By James Knight
These days, naked ladies are cropping up everywhere. I'm not talking about the flower Amaryllis belladonna, which doesn't bloom until late July. I'm talking wine labels, which nowadays sport a liberal variety, from lithe guerrilla girls covering Zinfandel with no covering to nymphs cavorting on Sauvignon Blanc in their birthday suits.
Time was that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms put the ixnay on the odbay—and prohibited labels that seemed to liken fine wine to, say, sensuality. Kenwood's first artist series label featuring a whimsical nude reclined on a vineyard hillside was rejected in 1978. The artist re-submitted the label, swapping out the nude for a skeleton on the same hillside. The Feds were not amused. Not until the 1990s was the legendary label approved for its 20th anniversary.
The current artist series label is an earth-tone, demure head-scarfed woman by Shepard Fairey. The times they have changed, but Kenwood, an icon of the 1970s wine boom (since acquired by the owners of Korbel Champagne Cellars), remains more or less the same. Kenwood is such a fixture of the landscape that I was surprised to discover recently that the Bohemian had yet to drop by for a Swirl 'n' Spit. So let's do that.
Remodeled from the original 1906 Pagani Winery, the winery has a tidy but rambling, add-on appearance. The tasting room is still a barnlike structure with a modest L-shaped bar. The big surprise was on the tasting menu: prices frozen in time!
Kenwood sticks to what works, like its Kenwood Red ($7), a hearty table wine that's a dependable buy year after year. The Yulupa brand has a strong presence at the top of restaurant lists, and the "reserve" and Sonoma County wines start at just $13. The 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve ($15) was easy to drink with hints of barrel fermentation and lemon drop; the 2007 Chardonnay Reserve ($20), like a baked apple saturated with strong toast and butter notes trending toward Muenster cheese; the 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir ($15), sound if somewhat weedy, with fine dry cranberry astringency.
Among Kenwood's prized assets is the Jack London Vineyard series. Kenwood has an exclusive contract to that same vineyard that hikers circumambulate in Jack London State Park. London did not plant vines himself, but he was no stranger to the demijohn.
Kenwood's 2005 Reserve Zinfandel ($25) was as restrained and peppery as ever, while the 2006 Jack London Zinfandel ($20) is a juicier flask full of licorice and blueberry. Syrah is a promising new addition, the 2005 ($25) still brooding over subdued dark forest berries, cinnamon stick and anise. The 2005 Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) had gobs of cassis and blueberry, steeped in dark tobacco and charred oak, chunky tannins allayed by the fleshiness of the fruit. This big, old-fashioned Sonoma Valley Cab is on sale for 50 percent off a case.
Kenwood's got hundreds of thousands of cases to move, and they get it. While some of the wines may be collectible, they're not "cult." Here, I can pick up a bottle of solid, Sonoma County wine—without being left wearing nothing but a barrel afterward.
Kenwood Vineyards, 9592 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. Open 10am–4:30pm daily. Tasting fee, $5. 707.833.5891.
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