The wine is medium-bodied, and the trio of acidity (well integrated with the fruit), tannin (nicely rounded), and alcohol (13.5%, hence restrained by today's standards) work together to fill the mouth on the initial attack, provide a meaningful middle, and keep the finish long and involving. This is good solid honest Cabernet with a good grip, ready to drink now but you could also keep it a year or two.

The 2005 Jackson Estates Grown Grand Reserve Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, at $26, is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, a full 87% sourced in Sonoma with the rest from neighboring Mendocino and Napa. The wine sees 14 months of oak aging, mostly French, 28% new. We are approaching some stratified Cabernet country with this full-bodied, highly oak-influenced wine. The wine is a very dark ruby with a good sparkle at the edges. The nose brings two major themes at once: cassis, blackberry, black plum, blueberry and black olive compete for attention with another level of aromas—wood influenced—mocha, tobacco, chocolate, vanilla, toasted walnut, and oak itself. Nose the wine long enough, as it demands, and a third, though lighter, theme emerges: a spicy mix of rose-floral, nutmeg and clove. On the palate this dry wine continues the aromatic themes with forceful acidity, well-integrated tannins that give the mouth some work to do, and a 14.5% level of alcohol. Despite the formidable fruit in this wine, the finish is more a matter of kernel, wood and spice. This is the Cabernet you have with the steak, though with its quality acidity you could pair it with tomato-rich Italian dishes, if not overly spicy.

The 2005 Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Hawkeye Mountain Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cabernet, aged 16 months, half in new French oak. The wine retails for $55 and weighs in at a committed 15% alcohol level. A deep ruby, the wine is nearly opaque. I aerated this wine an hour, found the nose a bit shy, gave it another hour and was rewarded with black cherry, cassis, mint and dried forest floor leaves. The wine is dry on the palate, with mouth-drying tannins, chewy and soft. The palate shows plenty of flavor; not just the black cherry and cassis but a surprise element of smoky raspberry, tangy red cherry, and a touch of dried fruit. Extract is the operative word, and it fills the mouth satisfyingly. Though formidable, the alcohol remains well in the mix at all stages, doing its part in this big wine. Wood elements add an echo of dark chocolate with vanilla but never protrude. The finish is dry and softly tannic; the tannins and the extracted elements linger in this one, as one would expect. If you wait—if you sponsor a dozen barn owl boxes, drink the other two wines and hold on to twelve of these a few years—your reward will be great (though keep in mind that fewer than 2000 cases are produced). If you need to drink it now give it some air and don't stint on that expensive steak.

Verdict: A chance to do good and enjoy exceptional Cabernets
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In the world of sustainable agriculture, wine leads the way.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Kendall-Jackson Owl Box Adoption Gift

Kendall-Jackson Owl Box Adoption Gift. The owl pictured is the wildlife ambassador for the non-profit Hungry Owl Project. Print by Mary Blake. (Alan Campbell Productions).

The Goddess Athena with owl, from the Louvre

The Goddess Athena with owl, from the Louvre.

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