On the Trail

Serious Merlot

David Driscoll
  Kathryn Kennedy winemaker Marty Mathis snaps a shot of the 2014 Merlot harvest in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Kathryn Kennedy winemaker Marty Mathis snaps a shot of the 2014 Merlot harvest in the Santa Cruz Mountains

As part of my continued education and understanding of California winemakers, I touched base recently with Marty Mathis, the owner and winemaker of legendary local producer Kathryn Kennedy in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. For those of you unfamiliar with the wines, Kathryn Kennedy was one of the original pioneers of California winemaking, earning her degree from Stanford at the age of nineteen and eventually founding one of the most iconic wineries in the state. She was inspired to plant a vineyard after moving to Saratoga and tasting a bottle of Martin Ray Cabernet, having seen similar Cabernet vineyards near her home. Kathryn planted her original estate vineyard almost half a century ago, and today Kathryn’s son Marty continues to specialize in Bordeaux varieties, continuing his mother’s heritage. Spending some time with him recently, I discovered he was planning on discontinuing one of the best wines in the entire portfolio: the Serious Merlot, one of the best and most honest expressions of the variety made in the entire state!  “In my thirty year career,” Marty told me, “I’ve probably crushed more Merlot than Cab—over thirty different vineyards from around California. Merlot is a fantastic variety, world class, but there’s not a lot of Merlot in the Santa Cruz Mountains, even though it’s better suited to the cooler climate.”

So why discontinue what is one of the “better suited” wines of the Kathryn Kennedy line-up? Because no matter how hard those of us who love Merlot try to fight it, the consequences of Paul Giamatti's fatal line in the film Sideways continue to effect the market more than a decade after its initial release. People still think Merlot is something to be avoided. “I called it ‘Serious’ Merlot because I hoped the Sideways effect had faded away a bit,” Marty continued; “I wanted something that could be considered alongside Pomerol and move away from the over-cropped California Merlot wines of the eighties. In our workings with small vineyards around Santa Cruz, we came across a few plots that we had used in our Small Lot Cabernet that we thought could stand on their own.” Those sites included two medium-sized vineyards around Lexington Reservoir, a residential vineyard in Saratoga, and another near Los Altos. Marty spared no expense in its creation, using all new French oak barrels for the nine month maturation. The result is immaculate; it’s a Bordeaux-like, Right Bank style of hearty red wine with dark, concentrated fruit, a full-bodied core of texture, and ample tannic structure for the long haul. The 2014 Kathryn Kennedy "Serious" Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot is one of the most perfect $50 bottles of California red wine I’ve had this year, yet we worked out a volume deal with Marty to get that price down even further. More importantly, this will be the last ever vintage of this wine, meaning these bottles will end up as historical testaments to real California winemaking, one that continues to be threatened by the perils of modern pop culture. 

-David Driscoll