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Wine review: Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay 2010

The wine business doesn’t have a national brand, in the way detergent has Tide or ketchup has Heinz. Those products are instantly recognizable, sold everywhere in the country, and seen as representative of their category.

What the wine business has, instead, is Kendall-Jackson. It’s about the only brand sold everywhere that wine is sold, and even people who barely drink wine know Kendall-Jackson. And what was the big wine news when Barack Obama was elected president? That someone had seen K-J bottles in his Chicago home.

The chardonnay is the most ubiquitous of the Kendall-Jackson wines. It made the brand famous, and has been the best-selling chardonnay in the country for 20 years, according to the winery. Some 2.5 million cases are sold annually, which would make it the 12th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.

The secret to the wine’s success? Stuck fermentation, which the late Jess Jackson, who started the winery, pioneered in the early 1980s. In stuck fermentation, not all of the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol during fermentation, which produces a sweeter wine.

As such, the chardonnay ($15, sample) is rarely taken seriously. Or, as issacjamesbaker wrote on CellarTracker (the unofficial wine inventory software of the blog):

“I picked this up at the grocery store just for the hell of it. The nose shows the expected buttered pear, but also some crisp green apple. The palate actually has some fresh acid, which I like. Crisp apple flavors, rounded out by some whipped butter. Not toasty at all, just pure buttered fruit. The acid on the finish keeps it balanced. This is not a serious wine, but it's very pleasant, albeit not very exciting.”

That’s a fine description of the wine (though “whipped butter” is a bit much), and is pretty much what it tastes like. What surprised me were how those flavors and qualities were so noticeable, when in most wines at this price (and I’ve seen it for as little as $10), you have to hunt for them. This is not a shy wine.

But the tasting note is written entirely from the perspective of someone who doesn’t think the wine is worth writing about. And that’s the thing about K-J and its wines that always baffles me. It takes effort to make the wine taste that way year after year, because the key to grocery store wines is consistency of quality. Consumers will forgive one lesser vintage, but after that, it’s on to the next cute label.

In this, K-J also pioneered something taken for granted these days – the professionally made wine, produced every year without flaws or off-tastes. When I started drinking wine in the 1980s, it was all too common to find wines that were oxidized or made with unripe fruit or tainted in some way. That almost never happens anymore, and today’s arguments about wine quality are about styles and not whether the wine is technically well made.

No doubt I wax too metaphysical. K-J and Jackson’s successors probably don’t care about that. What’s a 92 in the Spectator when your chardonnay is bigger than all but 11 wineries in the U.S.?

  • bburnsey

    Good post on KJ. It is consistent, probably has a lot to do with its popularity, as it can be counted on to be what it is, year after year.
    What bothers me, and you have had post concerning this, are the folks who refuse to try anything else.
    “What, no KJ?” You call this a restaurant?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jeffsiegel Jeff Siegel

    Good point, Brian. The best part about wine is trying something new.
    Though, the funny thing is that I have seen K-J on some very fancy wine lists at restaurants where I was very surprised to see it. Go figure.

  • http://www.isaacjamesbaker.blogspot.com Isaac James Baker

    Hey Jeff,
    Thanks for the post, and for taking the time to read my tasting note. You write,
    “But the tasting note is written entirely from the perspective of someone who doesn’t think the wine is worth writing about.” That’s not 100% true because I did take the time to write a tasting note. Your best insight here is:
    “In this, K-J also pioneered something taken for granted these days – the professionally made wine, produced every year without flaws or off-tastes. When I started drinking wine in the 1980s, it was all too common to find wines that were oxidized or made with unripe fruit or tainted in some way.” So true, and this is why I wrote a tasting note for this wine. It’s not terroir-driven, it’s not complex, it’s not for aging, it’s just a simple, decent, easy-drinking chardonnay. And that in and of itself, is worth writing about. Anyway, great article, and I look forward to checking out your blog more. Cheers!

  • Tom

    A lot has been lost in seeking consistency in wine.The wine world seems to have been split in two. Those that want consistency and those that want there terroir, vintage and nature to have a voice.
    One of the problems I have is that we have no idea what is in the bottle or how it is manipulated in order to achieve a consistency and desired flavor profile. I really would like there to be some labeling and transparency in ingredients and processes used to achieved the end product (it is indeed as much product as it is beverage).
    I have had this wine and others — my experience has been dominated by curiosity and suspicion as to what is is I am drinking. Does it have flavor enhancers, sugars, coloring, etc? Should it even be considered wine? I often feel it is similar to comparing cheese with processed cheese. Until the industry is more transparent there won’t be much choice.
    Having said all of that — there are wines for different tastes, occasions, etc. I have no problem with that or with those people that like Kendall Jackson or any other wine — I just want to know what I am drinking and how it was made. And I do think that gets into whether a wine is “technically” well made…

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jeffsiegel Jeff Siegel

    Tom, you make a great point. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place. No one, I think, wants to go back to the old days of flawed wine (I can taste those green tannins as I type this), but the alternative is, as you note, not knowing exactly is in the wine.
    Sadly, wine label reform is dead — http://www.winecurmudgeon.com/my_weblog/2012/03/update-wine-nutrition-labels.html

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