Randy Ullom with Kendall-Jackson wines at The Modern restaurant in Manhattan

Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson’s winemaster, had two words to say about the origins of a wine barrel: “Prove it.”

As half of the Kendall-Jackson, Jess Jackson—along with his wife, Jane Kendall Wadlow Jackson—created one of the biggest and best-known wine companies in the world. But his barrel business is a behind-the-scenes story that illustrates the same attention to detail that propelled the winery from an idea to a worldwide business in just two decades.

In 1982, Jackson, then a land-use attorney, released his first wine: Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which created a new class of inexpensive California wines termed “Fighting Varietals,” wines that were labeled as varietals, but closer in price to generic, blended wines like “Mountain Chablis” or “Hearty Burgundy.”

As the Kendall-Jackson brand developed, barrels became an issue Ullom recalled, at a recent dinner at The Modern restaurant in Manhattan. Knowing where the oak came from, how it was treated, and made into a barrel was a mystery that, at times, had an unsatisfactory ending. Along with that, Jackson was concerned about the barrels supply, should something happen to his source.

John Boswell, third-generation owner of World Cooperage, a premium wine barrel producing company in Lebanon, Missouri, was supplying American oak barrels to Kendall-Jackson. In 1990, Boswell and Jackson partnered to purchase Merrain International, a French saw mill adjacent to the Darney forest not far from the Belgian and German borders (occasionally, a felled tree is found to have bullets in it from World Wars I and II). They converted Merrain to a stave mill, giving them quality control of the oak staves for Kendall-Jackson barrels.

Oak trees in the Darney forest inspected by Pierre Seillan,  winemaker and partner with Jackson Family Wines at Chateau Lassegue in St. Emilion.

While French oak barrels are ubiquitous in the wine business, few wine consumers know that nearly all French oak barrels come from trees in forests owned by the French government. Considered national treasures, the forests cover more than 20 percent of France, and were developed in the days of wooden ships. Back then, the forests were maintained for the nation’s survival against the Spanish and British armadas. Today the forests are rooted in France’s economic survival.

For Kendall-Jackson, owning Merrain International meant not being at the mercy of various coopers for information about oak sourcing, and methods used for treating the staves that formed its barrels.

Oak Trees marked and coded at Marrain saw mill

By French regulations, the minimum cutting age of an oak tree is 160 years, but the usual range is 200 to 250 years old. To put that in perspective, it means the a tree harvested today for a Kendall-Jackson barrel was a seedling at the time George Washington, John Adams and Patrick Henry met at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774.

Ullom said the 2015 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is aged for seven months in a mix of 44 percent French and 53 percent American oak barrels, of which 10 percent are new (the remaining three percent remains in stainless-steel tanks).

Because only 10 percent of the barrels are new, the oak influence on the wine’s aroma and flavor is subtle. Composed of fruit from vineyards as far north as the cool climate Mendocino County to warm Santa Barbara County in the south, the 2015 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay delivers tropical-fruit aromas, and a pear and pastry cream flavor underlined with soft acidity. It is instantly drinkable, and shows why it’s been a consumer favorite from the inaugural 1982 vintage. 88 points. Retailers buy at volume price points and sell accordingly; so you’ll find prices range from $11 to $18.

The entire oak tree is not converted into barrels. The bottom 10 feet is the most valuable and used for furniture; above that height, the tree is cut for oak barrel staves. Merrain ages the staves outdoors for two years, then codes and ships them to World Cooperage where the barrels are made for wines such as the 2015 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay.

Oak staves aging outdoors and coded at Marrain.

Only the top five percent of Kendall-Jackson’s chardonnay grapes, from Monterey and Santa Barbara County vineyards, is used for the Grand Reserve Chardonnay bottling. It is aged for eight months in oak barrels, 79 percent are French, of which 29 percent are new, and the balance is American.

The grape selection and barrel assignment gives the 2015 Grand Reserve Chardonnay a richer mouthfeel and more depth than the Vintner’s Reserve. It shares the tropical fruit traits and a mild citrus finish. 88 points.  This wine also has a wide price range of $13 to $21, shop accordingly.

The 2014 Kendall-Jackson Stature Chardonnay is “the pinnacle of our winemaking,” said Ullom as it was poured into my glass. Only seven French oak-aged barrels of wine were made.

Four barrels of the wine are from Kendall-Jackson’s prized Camelot vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and three barrels from its Neely vineyard in Los Alamos, both in Santa Barbara County.

The limestone and sandy soil vineyards have a long, warm daytime growing season with cool summer nights giving the grapes an ideal balance of fruit and acidity.

The influence of the oak after a year’s aging is found in the floral scent intertwined with a white fruit aroma in the 2014 Stature Chardonnay. Very tasty pineapple and peach fruit flavors are balance with minerality, giving the wine a long, pleasing finish that was perfect with The Modern’s seared prawns and grapefruit confit. 92 points. Retail is approximately $80 to $100. Only 91 cases were made; a few retailers were offered the wine, but most if it is sold at the winery and through the Kendall-Jackson website.

Kendall-Jackson’s policy of controlling every detail from the tree to the barrel created a process that led to French regulations that now document every step of the barrel making—from numbering the trees to identifying codes on the staves and barrels. It all became traceable and answered the Kendall-Jackson demand to “prove it.”

Photos by John Foy