2003 Highland Estates “Seco Highlands” Pinot Noir, Arroyo Seco, CA

It’s easy for to dismiss big corporate wine producers as makers of industrial products far inferior to what small artisans can make. For the most part, that’s true, but some large corporate wineries got that big just because they were successful and were able to grow to meet the demand for their products in the marketplace. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no apologist for the corporatization of wine, but I do think sometimes we forget that some big guys started small, and still care about making great wine.

Kendall-Jackson, the 9th largest wine producer by sales volume in the USA, is one of the higher quality producers in that range. It is one of the few giant wine producers that is still family run, and now that Robert Mondavi is no longer associated with the winery that bears his name, it is the only one that is still controlled by its founder. Jess Jackson started the winery in 1982, quite possibly at the perfect moment of inflection in the California wine market. In the following two decades the winery grew rapidly, to the point where it now owns 12,000 acres of vines in Northern California and produces 5 million cases of wine annually.

While many of the big companies pay lip service to “small production” even as they gobble up mid-size wineries, Kendall-Jackson seems to allow the smaller wineries it owns (like Hartford Court, Lokoya, and Cardinale for example) a great deal of autonomy without the pressure to increase production.

In addition to having these wineries as distinct subsidiaries, the winery has a Kendall Jackson branded label called Highland Estates, under which they produce wines from many different small single vineyard properties they own around the state of California. This is in addition to the somewhat common “exclusive” line of single vineyard small production wines that many large wineries produce these days.

The Highland Estates label focuses on “properties located on mountains, ridges, hillsides and benchlands in cool coastal California vineyards.” The wines from this label are made in quantities from 300 to 3000 cases and often involve specific clonal selections (making deliberate blends of specific grape clones) and tailored oak regimens (the selection of certain types of oak from different places to complement the flavors in the wine). The wines are packaged in heavier weight bottles, and have fancy labels with line drawings of the particular vineyard from which they came.

This particular wine comes from a small vineyard in the Arroyo Seco appellation of Monterey County. It is backed up against the west side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, but has an easterly slope across an bench of sandy and gravelly soils laid down by ancient rivers. The vineyard site is quite foggy, making for some very cool nights. The wine is 100% Pinot Noir, and spent 9 months in 100% French Oak barrels, 50% of which were new before being bottled.

Critic’s disclosure: I received this bottle as a sample from the winery.

Tasting Notes:
A medium garnet in color with vivid purple highlights, this wine has a nice nose of mixed fresh herbs, dried cranberries, and black cherries. In the mouth it is smooth and well balanced with mellow cranberry and raspberry fruit flavors. It has a very clean taste, which is pleasant, but is missing some personality and complexity that might make this a much higher scoring wine. Even though it is 15% alcohol, it hides that very well.

Food Pairing:
With the classic cool-climate flavors of this wine, I’d pair it with something nice and savory, even on the salty side, like this herb brined pork prime rib roast.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $25-30

This wine has not yet been released to the public, but should be in the next few months.