Yes, Kendall-Jackson, as in the winery that has produced a Chardonnay that has remained the bestselling Chardonnay in the USA for the past 25 years. We were more than excited to chat with winemaster Randy Ullom, who has been working at KJ since 1993.
What’s your role at Kendall-Jackson?
I’ve been the winemaster for 25 years, which means overseeing how the grapes are grown, how the grapes are managed, when they are picked, how the harvest is going. I work with a core group of three to put together the final blend: Mark on Burgundy, Christie on Bordeaux and Fritz on everything else. We are a very close-knit team; we have been working together for many years and we share similar palates. There is also another group of people; we assign a flavour to each one of them. I am the only person who gets to taste everything!
How has your role changed throughout the years?
When I first got hired, I did all the international start-ups and created two brands in California. Then I was sent to Chile and opened a winery down there in Argentina, then Italy, the South of France and Australia. After that it is all about Kendall-Jackson. We have grown and are probably making four times as much now as we were back then. We keep on buying more vineyards, planting more and building more wineries. And, of course, testing and experimenting with new clones.
What makes Kendall-Jackson stand out among all other the wine brands and what is your favourite vintage in Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay collection?
Our wines are of very consistent quality; they are fruit forward and easily approachable. For vintage, I’d say ‘97 is a great vintage, and of course ‘15 has received wonderful scores. We are releasing a spectacular ‘16 vintage and waiting for the ‘17.
What is your personal attitude and philosophy towards wine?
Wine is very friendly. It is a socialiser that creates friendship. It is also wonderful with food, which reminds me that it is Dungeness crab season in California. Dungeness crab is best paired with Chardonnay, French baguette and some creamy cheese. Hairy crabs may be smaller than Dungeness crabs, but I do think they are quite similar.
Which is your favourite Kendall-Jackson wine to recommend? Do you have a recommendation that pairs best with a particular local Hong Kong dish?
The local climate here is quite tropical, warm and slightly humid, which means you’d want to have your wine chilled, but don’t have the wine too chilled or else the aromas won’t be shown. With the Hong Kong climate in mind, the Grand Reserve Chardonnay seems to pair well with the food we’ve been having. Chardonnay goes well with all kinds of shellfish, say raw scallops and amberjack.
If you weren’t a winemaster, what would you be doing instead?
I was getting a degree in mining and engineering because I love mud and dirt. That desire to be a geologist helped me a lot in understanding vineyards and soil. Making wine starts with vineyards, and vineyards are all about the earth. Soil defines the kind of wine produced. We experiment with different soil – we may try out different places, take one place and put different rootstock there or use different clones for one rootstock. We are constantly looking for the next great opportunity, trying to make the wine a little bit better every year – keeping ourselves busy and keeping the experiments going.
Any particularly unforgettable wine moments to share from the past 25 years?
Unforgettable, boy oh boy, I don’t even know where to start. This could be tasting some of the best wines in France, but mostly the process of finding, buying and developing a piece of land, planting and nurturing the grapes, getting the first crop, making the wine and ultimately bottling the wine, seeing it at the marketplace or restaurants, someone opening it. It’s just like seeing your baby for the first time; it almost makes me want to cry. The excitement is still there after 25 years. We are always finding new places; everything always goes back to the site, to the roots.
What is your goal in the Hong Kong and China region?
We’d like to be the number-one-selling Chardonnay here. We really hope to see one of our Chardonnays taking off, then we’d be able to say, “Well, it is not only the bestselling one in America but also in Hong Kong.” A few years back we introduced our Chardonnay to the Australian market. I thought that’d be like selling ice to Eskimos, but that’s not the case. We are now the number-one-selling imported Chardonnay in Australia. I want the same for Hong Kong. Our wines are richer and rounder than the ones produced in Australia as California has a cool climate, a cold Pacific and a really long growing season. It is hard to reproduce our grapes and flavours. I know red is big in Hong Kong, so we’d of course love to see our Chardonnay or Merlot being popular here.