Kendall-Jackson has been producing the top-selling chardonnay in the U.S. for 25 years, and the winemaker behind the brand all that time has been Randy Ullom.
As senior vice president and “winemaster,” Ullom, 64, oversees production for the Kendall-Jackson portfolio and continues to guide operations in Chile. Supplying the brand are 12,800 acres of estate vineyards in cooler coastal California winegrowing regions, one-third each in North Coast, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties. Often called “K-J,” it is part of Jackson Family Wines, a Santa Rosa-based group of brands, making 6 million cases a year on multiple continents.
North Bay Business Journal will be recognizing Ullom in the Winemaker category of the Wine Industry + Spirits & Beer Awards at an event Nov. 28.
Since coming to the winemaster role at Kendall-Jackson in 1997, Ullom directed a refinement of grape sourcing that led to the upperscale Grand Reserve and Vintner’s Reserve tiers. Moving the Cardinale brand to the then-newly purchased Robert Pepi Winery in Napa Valley allowed for the creation of the Stature flagship Kendall-Jackson label.
Ullom shifted sourcing for Vintner’s Reserve merlot and cabernet wines from “coastal California” to three counties and then to simply Sonoma County. Similar quality enhancements came from moving syrah wines to Santa Barbara sourcing and zinfandel to Mendocino vineyards.
Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay has remained No. 1 in U.S. sales for that varietal wine by “truth in quality and origin,” Ullom said. That includes using all chardonnay grapes and from the same vineyards year after year, employing real barrels for fermentation and aging “on the lees” (leftover yeast).
“Younger consumers may be adventurous when it comes to food and wine, but we believe in the end, quality, craft and authenticity will prevail in creating a loyal consumer down the road,” Ullom said.
And for younger consumers and others wanting a different chardonnay, Ullom’s team created the Avant label, which downplays oak overtones in the wine.
Ullom’s journey to Jackson started while watching his father make wine at their Ann Arbor, Michigan, home. During a three-year college sabbatical in Chile, he decided to focus on viticulture and enology, graduating from Ohio State University with such a degree in 1975. After six years as a vineyard manager and winemaker in Ohio and New York, he was hired in 1981 as associate winemaker for DeLoach Vineyards, owned since 2003 by Napa Valley-based Boisset Collection.
“The key for me was simply great chardonnays, pinots and zinfandels, especially vineyard-designated zins,” Ullom said. “Also, I focused on making wines from Sonoma County, Russian River Valley that were fun to drink, mouth-filling and, ironically, similar to those of Jess Jackson.”
Jackson took notice and hired him in 1993 to reopen the Edmeades winery in Mendocino County.
“He had, obviously, seen my work and felt that I was even-keeled, had a similar palate to him and, importantly, understood most all varietals, especially chardonnay,” Ullom said. “And that I had a good business understanding and logic, so he could trust me.”
Ullom restarted the first vintage then passed on the responsibility to others. Jackson also in 1993 tasked him with starting the Camelot brand, and he oversaw it until it was sold along with the Pepi and Tin Roof brands to O’Neill Vintners & Distillers.
Ullom was involved with Jackson’s purchase of land in Chile for and startup of Viña Calina, now called Viña Alcance. He oversaw development of the infrastructure and vineyards as well as construction of the winery.
In Argentina, he helped develop the Bodega Tapiz brand in 1996, guiding the planting of vineyards and operation of the winery until it was sold in 2003.
In Australia, Ullom in 2000 found the McLaren Vale property that would become the Yangarra Estate brand. He developed a two-tier brand and purchased the winery and vineyards before turning it over to Peter Fraser to run.
Another innovation from Ullom and the Kendall-Jackson production team was a robust winemaker’s software database that has been refined by in-house talent to become an enterprise application also for planning, sales, production and finance.
Jeff Quackenbush (firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and real estate