You may have heard of this winery in the Napa Valley, California. Although not readily available, the name “Kenzo” must have reached wine connoisseurs. Quantity is limited and usually sold out quickly; a most elusive and mysterious wine, you may say.
I have tasted it in-flight, and have been to the eponymous restaurant in Roppongi, Tokyo. Piqued by interest, I just had to visit the winery to coincide with a business trip to San Francisco. Of course, I made reservations online in advance. It is located about 1.5 hours by car, north of the city and I used the Uber® car service. You have to be mindful that cell phone signal and Internet connection is poor around the winery so when returning, calling Uber® is tricky. Wi-Fi is available in the tasting room but you should inform the driver about the patchy Internet service so they are brave enough to venture into the estate.
This is the entrance gate. From here to the tasting building is 4km (about 2.5 miles). We took Uber® from San Francisco (about US$100) and the car left us at the gate – the guide had to come pick us up!
3800 acres of land in Black Horse Valley, into which, five Central Parks in NYC can fit. Only 5% is used for the vineyard, and 95% is intact in its natural state.
The Tasting Room is nicely appointed with attention to detail.
We started with Kenzo Estate’s only Sauvignon Blanc – Asatsuyu (morning dew) – a phenomenon that really happens in the vineyard from the fog. All the Kenzo Estate wines have Japanese names. This was a nice starter; not too sweet and not too dry – said to go very well with Oyster, Sushi, and Tempura.
With glasses of Asatsuyu in hand, we started the tour and our guide was Mai-san.
This Napa Valley vineyard was planned by David Abreu, a well-known vineyard management consultant who studied wine at UCD, and in France after that. He is a consultant to many high-end wineries. Look at these perfectly straight lines – it is his design, using laser-assistance. Kenzo hand-picked the team including Mr. Abreu.
Mr. Kenzo Tsujimoto, the owner, is the founder of Capcom, a video-game company well known for games such as “Resident Evil” (you may like the movie series too), “Monster Hunter”, and “Street Fighter”. He bought the land in 1990, thinking he would make it a resort facility for Capcom USA employees, but permits could never be obtained.
Requests were then received from many well known winemakers to lease the land for winemaking. As a wine collector, he decided to build his own winery instead. At first, he started making wines in 1998 with three types of Bordeaux vines. The first wine was made in 2000, but he was not happy with it and wondered how to make wines he could love.
In 2002, he decided to form a ‘Dream Team’ and assembled the best possible partners – Mr. David Abreu for vineyard management and Ms. Heidi Barrett for winemaking. They are both very well-known and work as consultants for many wineries.
Mr. David Abreu accepted the job with one condition – he asked to pull up all the vines already planted there (more than 100,000 vines). He did that and also the big rocks underneath. He planted new vines with his usual design – straight rows with slightly tilted side poles.
The vines are beautifully planted; notice the short length of the stem from the ground to harness the ground reflection effect. The more reflection of the sun, the more sugar the vine will yield. They will soon select about six good bunches and cull the rest; this is only half the yield of mass-produced wines. The work is done by Team Abreu – about 30 Kenzo Estate staff.
The first vintage of this winery was in 2005; Yes, it is still a new winery producing 17,000 cases annually on average.
Ms. Heidi Barrett “commutes” in her own helicopter and her magic makes the delicate taste of Kenzo Estate wine.
Grapes are pressed here without bare feet in sight!
This is the “cave”. It took two years to excavate this cave under the mountain. It is always cool in here.
This may be a bit wider and taller than in many other wineries. Why? Mr. Tsujimoto is not comfortable in confined spaces 🙂
All the barrels are imported from France. Last year was a difficult one and there are many empty barrels. Some seen are older vintage but the oldest is 2005, when Kenzo’s Dream Team made the first wine here.
The line-up of wines. The names are all Japanese: Asatsuyu (white), Yui (rose: “connection” or “knot”), Rindo (red: “gentian”), Asuka (red: name of a girl or “scent of tomorrow”), and Ai (red: “indigo”). Some are sold out already. Unseen is the Murasaki (red: “purple”) label.
The wine tasting menu includes a field test with sandwiches. We picked “Ham & Cheese” and “Roast Beef”. Fresh from “Bouchon Bakery” in Yountville, very well-known in the area and where you would have to wait in line but the staff went to pick them up for us. You must pre-order the sandwich for your tasting tour well beforehand online.
Currently, 80% of wine production is exported to Japan but there are restaurants in the USA where you can enjoy these wonderful wines. Please check out this List of Restaurants.
If you wish to try a tasting tour, please make reservation in advance. Friendly staff make you feel special and at home. Reserve online at the Kenzo website.
Lastly, but not the least, you can buy Kenzo fine wines online.
Many labels are “sold out” quickly and my recommendations are Asatsuyu, Yui, Ai, and Murasaki…. but your taste may vary. They have been uniquely blended with distinctive smell and taste; going very well with a variety of foods. The combination with foods is the inspiration for creating each wine.
Kenzo wines are offered on All-Nippon Airways’ Japan – North America route, in First Class.
Better still, there are two Kenzo Estate restaurants in Tokyo, and one each in Osaka and Kyoto (Gion District), where you can drink, eat and buy wines!
Thanks for your hospitality, Mai-san, Marie, and all the Kenzo Estate team!