Randy Ullom heads winemaking at Kendall-Jackson, overseeing the company’s entire portfolio of 35 brands producing over 5 million cases each year. Ullom joined the company in 1992 to lead production of a couple of KJ’s specialty brands, but since 1997 has held the title Winemaster. Since then, the company has experienced many changes.
I recently spoke with this Ann Arbor native’s early experiences in the wine industry.
You were introduced to winemaking while in Chile back in the ’70s. What do you think about the evolution of Chilean wine since then?
The change has been extraordinary. Back then they were comparing the Cauquenes region with that of Sonoma and the cooler regions we have here. Folks down there are now planting up on hills, benches, and ridges. We had started doing that at our company, Calina, 21 years ago.
You also made wine in New York and Ohio, historical powerhouses of wine production before Prohibition. What was it like shifting to California, with its wholly different climate and geology?
Much better climate, therefore better grapes—meaning vinifera versus the native American grapes and hybrids. It’s no fault of the East Coast for dominating with those cultivars due to the extreme growing conditions and severity of their cold winters. Winter hardiness is something Vitis vinifera does not have.
Also, we can use fewer sprays here in California because of the lack of rain and moisture. Grapes are easier to grow and keep insect- and mildew-free. Almost too easy! Sunshine every day—my goodness.
How much time do you get to spend in the vineyards?
From December to February, perhaps once a month. From March to April, once a week.
From May to June, twice a week. From July to mid-August, three times a week. From mid-August to November 10th—it’s six to seven days a week.
What’s the most difficult grape that you’ve worked with?
Pinot Noir—it has a mind of his or her own!
What’s the one magical wine and food pairing you return to over and over again?
At the December holidays, it’s Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay ($15, 13.5% abv.), fresh Dungeness crab, and a French baguette.
Additional information on the winery and its products can be found at kj.com.