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Kenwood's Artist Series
By Gerald D. Boyd
Mar 24, 2009
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Anniversaries are times of celebration when folks gather to remember the past and all the intervening years.  We celebrate weddings and birthdays and anniversaries and even when our son finally went out and got a job.  But celebrating the debut of a wine label?  Now that's unusual.

Not so at Kenwood Vineyards, the Sonoma County winery that introduced the wine world to California's first artist wine label.  It was 1975 and the now-memorable "Naked Lady" pastel art panel placed above the black and white Kenwood label on the 1975 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon quickly became a wine country cause celebre.  Not that Kenwood or the artist, David Lance Goines, intended it to cause a controversy (well maybe Goines secretly thought his drawing of a naked lady reclining on a hillside vineyard might stir up the establishment), but at the time, who knew.

The story of how Kenwood, Goines and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now known as Tax & Trade Bureau) resolved their differences concerning the 'Naked Lady' label is vital to the success of what has surely become one of California's most successful wine marketing schemes, and we'll get to that later, but first a few words about the Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1978, Kenwood Vineyards had been in business in the Sonoma Valley for eight years, and co-owners and founders Mike and Marty Lee and John Sheela decided they wanted to bottle their first Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 1975 vintage, with a label that departed from what was, at the time, the standard label design.  The 1975 was 100% Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced mainly from hillside vineyards in the Mayacamas Mountains.  By the 1983 vintage, winemaker Mike Lee added a little Cabernet Franc to the Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon.  Current winemaker J. Patrick Henderson notes that Malbec was added to the blend in the late 1990s.  'We liked a hint of Malbec for its bright fruit, and also because it took away the astringency of Cabernet Sauvignon but didn't water down the overall tannins,' says Henderson.    

The idea was not to formulate a static blend and style, but allow for such changing factors as vintage variations.  About the evolving style of the Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Henderson says, 'To me it still tastes like a Cabernet, but with more youthfulness, compelling notes of cherry, a little mint, dark fruits, maybe figs, with good mouth feel but not astringent, and most of the recent ones are over 14 percent alcohol.' 

With the release of the 2004 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Kenwood celebrates 30 years of art and wine, a concept compared to the very practice of winemaking that many believe is an art in itself.  The Artist Series Collection is a work in progress, for both the art of the label and the art of the wine in the bottle.  Works by contemporary artists were the focus from 1975 to 1986, including Charles Mingus (1978), Josef Eidenberger (1981) and Don Clausen's 'Blue Moon' label that graced the 1986 Artist Series label, which Paul Young, director of sales and marketing for Heck Estates, Kenwood's parent company, claims has been the best selling Artist Series wine.  Various important artists, from impressionist to abstract, followed, including Joan Miro (1987), Pablo Picasso (1989), Henry Miller (1992), Alexander Calder (1993), Wayne Thiebaud (1996), Tamara de Lempicka (2001) and Vincent Van Gogh (2003)…'Starry, starry night!'

Goines' famous 'Naked Lady' label was the first and only artist label that employed a separate small art work in conjunction with the winery's front label.  All of the subsequent 29 pieces of art chosen for the Artist Series became the label.  Although the Kenwood Artist Series label series originally drew its inspiration from the noted art labels of Bordeaux's Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, the Mouton labels have always been two part: The classic main label and the art strip placed above it.  With few exceptions (like the Goines' label), Kenwood does not commission art, but selects the painting or drawing, then obtains permission to use the piece on an Artist Series label. 

The story of the 'Naked Lady' label is more complicated, reflecting layers of annoying government bureaucracy and the now quaint-seeming social attitudes of the day.  In 1978, Marty and Mike Lee and John Sheela were discussing the future of Kenwood's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Mike commented that he always liked the Ch. Mouton-Rothschild inspired art label.  So the idea was hatched for a Kenwood artist label, and the partners commissioned local artist David Lance Goines to create an original art work to accompany the label for the reserve-style 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Paul Young, director of sales and marketing, says that the partners' idea was to have an elegant, distinctive merging of art and wine.

The image they got from Goines featured a naked woman reclining on a vineyard slope.  Problem was, the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency that would approve the label, did not see the elegance or even the humor in the artwork.  In response to their request for label approval, Kenwood received this reply: 'The drawing of the young lady must be deleted.  More specifically, the Bureau regards the picture as 'obscene and indecent' under regulations 27CFR4.39(a) 3….'

But Kenwood had already sent out 228 bottles with the Naked Lady label before receiving the reply from BATF (now the TTB).  So, when Goines was contacted and told of the dilemma, he submitted a tongue-in-cheek re-do of the label (and a scathing written response aimed at BATF) of a skeleton in place of the naked lady.  That too was rejected, and ultimately the approved label depicted a benign grassy hillside and nearby stream.  'It was the kindest thing that could have happened to us,' comments Pat Henderson about the label brouhaha.  The unintentional misstep launched the Artist Series program in a big way and continues to be a success for Kenwood with the annual release of about 2,000 cases of the special Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ironically, the Kenwood label controversy surrounding the Naked Lady returned to grace the label of the 1994 Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon.  Paul Young recalls that Goines wanted 'a more intense depiction of the reclining nude,' so Kenwood re-submitted the label for approval.  'This time the request was hand-walked through BATF and apparently we found the right person for approval,' says Young. 

In contrast, the current release of the Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 was commissioned by artist Shepard Fairey.  'Peace Woman' depicts a young woman wearing a head scarf, done in reds and earth tones, 'a symbolic representation of the peaceful, nurturing side of humanity, perfectly complementing and contrasting the nuances of the Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a delicate balance between bold flavors and subtleties of Sonoma terroir.'  Times, of course, have changed, and the federal label approval has become more liberal with the approval of various wine labels that probably would not have made muster in the 1970s, such as the skull and crossbones on the Armida Winery Poison red wine, first released in 1999. 

In a recent visit to the winery, I tasted a range of Artist Series Cabernets dating back to the lively 1996.  Currently available are 2004 and 2003 Artist Series Cabernets, both priced at $75 for the 750ml bottle.  Paul Young says that Library Packs containing the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Artist Series are available at $450, and a new Library Pack of the 2000, 2001 and 2002 will soon be available, also at $450, while 1.5 liter bottles of the 2002 are being sold for $175.