Obviously, times are not good for many in the U.S. wine industry. Although Americans are buying as much wine as they ever have, they’re spending less, in reaction to the recession. Many producers of expensive wines are seeing their bottles languish on store shelves and restaurant lists, and have resorted to offering deep discounts to distributors, retailers and sommeliers in order to move product and keep the cash flowing. Wineries and vineyards are taking on investment partners in order to stay in business, and real estate agents tell of dozens of wineries that are the market in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, just waiting for a buyer.
So when the announcement came earlier this year that Vintage Wine Estates had purchased a share of Kunde Family Estate winery in Sonoma Valley, it seemed to be one more domino to fall, one more long-time producer needing a bailout. Yet my recent visit to Kunde, just outside the town of Kenwood, proved this was not the case. In fact, the Kunde family, which has grown grapes in Sonoma Valley since 1904, appears to be in better shape than ever, as a consequence of selling a minority stake in the winery to Vintage Wine Estates and retaining 51 percent ownership of the facility and brand, along with 100 percent of its 1,850-acre ranch, to which 700 acres are planted to wine grapes.
Vintage Wine Estates, owned by Pat Roney and Leslie Rudd (founder of gourmet grocer Dean & Deluca and Rudd Estate Winery), is now the managing partner of Kunde, adding it to its growing roster of wine brands, which includes Girard Winery in Napa Valley, Windsor Sonoma Winery, Grove Street Winery and Sonoma Coast Vineyards in Sonoma County. The Kundes will continue to produce the family brand.
The win-win of this wine partnership: efficiencies in sales and marketing for Kunde, which as a stand-alone brand did not have the market clout of Vintage Wine Estates -- particularly with its direct-to-consumer Windsor Vineyards arm, which has a gazillion-name data base of consumers who purchase wine over the telephone and online. VWE gets a prominently placed tasting room on touristy Highway 12 near Kenwood, and additional bottling capacity for its other brands. Kunde’s use permit allows for the bottling of 200,000 cases of wine a year; current production is close to 100,000 cases, so Vintage Wine Estates will take advantage of that capacity.
That’s all business stuff, and not all that interesting to many wine lovers, so here’s some more consumer-friendly news: Kunde is also in the midst of a major vine replanting and winemaking improvement program that is already delivering positive results in the newly released wines.
Some 80 acres of grapevines have been replanted with denser-spaced vine rows and incorporating a myriad mix of clones of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah thrives in the warm Sonoma Valley, and has been joined in the Kunde vineyards by other Rhône Valley varieties, including Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre. Tim Bell was hired away from Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley to be the Kunde winemaker in 2006, replacing David Noyes, who left to start his own brand, David Noyes Wines. And a new label design is entering the market, replacing the dated version with one that is clean and classic, depicting the winery and 1,850-acre ranch.
Based on the wines I tasted this month, Kunde has indeed lifted its game, with the viticultural enhancements coinciding with Bell’s winemaking skill. The wines, made entirely from estate-grown grapes, have always been good, yet some lacked pizzazz, with the exception of Kunde’s Magnolia Lane Sauvignon Blanc -- juicy and crisp, with an aromatic lift from the addition of Viognier -- and Reserve Century Vines (formerly Shaw Vineyard) Zinfandel, made from grapes grown on 120-year-old vines. Yet the Chardonnays, Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons could be hit or miss.
“With the new clones, tighter vine spacing and moving away from terraced vineyards to those up-and-down orientation, we’ve given ourselves more options,” says vineyard director Steve Thomas, who joined Kunde in 2005 from Kendall-Jackson. “The replanting has elevated our wine quality, and because we now grow more grapes than we can use, we keep the best for ourselves and sell the rest.” (One could assume that Vintage Wine Estates will be a buyer of some of the excess).
“It’s been a collaborative effort with myself, Steve and the family” adds winemaker Bell. “The changes in the vineyards, the influence of the clonal selections, the new blood and new ideas, are making a positive difference.”
The improvements are, indeed, showing up in the bottle. The Chardonnays (Estate, Reserve and the unoaked “Nu”) are crisper and more complex, made, as they now are, from 14 different clones. The Estate Syrah is meatier yet brighter, thanks to balanced acidity, and the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, which now comes from hillside fruit grown at elevations of up to 1,200 feet, is dense, spicy, with a pleasant herbal note and suave, supple tannins. Starting with the 2006 vintage, consumers should see Kunde wines with more nuance, deeper layers of flavor and brighter acidities.
Among the new ideas is Kundes’ February 2010 third-party certification from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance for its ecologically sensitive winegrowing practices. Jeff Kunde, a fourth-generation family winegrower, leads Eco-Hiking Tours of the ranch, where participants learn about such sustainable practices as bird boxes to house owls and raptors that keep the gopher population down, creek restoration, cover crops that harbor beneficial insects and help control erosion, cows munching on grass and contributing manure for composting, and more. The hikes also afford a commanding view of Sonoma Valley, and on clear days, also the Russian River Valley to the west, and Oakland and parts of San Francisco to the south and southwest, respectively.
On my recent visit, Jeff Kunde was on an excavator, moving huge boulders into a semicircle that will become the retaining wall for a Mountaintop Tasting “room.” A deck and bar will be added, plus tables and chairs, allowing visitors to taste Kunde wines while admiring the view from 1,150 feet above the main visitor center.
Nothing about being a wine writer gives me more pleasure than to see a long-standing brand lift its game. It’s fun to discover the rising stars, of course, yet I get more satisfaction in revisiting a venerable winery that is taking all the right steps to improve itself and its wines. Kunde is such a producer, with a new spring in its step, and a partner promising to make Kunde Family Estate wines more visible and available to consumers.