A Taste of History With Kenwood Vineyards Winemaker Zeke Neeley

I gathered recently with Zeke Neeley, Kenwood Vineyards winemaker, and a group of wine enthusiasts for a virtual tasting of four wines sourced from the historic Jack London Vineyard located on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The story that unfolded is one of appreciation for the wilds of Sonoma Mountain, relationships solidified with a handshake and the delicious wine that resulted. We received four wines as tasting samples to accompany the discussion.

Beauty Ranch and Jack London Vineyard

The Jack London Vineyard sits on the eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain on rolling hillsides. The communities of Glen Ellen and Eldridge are nearby. California native and author Jack London purchased the property, which included an abandoned vineyard and winery, in 1905 with an eye to becoming a rancher. London fell in love with the wild and rugged terrain and purchased additional acreage over time. He named his beloved property Beauty Ranch, and lived there off and on until his death in 1916, as did his wife Charmian until her death in 1955. Both are buried there.

Family members continued to manage the ranch and in 1959 gave a portion of the land to the state of California. A few original structures remain and 800 acres of the property have been preserved as Jack London State Historic Park.

Jack London Vineyard, which is still family-owned, was planted in 1972 by relatives of Jack London, among them Milo Shephard who was born on the ranch. The harvest of 1976 is where the history of Jack London Vineyard and Kenwood Vineyards intersects.

The History of Kenwood Vineyards

What would become Kenwood Vineyards in 1970 was part of a land grant — the 18,883-acre Rancho Los Guilicos granted to Juan (John) Wilson by the Mexican government in 1837. The larger property was sold off in parts over the years and Amedeo Pagani, who immigrated to the US from Fenegro, Italy in 1889, bought a small part of the land in 1905.

Amadeo and his brother, John, built a winery and established a bulk wine business, Pagani Brothers Winery, in 1906 making it one of the first in the area. The next generation of the family managed the winery up until the time it was purchased by John Sheela, Mike Lee, Sr., and Mike and Marty Lee in 1970.

The families renovated, expanded and modernized the old winery and changed the name to Kenwood Vineyards. They increased production and at the same time built a reputation for quality wine and have become specialist in the many terroirs of Sonoma County. Mike Lee was the boots-on-the-ground guy who worked the winery. Zeke noted that the Kenwood Vineyards tasting room is located in the old Pagani winery.

That first harvest from Jack London Vineyard in 1976 was promised to another winery, which backed out of its commitment at the last minute. Milo Shepard then offered part of that first harvest to Mike Lee, who agreed to purchase it based on a handshake agreement. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. From 1977 on, Mike Lee honored that handshake agreement with Shephard and the entire crop from Jack London Vineyard is still purchased by Kenwood Vineyards to this day.

Ownership of Kenwood Vineyards has changed over the years. In 1996, the Korbel Brothers acquired a 50 percent stake in the property, and purchased the remainder in 1999. Pernod Ricard purchased Kenwood Vineyards in 2014. That handshake agreement for the Jack London Vineyard grapes has since been formalized, but it stands as the longest-running contract in Pernod Ricard history according to Zeke.

Meet Zeke Neeley

Kenwood Vineyards winemaker, Zeke Neeley, has his own special connection to Sonoma County. He grew up in Daly City, south of San Francisco, and went on to earn a degree from UC Davis in biochemistry. Ultimately he was drawn to the creative aspects of winemaking and returned to UCD for a master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology.

Zeke has fond memories of time spent in Sonoma as a boy at his grandparents’ home in Sonoma County and still feels that strong connection to the region. Zeke joined Kenwood Vineyards as winemaker in 2017, bringing with him winemaking experience from Santa Cruz, Carneros and Napa.

A Taste of Jack London Vineyard

The Jack London Vineyard is planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah. Zeke noted that the mountain vineyard is unique site for Merlot and Zinfandel in particular allowing those varieties to maintain acidity and tannin structure.

