Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
When I first laid eyes on Randy Ullom, the last thing I thought was “here is one of America’s premier winemakers.”While I’m not sure what a winemaker is supposed to look like, the guy standing in the lift line at Beaver Creek in blue jeans, rear entry Hanson ski boots and 1970s-era Rossignol skis, would not have been the prototype. But his retro look, capped by a Sundance Kid-style mustache clinging to his upper lip, was intriguing enough that I was compelled to sidle up next to him, catch a ride up the mountain and find out his storyWhen we got on the chairlift, I asked Sundance about his aged equipment. “I love my skis and boots and they work,” he said simply. “So why change?” He had bought them as a college student in the mid 1970s when he was doing a stint at the University of Utah and has skied them on slopes around the world. This was a sign of loyalty, stubbornness or consistency – traits that tend to merge in men of integrity.As our conversation began to lag, I asked him where he lived: “Healdsburg, California,” came the reply. Sensing a connection, I queried further: “Are you in the wine business?” The mustache shifted slightly as he smiled and said, “Well, yes I am. I make wines for Kendall-Jackson.” Eureka.Since there is nobody on earth that I would rather talk to than a winemaker, I instantly latched onto Randy, looking forward to a day that would combine two of my favorite things, finely carved turns and winemaking lore. The first couple of runs were bliss. We spoke of oak as Randy explained that French forests had their own distinct characteristics that account for how a particular wood will affect a wine in the aging process. Similar to how the terroir of a region will have its influence on a vineyard. He equated the role of the Cooper who toasts the woods and makes the barrels to that of a winemaker in an analogy I could easily grasp.No doubt the day would have ended over a glass of Kendall-Jackson had it not been for a nasty fall that shattered my shoulder following our third run together. As I skied past Randy on my way to the clinic, I hollered that I hoped to see him again one day.Cut to this past weekend. Randy was here for a few days of turns and I was able to catch up with him and continue our previously interrupted conversation. Over a glass of Malbec (not from Kendall-Jackson), he picked up the story about how his brief tenure at the University of Utah led to a life in wine. Freshman year saw the young Randy Ullom spending more time in the Cottonwood Canyons then in class. Realizing that school was not his path, he packed a knapsack and headed for Chile. It was there he experienced vineyards and birthed a passion that would define his life. Two years later he enrolled in a wine program at Ohio State University and this time, after appropriate application, earned degrees in Enology and Viticulture, a powerful combination for a winemaker. After a stint in wineries in Ohio and upstate New York, Ullom headed west to Napa where he took a job with the legendary Cecil De Loach and helped to make De Loach Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Jess Jackson sought him out in 1993, putting him in charge of a vineyard in Santa Barbara; Jackson also put Ullom on airplanes, handing him responsibility for growing international properties in Australia, Argentina and, yes, Chile. Today, Randy’s official title is Wine Master at Kendall-Jackson. When he is not skiing, he is working up and down the California Coast with the seven different wineries, each of which has its own resident winemaker. The company sources grapes from more than 14,000 acres of vineyards and makes a wide variety of wines, even though they may still be best known for their best-selling Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. I recently tasted through a number of the Kendall-Jackson wines and was impressed by their consistent quality. That was as true with the $14-a-bottle 2009 Kendall Jackson Avant Chardonnay, a new addition to the portfolio that is made to appeal to the palates of those who prefer a crisp and clean style of Chardonnay, as it was with the small production 2005 Highland Estates Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon from Knights Valley in Sonoma County that sells for $70. If you can find it. There will be more on these wines in the weeks ahead.I guess the moral of this story is you can’t tell a winemaker by his ski boots.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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