San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Assaying the New California Gold – In a Bottle

EVER since “Sideways,” the iconic and ironic road movie for oenophiles, popped the cork on the California wine scene, a whole new audience has become familiar with California grape varietals. Pinot noir, zinfandel, syrah, chardonnay and the (unfairly) disdained merlot have entered the cultural mainstream, fueling a new kind of California gold rush.


With the arrival here of wines from Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, one of California’s most prestigious winemakers, wine lovers and experimenters in Costa Rica can join in and taste these distinctively California flavors.


On Nov. 27, Kendall-Jackson’s internationally renowned wine master Randy Ullom formally launched his vineyard’s roster of award-winning wines with a wine tasting at Vinum La Enoteca, the ultra-chic wine emporium in the western San José suburb of Escazú.


With his Yosemite Sam moustache and cowboy boots peeking out from underneath jeans topped by a formal white dinner jacket, Ullom set the evening’s tone: folksy, fun and informal. But there was nothing casual about his mastery of wine lore as he expounded on the art and science of wine making, from terroir (the environment grapes grow in) through all the nuances of flavor and finish.


Speaking in slightly fractured but entertaining Spanish, which he picked up as a young man during a three-year stint in Chile, Ullom had the crowd of wine connoisseurs, restaurant owners and journalists drinking in his every word. Of course, the opportunity to sample five of Kendall- Jackson’s premium wines also made for a very happy, attentive gathering.


THE wine tasting began with K-J’s (its nickname in the United States) star wine, a 2003 Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay.


According to industry surveys, this chardonnay is the number-one wine served in restaurants in the United States. What makes it so popular?


“It’s a very pleasing wine,” Ullom said. “It’s consistent from vintage to vintage, and the fruit is so effusive that it leaps out of the glass. But the wine is very soft, with a butter tone. There are no rough, acidic or dry edges. It’s just an easy-to-drink wine.”


Half of K-J’s annual output of 4 million cases consists of this barrel-fermented chardonnay. The Vintner’s Reserve pinot noir is another of K-J’s signature, fruit-forward wines. As tasters sipped a 2003 vintage, accompanied by an exquisite, earthy pâté from chef and caterer José López, Ullom explained how pinot noir grapes love cool climates but, with their thin skins, are the most difficult grape to manage.


These grapes are so sensitive to their environment, Ullom explained, that different flavors emerge from the same grapes, depending on where they are planted, from a hint of black cherries in the north to a soupçon of mushrooms from grapes grown farther south.


WITH 18,000 acres of vineyards spread out along the cooler hillsides and coastal areas stretching from Mendocino south to Santa Barbara, K-J is not the biggest California winery, but it is one of the last family-owned winemakers in California. Their wine-making philosophy is simple, Ullom said: focus on quality and long-term consistency.


“We’re so different from the rest of the market,” he said. “We’re higher-priced than most, but while everyone else is chasing volume and lowering prices, we’re doing the opposite.”


K-J’s international strategy is to work its way early into evolving wine markets, such as Japan, China, Mexico, the Caribbean and now Latin America. Here in Costa Rica, Californian wines have not been a strong category, admitted David Peralta, director of Vinum Aura, S.A., which operates the high-end Enoteca wine stores (see box, page W-6).


“Traditionally, Chilean cabernets and merlots have been the strongest sellers here,” Peralta said. “But in the year or so that the K-J wines have been available in our stores, sales have exceeded our expectations.”


ALTHOUGH little formal market research is available, Ullom said the “mini market research” he has done on his visits convinces him that there is, indeed, a burgeoning wine market here. Supermarket shoppers browsing the wine aisle to look for new wines to taste and restaurants placing a bottle of wine on every table and making wines available by the glass point to a new wine awareness, he said.


“The seed has been planted, and I think the growth is going to be logarithmic,” he asserted.


The K-J wines available here run about ¢10,000-23,000 ($20-45). When you consider that the import tax is about 90% (calculated on top of the warehouse price, plus shipping, plus insurance), they are reasonably priced. For example, the Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay sells for about $10.99 in California. But that same bottle shipped to New York costs about $19, including local taxes. Here, the same bottle sells for about $26.


When you pop the cork, make sure you catch that fruit as it leaps out of the glass. Then sit back and enjoy a glass of the United States’ favorite chardonnay – perhaps while watching a “Sideways” DVD for some authentic California ambience.

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