Jack London Vineyard map. Photo provided by Zeke Neeley photo
Jack London Vineyard map. Photo provided by Zeke Neeley

The vineyard covers rolling hills with variable orientation and sun exposure, which, in addition to requiring hand picking, means a given variety ripens at different times. This means harvest must be completed in pieces and parts, requiring patience. And portions of some blocks are shaded by redwood trees. All of these complexities give Zeke lots of flavor components from each variety to work with in the wine cellar. The Jack London Vineyard is certified sustainable by Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW).

2016 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Red Wine Blend, Sonoma Mountain photo
2016 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Red Wine Blend, Sonoma Mountain

2016 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Red Wine Blend, Sonoma Mountainlight ruby in the glass with generous aromas of plums, blackberries with notes of oat hay and cedar. Complex flavors of blackberries, tart raspberries and earth blend with hints of vanilla. Grippy tannins are well integrated with the generous flavors. 14.8% abv. SRP $35

This red blend of 62% Zinfandel, 21% Merlot and 17% Syrah is lively, bright and complex. It’s easy sipping with great structure. Zeke takes full advantage of the acidity and structure provided by Zinfandel and Merlot in this delicious wine he describes as fun. The blend will vary with every vintage depending on the flavor profiles of each variety.

2016 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain photo
2016 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain

2016 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountaindark ruby in the glass with generous aromas of dark fruit with hints of mint and eucalyptus leaves in the background. Flavors lead with red fruit flavors of raspberries, blackberries, earth and dried eucalyptus. Tannins are a bit grippy and gauzy in a medium body. 15.2% abv. SRP $35

Beautiful fruit flavors with a bit of interest from herbal notes in the background. 78% Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with 16% Merlot and 6% Syrah. This wine is widely distributed and should be easy to find.

2018 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Dry Farmed Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain photo
2018 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Dry Farmed Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain

2018 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Dry Farmed Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountaindense ruby in the glass. More restrained aromas of dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries. Tart flavors of blackberries and raspberries blend with earth and dried herbs. Tannins are drying and grippy in a just-medium body. 14.1% abv. SRP $55. Only 500 cases made.

Gorgeous fruit flavors float in a lighter body with plenty of structure. Lovely to sip or pair with a meal. This small production wine, is 100% sourced from a dry-farmed block of Cabernet Sauvignon on the ranch. Over time, the vineyard manager noticed this block didn’t need irrigation, due to underground spring water, so he quit irrigating the vines. Zeke decided to highlight this unique block in this bottling. It should age gracefully for years to come and Zeke intends to make this dry-farmed wine every vintage. 

2018 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Wild Ferment, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain, photo
2018 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Wild Ferment Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain

2018 Kenwood Vineyards, Jack London Vineyard, Wild Ferment Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountaindark ruby. Restrained aromas of red and dark fruit with earthy notes. Flavors of blackberries, raspberries, earth, iron and dried mint. Tannins are drying and grippy in a just-medium body. 14.9% abv. SRP $55. Only 500 cases made.

Warmer fruit flavors combine with interesting earth and iron notes. All are supported by lovely tannins and not at all weighty. “This wine scared the living daylights out of me,” Zeke admitted with regard to relying on native yeast to ferment this wine. “It turned out wonderful, different from any other Cabernet from the ranch,” Zeke noted, making those anxious hours worthwhile. He intends to make this wine in vintages when the quality of the fruit allows.

The Jack London Vineyard Red Blend and Cabernet Sauvignon have a wolf image on them that comes from London’s Beauty Ranch. The Dry-Farmed and Wild Ferment wines show images of Jack London captured at the ranch giving these wines a direct connection to the ranch and vineyard. 

All of these wines are available at the Kenwood Vineyards tasting room or online directly from the winery. The Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is also available from Wine.com, Total Wines and Vivino.

If you’re looking for a bit of Sonoma history along with your glass of wine, look to these wines made by Kenwood Vineyards from the Jack London Vineyard. Each is delicious in its own way. It was a pleasure to taste them with the person who crafted them. Thank you Zeke!

Cheers!

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