Aspen Times Weekly: A tour de wine with Tucker Taylor |

Aspen Times Weekly: A tour de wine with Tucker Taylor

by Kelly J. Hayes


2013 Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay

The best-selling bottle of Chardonnay in the world, they make nearly 3 million cases of this from fruit grown throughout their estate vineyards in California. I don’t suppose I ever had the initial release from 1982, but I’ll bet I’ve had the majority of the vintages since. I’ll let the winemaker tell you what to expect from the 2013.

“Beautifully integrated tropical flavors such as pineapple, mango, and papaya with citrus notes that explode in your mouth. These flavors delicately intertwine with aromas of vanilla and honey to create depth and balance throughout. A hint of toasted oak and butter rounds out the long, lingering finish.”

Randy Ullom, winemaster

“Here. Try this.”

I took the leaf that Tucker Taylor just picked from the plant at our feet and placed it on my tongue. While half expecting a psychedelic reaction, as the exchange was slightly reminiscent of a Carlos Castaneda moment, I was delighted when my taste buds detonated with the flavor of raw oysters — without the slime or brine of course.

Had I closed my eyes I would have been certain I was at the Hog Island Oyster Company, just a few miles away as the seagull flies, on Tomales Bay. Instead, I stood in the earthbound garden outside the French-style Chateau at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens, surrounded not by oyster beds, but by lilacs, rosemary, buzzing bees and some of the most amazing herbs and vegetables on the planet … including the Oyster Leaf I had just been turned on to.

Wine lovers know well the wonders of Kendall-Jackson. From their Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, the best-selling American Chardonnay in the world and a gateway to quality wine for many since its first vintage in 1982, to the small lot productions of their estate- grown Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and a host of other varietals, KJ and its family of brands have established themselves amongst the pantheon of the world’s most significant wine producers.

What you may not know about is the extraordinary gardens and the education center at their flagship Bordeaux-style Chateau just outside of Santa Rosa in the Sonoma Valley.

For those who are passionate about vines, gardens and all things that grow, Kendall- Jackson offers what may be the most comprehensive and engaging experience of any wine country tasting room found anywhere. On a recent visit I took a public tour through the estate and gardens with the aforementioned Tucker Taylor. Even Castaneda would have been blown away.

The Garden Tour begins on a brick walkway honoring those restaurants and wine retailers who first took a chance on Jess Jackson and the early vintages of his fledging wines. The “Foundation of Friends,” as the path is billed, is as simple in its design as it is powerful in its effect.

The bricks tell the tale of humble origins and massive growth. They thank, in stone, those who participated in that growth. But most importantly, the bricks resonate with visitors who recognize the names of restaurants around the country where they have dined. Everyone who walks through, points to a brick and names a place they know and love. A place where they may even had a bottle of Kendall-Jackson.

Today over 100,000 retailers sell Kendall-Jackson’s wines, but the first 600 are recognized with bricks bearing their names and the year they began to carry the wines. Brick No. 1 is for the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan, where Jackson walked in in 1983 and hand sold his inaugural release.

At the end of the path lies a wonder of the wine world.

Surrounding a gazebo is a “tasting vineyard” that features vines planted with 23 different grape varieties. You can pick and taste berries from clean green Chardonnay, a cluster of dark Syrah or from a head pruned Zinfandel vine, and taste the differences in their flavor profiles. It is an amazing, palate-pleasing, educational experience and one could spend hours ruffling through the canopies, popping berries into the mouth.

Adjacent to the vines are red and white wine “Sensory Gardens” planted to herbs and veggies corresponding to the flavor profiles of the different grape varieties that you have just tasted. These gardens are divided amongst “descriptors” and “affinities.”

So, for example, the section of the garden devoted to Sangiovese, has cherries, red plums and roses planted to help “describe” the flavors found in the wines made from the grape. Beside them you’ll find zucchini, sweet peppers, garlic and tomatoes to demonstrate the produce that pairs well with wines made from Sangiovese. Again, so simple, but such a powerful tool for edification.

It was here that Tucker Taylor came over to say hello and take us through the culinary gardens he oversees. If ever a man found his correct calling it is Taylor. A business graduate from the University of Florida, Taylor moved to Chicago to trod the tried and true path of a professional life. But nature got in the way.

“I would grow herbs outside my window in Chicago,” he says with the gentle but direct voice that parallels his persona. “I began to see that this was something simple that I could do to enhance my cooking. I wasn’t a farmer, or even a gardener, but I realized that by just growing herbs in pots I could connect with nature and make my food taste better.”

Recharged he found his way to California where he eventually took a position tending the culinary gardens for Thomas Keller’s restaurant, The French Laundry. For serious culinary enthusiasts this small plot of land across the street from the restaurant in Yountville, California, is mecca. A veritable Garden of Eden, where wondrous, delectable discoveries are made. Including that Oyster Leaf.

“Thomas was in France a few years ago and someone gave him an Oyster Leaf,” Taylor said in recounting how the Mertensia maritime found its way to the kitchens of Northern California.

“He took a photo on his phone of the leaf and sent me a text that said ‘we need this. ‘When Thomas says he needs something it means he needs it now,” Tucker chuckled. “So I began to research it. Finding it had origins in Scotland. I knew it would grow well in the Napa Valley so I contacted a grower in France. By the time Thomas returned from his trip it was in the garden.”

Taylor moved to take charge of Kendall-Jackson’s 3.5-acre culinary gardens three years ago. Leaving such a high-profile position at the French Laundry may seem questionable to some, but Tucker had his reasons. “At the Laundry we had just a select few diners each night,” he explained, “and, as we all know, it is an expensive meal (the nine-course menu at the French Laundry is currently $295 per person). I feel like here I can make a bigger impact, as the program allows me to reach out to many more people and spread both the message about organic gardening and great foods to a much more diverse audience.”

The “program” has a number of different elements. “First, it’s an educational garden,” Taylor says, in reiterating the garden’s origins as defined by the late Jess Jackson who passed away in 2011. But it is much more than that. The garden also serves as a source for the on-site kitchens run by chef Justin Wrangler. And there is a growing business selling fresh produce and herbs from the gardens to Bay Area restaurants including Chez Panisse, Quince and Rich Table.

But perhaps most importantly to Taylor is that the gardens can serve as an organic incubator for the other properties owned by the sustainability-obsessed Kendall-Jackson that range from California to Oregon, here in the States and from Australia to Chile and Italy abroad. “There is an opportunity here to work with our internal organic task force and Julia Jackson (Jess’s youngest daughter) to take the lessons learned from our gardens and apply them to the other win-e-growing regions we are in.” Taylor says with conviction, “We can push the envelope throughout the world.”

A visit to a tasting room can be great fun. But a visit to the Kendall-Jackson Estate and Gardens can be a mind alternating experience.

Be sure to ask to try the

Oyster Leaf

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at