- Rating: 95 out of 100
- Tasting Fee: $50-$110, depending on tour choice
- Accepts Reservations: Yes
- Reservation Required: true
Napa, CA 94558
Imagine you own 3,800 acres of pristine land in wine country and had the resources to hire world-class experts in every aspect of the winemaking process. Now open your eyes. You aren’t standing in front of Screaming Eagle, Harlan, or any other big name in the cult world today. You are standing in front of Kenzo Estates. Established by Kenzo Tsujimoto in the mid-1990s, this estate is the equivalent of the Royal Palace of Oz in from a fantasy wine novel… You know I love it since I am posting nine pictures of our tour and tasting there! It is quite a drive outside the town of Napa (both to its gates and then from its gates to the winery itself), but well worth it. If the pictures aren’t enough to entice you, how about these names: Heidi Barrett, David Abreu, and Thomas Keller (assuming you get the food pair option). The style of wine is very different from its Napa brethren (much more elegant with herbal notes) but carries similar price tags to the best. But as 80% of the wine is exported and consumed in Japan, don’t expect much availability in the market.
If you are reading this and lived through the 1990s-2000s, you’ll know the Japanese game publisher and developer CAPCOM. Kenzo just so happens to be the founder (most new winery owners made their money outside the wine world). In 1990, CAPCOM purchased the property that would become Kenzo Estate with the intentions of developing a resort. Imagine if that had happened… During his time at CAPCOM, Kenzo developed a burgeoning interest in the Napa Valley after the Judgement of Paris in 1976. This no doubt led to the purchase of this land and hope to share Napa with visitors of the resort. Unfortunately, the resort didn’t pan out, so Kenzo personally acquired the property in the mid-1990s and moved on with another plan.
It was only after some people approached him about wanting to plant vines there that he saw the potential for planting a vineyard and producing his own wine. And it is easy to see why they did. The land itself has natural flowing slopes, it’s nestled in the hills above 1,500 feet, and still gets the effects of morning fog that burns off during the day. So what did Kenzo do? He brought in the best viticulturalist in Napa (David Abreu, who also owns a winery and produces $600 wine), my favorite winemaker (Heidi Barrett of Screaming Eagle fame), and even the best restaurateur in Napa (Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame who also owns his restaurant group). I don’t know how you beat that all-star lineup…
Kenzo started his enterprise in 2008 by selling his wines in Japan, which accounts for 80% of his current sales. He exports most of the 5,000 cases Kenzo Estate produces to high-end Tokyo restaurants, wine-club members, and fancy hotel bars. His master plan calls for an annual production of 16,000 cases and sales split 50-50 between the United States and Japan. That aspirations are high, but so is his devotion, level of resources, and farmable land. With the quality that Kenzo Estate is putting out, even with the younger age of their vines, I have no doubt that this goal is achieveable, so keep an eye out at you local high-end restaurants!
I will let my pictures above do the talking about the tour and what visiting the estate was like. For notes about the wines, see below:
- 2018 Asatsuyu ($80)
- A beautiful Sauvignon Blanc that spends 3 months in steel tank and 3 months in neutral oak. Green and yellow fruit, but also some grass notes. I like how this wine integrates the varietal character with the ripeness of the Napa Valley, rather than letting one dominate the other. A terrific example of “sense of place” that pushed me to purchase a couple bottles to share with friends.
- 2018 Yui ($80)
- 32% Malbec with the rest Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Beautiful pink salmon color and wonderful texture and mouthfeel that has body, but doesn’t possess overly extracted flavors or aromas. More grapefruit, peach, and strawberry flavors than other Roses I’ve had in the area. This is both a smooth enjoyable wine and a serious Rose that is unlike any others in the region. Really impressed by the flavor complexity, mouthfeel and great acidity. One of my favorite roses that I’ve tasted, period.
- 2016 Rindo ($130)
- Left bank Bordeaux Blend (46% Cabernet, 30%+ Merlot, with the rest Cabernet Franc) that is their flagship wine (highest volume produced). Deep, rich, cooked red fruit with low pitched baking spices. On the palate, this wine is softly textured and restrained in intensity. This isn’t your big, heavy traditional left-bank wine as the palate is brighter than the nose (cranberry and strawberry dominate). In its youth, this wine is soft enough to have alone, but presents enough intensity to pair with food.
- 2014 Murasaki ($290)
- 83% Merlot-dominant blend. Murasaki means purple in Japanese, in line with the color of the wine. The nose has brighter red fruit than the Rindo with some black fruit as well, but the baking spice is more accentuated on the nose. The palate has some electricity thanks to the acid and bright red fruit. It’s still very soft in body, texture, tannin and it has a medium(+) finish with a little green fennel at the end adding to the complexity. The finish grows on you as you have more of the wine, but this is both an engaging and relaxing wine at the same time.
- 2015 Ai ($280)
- 90% Cabernet Sauvignon with 2% each of other Bordeaux varietals filling out the rest of the wine. The nose on this wine is absolutely wild. Earthier and spicier than the other reds, the nose on this wine is like minestrone soup - meat, tomato, green pepper, corn, etc. On the palate, you still get those same notes, except a bit less in intensity with stewed red fruit integrated into the profile as well. This has to be one of the more unique wines I have ever tasted. I really hope to try this wine again to confirm that I and the bottle weren’t crazy that day…
- 2018 Muku ($50 for 375ml)
- This is a really great dessert wine. 95% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Semillon, this wine has a fragrant nose of rich yellow fruit and stonefruit, and pronounced intensity (they even serve it in a flute draw the nose back). On the palate, the acidity gradually builds, but doesn’t detract from the medium(+) body and the pronounced flavors that finish long. The ripeness isn’t overdone like some dessert wines either – this is like drinking nectar from nature. Very beautiful and pure… I made sure to buy a few bottles to enjoy myself when Royal Tokaji would be too intense and Sauternes would be too muddled.
Although the prices of the bottles are intimidating, the price for the tasting is not. If you can spare the time to do a 1000am tasting before driving back to Napa for lunch, I highly recommend you take the opportunity. As the brand’s reputation grows, it will become more difficult to secure reservations as the facility isn’t structured to handle large numbers of guests. And it’s not every day you get the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace of Oz in the real world, haha. Cheers!!
Rating: 95 out of 100