Variety is the Spice of…Wine: Kenneth Volk Vineyards

ken vThe wine business is so glamorous … like when Ken Volk first started out, making wine in a neighbor’s garbage can and crushing grapes with a baseball bat. Wow, that sounds kinda crazy, but it shows determination, ingenuity, and a non-conforming personality.

But it turned out all right. Ken Volk ended up building Wild Horse Cellars into a 160,00o case winery and then selling it for what we hope were big bucks to the liquor conglomerate Jim Beam.

I remember meeting Ken back in the Wild Horse days. We were wine distributors at the time and he spent the best part of an afternoon with us, talking and tasting what seemed like dozens of varieties. Heck, there probably were dozens of labels: while he was best known for his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Ken just never held with the common wisdom that you should concentrate your resources and energy on a few “fighting varietals” (you know, Cab, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir). Instead, he experimented with practically every grape he could find, usually with very good results.

And he hasn’t changed a bit. He launched Kenneth Volk Vineyards in  2004 when he purchased a run-down winery facility in the Santa Maria Valley that had been the original Byron winery. After a year of “fix-up,” he started making wine from his estate Chardonnay grapes and fruit sourced from some of the best vineyards in Santa Barbara County.

He’s still known for his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but he’s up to his old tricks and produces several bottlings from what he calls “heirloom varieties.” These are grapes that are rarely seen on California labels, but can make good or great wines. And he’s right — I tried a few and was amazed with his results.

Before we get to the “weird” stuff, there were two more traditional varieties that I tried recently. The first couldn’t be more mainstream: Kenneth Volk Santa Maria Cuvee Chardonnay 2007. What was kinda non-traditional was the elegant style and drop-dead great balance of this wine. First, note that the vintage is 2007, and I was leary because while we’re only a few months into 2011, I know that lots of over-oaked, 100% malolactic California Chardonnays are way past their prime. This one made me feel like a sophisticated lady in a long sundress and floppy hat, cheering daintily at a polo match  as my man and his mount thunder up and down the field (or pitch, or whatever it’s called). Ken Volk Chardonnay is like a classic White Burgundy, with a delicate nose of pineapple and tapioca that leads into soft butterscotch. There’s a creamy mouthfeel and a hint of spice, and then it slides down your throat with a soft, tantalizing finish. I loved this wine, and it kept getting better the longer it was open.

Next  up was Kenneth Volk Paso Robles Viognier 2009. Now I gotta tell you that I’m not a fan of California Viognier. Too often this French grape becomes cloying and heavy, with so much honeysuckle on the nose that I feel like I’m stuck in an elevator with someone doused in old-lady perfume. The aromas of Ken Volk’s wine were subtle, but the mid-palate showed rich tropical fruit that slid into a crisp, mineral finish. If more wineries made Viognier like this, I think it would be a much more popular varietal in the U.S..

An heirloom varietal was the hit of our wine tasting. Ken Volk found a grape that I’ve seen from only one other producer, and they were way north in the Cienega Valley. Kenneth Volk Caleri Vineyard, San Benito County Negrette 2006 is hard to say but easy to drink. The nose belied the dense color with bright red berries and aromatic cedar. The palate was soft and velvety, with dark cherry, spice and vanilla. No wonder — this wine spent 30 months in French oak. The finish was smooth, velvety and vaguely exotic, leaving me feeling like the mysterious lady at the Moroccan baazar with a  scarf pulled halfway across her face…

So while I may have overdone the imagery, I can’t say enough about Kenneth Volk Vineyards. I think they’re a class act, and I hope I have the opportunity to taste more of their wines soon. Cheers!


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