Robert Whitley's Creators Syndicate Columns

February 11, 2015

The Jackson Legacy

Creators Syndicate

It has been nearly four years since Jess Stonestreet Jackson, the visionary vintner, passed away. Jackson was, like Robert Mondavi and Ernest & Julio Gallo before him, a towering figure in the California wine industry.

His namesake winery, Kendall-Jackson, introduced an entire nation to the pleasures of chardonnay, one of the world’s great white wines but barely a blip on the radar of American wine enthusiasts before Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay became a household name in the early 1980s.

Later in a career that spanned nearly four decades Jackson embraced mountain vineyards and the idea that he should grow most of the grapes that went into his wines, as opposed to purchasing fruit as he had done in the early years of K-J.

Today K-J owns thousands of acres of vineyards from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, and everywhere in between along the coastal corridor that produces most of California’s finest wines. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if K-J had slipped a notch or two following the death of Jackson, but his widow, Barbara Banke, has maintained her late husband’s zeal for the K-J brand.

That was evident recently when I say down to taste the entire Kendall-Jackson portfolio – more than 30 wines – with longtime winemaker Randy Ullom, who’s been at the helm of the K-J winemaking team for the past 17 years.

“Barbara just picked up where Jess left off,” said Ullom.

Over the course of a couple of hours I ran the gamut of Kendall-Jackson wines, from its $13 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc to the $125 Stature red Bordeaux-style blend. Over the years I had done the same tasting with Jess, always impressed at his command of the subject, for Jackson was an attorney by trade and only got into wine later in life.

I can say with utter confidence that, if anything, the Kendall-Jackson wines are better than ever. What’s more, there is value at the entry level Vintner’s Reserve end and extremely high quality in the estate and vineyard-designate tiers, which range in price from $30 to more than $100.

Jess Stonestreet Jackson may be gone, but his vision for his beloved K-J lives on.

The Report Card

2014 Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris, California ($15) B

2013 Avant Sauvignon Blanc, California ($13) C+
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, California ($13) A-
2013 Avant Chardonnay, California ($17) B+
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, California ($17) A-
2013 Grand Reserve Chardonnay, Monterey-Santa Barbara ($22) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Seco Highlands Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco ($35) A+
2013 Jackson Estate Piner Hills Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($35) A
2013 Jackson Estate Camelot Highlands Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($35) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley ($22) B+
2013 Stature Chardonnay, Santa Barbara ($100) A+
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Riesling, Monterey ($12) B
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir, Monterey-Santa Barbara ($18) B+
2013 Grand Reserve Pinot Noir, Monterey-Santa Barbara ($26) B+
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir Los Robles, Santa Barbara ($40) A+
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir Seco Highlands, Arroyo Seco ($40) A+
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($30) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir Outland Ridge, Anderson Valley ($40) A
2013 Avant Red, California ($17) B+
2012 Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red, California ($17) B+
2012 Grand Reserve Meritage, Sonoma County ($30) A
2012 Vintner’s Reserve Syrah, Santa Barbara ($16) A-
2013 Jackson Estate Syrah Los Alisos Hills, Santa Barbara ($37) A
2013 Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel, Mendocino ($16) A-
2012 Vintner’s Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County ($24) A-
2012 Grand Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County ($28) A-
2012 Jackson Estate Merlot Taylor Peak, Bennett Valley ($40) A
2012 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($35) A
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($40) A+
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Hawkeye, Alexander Valley ($55) A+
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Trace Ridge, Knights Valley ($70) A
2012 Jackson Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Mountain, Mt. Veeder ($70) A+
2012 Stature Red Bordeaux Blend, Sonoma County ($125) A+

January 21, 2015

Benziger Family Rocks San Diego

Creators Syndicate

It was an impressive weekend for Benziger wines at the San Diego International wine competition, where the wines of Benziger Family Winery and Imagery Estate, both owned by the Benziger winemaking clan of Sonoma, California, walked off with many of the top awards.

Benziger Family Winery took the Best of Show award for red wines with its 2012 Tribute ($80), a red Bordeaux-style blend that was the highest scoring wine of the competition with 97 points (out of a possible 100). It also won Best of Class Pinot Noir with the 2012 Benziger Pinot Noir de Coelo Arbore Sacra ($75) from the Sonoma Coast.

Imagery Estate, a sister winery established by Joe Benziger more than two decades ago, won Best of Class for Tempranillo, Barbera and Muscat.

Between them, the two Benziger-owned wineries won 19 medals from 26 wines entered and were name co-wineries of the year in a stunning exhibition of quality across a broad range of grape varieties.

The Benziger performance was a strong message for the wine industry on the benefits of organic and biodynamic farming. The Benziger clan is one of the leading proponents of both in the California wine industry.

Judges at the 32nd San Diego International, one of the oldest wine competitions in America, are seasoned wine professionals and taste all wines “blind” without foreknowledge of the producing winery. Complete results can be found on the results page at

Other highlights from the SDIWC:

Bargain hunters can feast on the wines of Barefoot Cellars, which won 25 medals with wines that all retail for less than $10 a bottle. It’s top award was a platinum for its Barefoot Bubbly Extra Dry sparkling wine, $9.99.

Best of Show sparkling wine went to the 2010 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Vintage Brut, $32, an elegant expression of New World bubbly from winemaker Eileen Crane.  Domaine Carneros is one of the top three or four sparkling wine producers in America and consistently wins accolades and awards with its vintage brut.

Sonoma-Cutrer has long been a benchmark producer of California Chardonnay. Situated in the cool Russian River Valley it makes Chardonnay that possesses structure and elegance, giving it the ability to improve with age. Because of the success of its Chardonnay, the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of wine. While its 2012 The Cutrer Chardonnay, $35, was winning Best of Show white wine, the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, $30, was taking a platinum award with a score of 95 points.

Chateau Morrissette struck a blow for Virginia wine with a platinum award and score of 94 points for its 2012 5 Red Grapes, a proprietary blend of Bordeaux grapes combined with the hybrid Chambourcin at $15. Virginia is coming up in the wine world and Morrissette is one reason for that.

Alexander Valley’s DeLorimier Winery had an impressive showing with 13 medals won, including a platinum award and 95 points for the 2011 DeLorimier Cabernet Sauvignon, Kenneth Carl Reserve, $150. DeLorimier also won six gold medals.

Best of Show dessert wine went to a sherry house from Jerez, Spain. Dios Baco claimed the top prize in the dessert category with its Dios Baco Cream Sherry, Jezez DO, Spain, $25. The sherry was awarded a score of 95 points by the judges. Dios Baco won six medals overall, including another platinum and three gold medals.

V. Sattui of the Napa Valley was the overall leader in medals with 18, including Best of Class Cabernet Sauvignon for the 2011 V. Sattui Cabernet Sauvignon, Preston Vineyard, $55. Judges gave the Preston Vineyard Cabernet a score of 96 points. V. Sattui also won 10 gold medals. The venerable winery, with the finest picnic grounds in the Napa Valley, is unique in that it only sells its wines at the winery or online.

Sutter Home was runner-up in the medal-count for individual wineries with 15, including four gold medals, for value wines priced at $6 suggested retail.

St. James Winery from Herman, Missouri and Tabor Hill Winery from Michigan scored big for Midwestern wines with a dozen medals each. St. James specializes in fruit wines and hybrid grape varieties while Tabor Hill leans toward hybrid grapes, although it also won medals for Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris. Between them, St. James and Tabor Hill won eight gold medals.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at