Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Sonoma County
M ost people in the wine industry will tell you there is as much art as science that goes into making a great bottle of wine.
The folks at Kenwood Vineyards have married the art of winemaking and the visual arts for nearly 40 years in their artist series cabernet sauvignon. The label features a different work of art each year, and in some years the paintings have been created especially for the label.
The artist series is meant to showcase the artistry inside the bottle, a blend taken from the best vineyards in Sonoma County.
“We work with a lot of different cabernets,” said Kenwood chief winemaker Pat Henderson. “With the artist series we pour our heart and soul into it.”
I spoke with Henderson through an Internet hookup last week while we both sipped glasses of the artist series cab from 2013. He is a veteran of more than 30 vintages, and has been winemaker at Kenwood since 2003.
“The fun thing about the artist series is that it really allows me to play,” he added.
Henderson has a full toy box when he plays with the artists series wine. “We have great vineyards all over Sonoma,” he said. “We go through these A list vineyards and we give them a little extra care. The grapes go to the front of the line when we make the wine.”
The vines get extra attention during the growing season, sometimes a little extra pruning or other attention to detail. Then the best grapes are chosen for this special wine. Lots are fermented and aged separately and then the fun really begins.
“We ferment it typically for three weeks,” said Henderson. “Toward the end of fermentation we sample daily to see if it is getting better. When we get the wine in barrels and it’s aged a couple of years we start blending and tasting.
“We try different combinations. We work a couple of hours a day for a week and start finding the blends we like.”
“The fun thing about the artist series is that it really allows me to play.”
When making the artist series wine Henderson has 30 different cabernets to choose from, so you might think that would be enough. But each year he adds a small amount of other grapes to the blend. It can be petit verdot, cabernet franc or malbec.
For the 2013 vintage it was 1.5 percent each for petit verdot and cabernet franc. There was no malbec because when Henderson and his team tasted various blends the malbec didn’t make the wine any better.
And you might wonder what difference does one or two percent of a particular grape make in a wine, especially one as big and bold as the artist series. It can make a big difference.
“You’d be surprised at what one percent of a wine can do,” said Henderson. “Especially things like petit verdot and cab franc.
“I can’t taste a wine and tell you there is one percent of a varietal in there. But if you do side by side blind tastings, you can tell the difference. We’ve had five tasters in blind tastings and they all picked the one with the one percent added.”
So what does this cab taste like? It’s a blockbuster. It’s rich, full-bodied, deep, complex. It’s a wine I could drink all night.
It opens with a beautiful black fruit aroma, leading to flavors of cherry and blackberry. Each sip unveils another flavor. While the wine drinks beautifully now, it tastes like it will age well for many years. This is a wine you want to keep.
Henderson said there is a lot of fruit flavor in this wine, which surprises some people. He said wine drinkers are used to seeing fruit in young wines, but you want fruit in ageable wines, as well. The balancing acidity will keep the wine fresh as it ages.
About 90 percent of the grapes come from hillside vineyards, with 10 percent coming from the Lone Pine Estate Vineyard on the valley floor. The majority of the grapes come from the Carriger Estate Vineyard (57 percent). Blended with these are grapes from the Ty Cayton Vineyard (23 percent), located in the Mayacamas Mountains on the east side of Sonoma Valley and the Strotz-Pickberry Vineyard (7 percent) on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The petit verdot and cab franc are from the Cross Springs Ranch.
While most people consider the artist series to be Kenwood’s top wine, Henderson said some people might prefer the Six Ridges wines, so named for the mountains and ridges that border Kenwood vineyards and influence the terroir. All are hand-crafted in small lots. The cabernet from Alexander Valley sells for $35. He also said he liked the Jack London single vineyard cab, which sells for $35.
“Alexander Valley fruit is a little different,” said Henderson. “The artist series is more complex, ageable, grippy. With this wine the sweet spot for me is 5-10 years after bottling. That would be about 2022 for this wine.”
He said he had recently tasted the 20th anniversary wine from the artist series and it was “amazing.”
I remember buying the artist series in the 1980s and 1990s when I couldn’t afford much high end wine. But the artist series wine was always worth it.
Besides, I loved the labels. They have included such artists as Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Charles Mingus and Henry Miller. The winery commissioned David Lance Goines to do the label for the 1975 vintage, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (which approves labels) deemed it “obscene and indecent” because it featured a nude in a vineyard.
“Marty Lee, one of the founders of Kenwood, thought they should do something to make the bottle stand out,” said Henderson. “Labels were pretty boring. He wanted to up the game a little bit. He wanted something to set the wine off from others.
“Marty had always liked art since his father took him and his brother to see art.
“Marty saw this artist (Goines) and liked the work. First they did a naked lady label, but the government wouldn’t allow it. So he did one with a skeleton in the vineyard, but they wouldn’t allow that. So he came up with one that was OK.”
Twenty years later Kenwood re-submitted the naked lady label and the government approved it for the 1994 artist series.
The winery has found that modern art tends to make better labels, because when you shrink art down to a few inches, you don’t get much detail that might be in traditional art.
“One of the benefits of working here is that we’ve got great works of art around the winery,” said Henderson as he pointed to one painting hanging behind him in his office. He said they are trying to get the artist to have more of a connection to the wine, such as having the artist visit the winery or drink the wine.
The artist for the 2013 wine is Clare E. Rojas, who tells stories through painting, music, installations and video work. Her narratives used to be based in folk art tableaus that tackled gender stereotypes. Recently she has moved into geometric abstractions, which is the form of the 2013 label.
Her untitled piece on the label is meant to capture the reflectio of light and shadow of a landscape over the course of a day, capturing time in moments.
Rojas said she sees the geometric abstractions as part of a continuum free of limitations and tied to her interest in color, line, shape and space.
While I talked to Henderson about the wine, he received a phone call he had to take because it was from one of his vineyard managers. This is the busy season when they are picking fruit all over the valley. He said Kenwood is doing 100 percent night picking with their harvest crews.
“It’s better for the grapes and the pickers love it because it’s not hot,” Henderson said.
“We are bringing in some of the Jack London ranch today. It’s so beautiful out there. I took some sunrise photos and will post them on Instagram.”
If you go to the Kenwood Vineyards account on Instagram you’ll see his gorgeous sunrise photo, with fog rolling in from the ocean.
Henderson was an intern with Kenwood before heading off to college. He returned as winemaker in 2003, and clearly is happy where he is. He didn’t want to compare Sonoma to other California wine regions.
“It’s not by accident that I ended up in Sonoma.” he said. “I’ve worked in Napa and liked it, and I like the wines. But it’s hard to beat Sonoma, and it’s a great place to live.”
And they make some pretty good wines there.
Some previous labels in the artists series: