Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kenzo Estate: Money well squandered

I went to Kenzo Estate expecting to mock it.

Kenzo Tsujimoto (left), who made a fortune as CEO of the Capcom video game company in Japan (which created Street Fighter and Resident Evil), spared no expense in making wines with his name on it.

He hired a dream team: Heidi Peterson Barrett as winemaker, David Abreu as viticulturist, Thomas Keller to create little nibbles for the tasting room. Lots of people hire the first two -- that's what every industrial magnate with an ego to match his cashwad does -- but getting the French Laundry/Per Se chef to make party finger food is what pushed Kenzo into the realm of egregrious consumption.

The winery invited the wine press to a couple of events that almost nobody covered because most of us are sick of refrigeration magnates or investment bankers hiring Barrett and Abreu (center and right, above) to make Napa Cabernet that they have to charge $250 for because their neighbor is charging $240.

So Kenzo went out of his way on July 1 by hiring limo buses to drive folks up from San Francisco to eat Keller's nibbles, try the wines and hang out in his pool house. I couldn't resist; I signed up.

The bottom line: The wines aren't that good, and the world has too many $150 Napa Cabs that aren't brilliant. But I can't write quite as snarkily as I might have. Here's why.

Kenzo seems like a nice, sincere guy. He isn't as much of an Ichiro-come-lately as he seems; he bought 4,000 acres in Napa in 1990, planning even then to create the kind of wine he likes: big, rich Napa Cabernet. The wines he served at his opening were from 2005 and 2006; he's had the dream team on board even longer than that, but kept it pretty quiet until earlier this spring, when the tasting room was ready to open. Barrett said, "I've already been here 8 years and we're just having the opening party."

The moment Kenzo won me over was at his speech, when he first recognized David Bader, owner/winemaker of nearby Phoenix Vineyards. David's a good guy, a small do-it-yourselfer of the type who have mostly been bought out of Napa as big money has moved in.

When Kenzo first came to Napa, he asked David for advice. Later he hired Abreu, Robert Parker's favorite leaf-puller, and Barrett. And they eventually shared the stage with Kenzo. But Kenzo didn't forget his first friend in the Valley, giving him a bouquet of flowers and the first crack at the microphone. You gotta respect loyalty.

I also noticed that Kenzo's employees seem to genuinely like working for him; that matters.

And while his wines are expensive -- from $60 for an oaky Sauvignon Blanc to $150 for a decent but not mind-blowing Cabernet Sauvignon -- they are, outrageous as this may seem, not overpriced considering what they are: single-vineyard wines from unique terroir made by Napa's leading wine consultants. In fact, considering the amount of money Kenzo spent setting up his dream, and the fact that he's been working on this for two decades without any return, it's fair to say they're actually priced below the cost of production.

Here's the thing. Let's say you earned $100 billion making teenage boys happy with video games they love. You like wine; big California Cabs are your favorite. You like eating at The French Laundry or, if you're feeling down-scale, Keller's second Yountville restaurant, Bouchon (when I asked him where he likes to eat during the half-year he spends here, those are the only two places he named.)

What's wrong with spending a huge amount of money on a beautiful, remote mountaintop, and enriching the creators of the food and wine you most enjoy? What's wrong with conspicuous consumption?

"I believe for the Bordeaux-style wine, Napa is the best in the world," Kenzo said, and his guests applauded. Why not? He meant it.

Just before he said the applause line, he said this: "David Abreu told me that if you want to create great wine, you have to taste great wine. I have a home in Kobe and I keep a 10,000 bottle cellar. Before making my own wines, I have tasted many wines with my friends every night."

Isn't that how you would spend $100 million, if you had made it from selling Street Fighter? And wouldn't you dream of saying this too: "I drink our Kenzo wines every night, and I feel grateful that I am able to enjoy such delicious wines every night."

It turns out that Kenzo is importing many of the bottles he doesn't drink himself to Japan, where their Japanese names are a marketing advantage. The $150 Cab is called Ai (a homonym; the letter on the label reads "indigo dye" but the sound means "love"), the softer $75 Bordeaux blend is called Rindo, the undrinkably hot $150 Bordeaux blend is called Murasaki ("purple") and the $60 Sauvignon Blanc is called Asatsuyu ("morning dew").

I asked Barrett if she made the wines differently, knowing most would got to Japan.

"Not really. I make what we can make best from his estate," said Barrett, who separates the harvest into 30 to 50 different lots. "It's a dream from a blending standpoint."

She did say that the Sauvignon Blanc, 10% of which sees new oak barrels, was specifically made for the Japanese market because it goes well with sushi. I was skeptical until I tried it that way, and I admit she was right. I love more tropically expressive Sauv Blanc, but I never have it with sushi. Of course, in Japan I could spend less than $50 in most restaurants for a sake that would be the brewery's best and would blow away any comparably priced wine, but that's another story.

In the end, I can't mock Kenzo Estate. I wouldn't spend $30 for the tasting-room experience, but it is a beautiful place. And if you like Barrett's wine, it's a lot cheaper and easier to get a $75 Rindo than, say, Amuse Bouche ($225 a bottle, but I liked the 2002 so much I still have the empty.)

I tried to sidle up to Kenzo and compare experiences. Amazingly, we had lived in the same small neighborhood of Tokyo (Minami-Azabu 4-chome). He mentioned a US military hotel near his home there; I mentioned the gourmet grocery store near my old apartment. There the conversation ended. Only later did I realize the guy owns 4000 acres in Napa Valley, considers Bouchon a cheap snack, and probably hasn't shopped for his own groceries since before the World Wide Web was invented. I can't relate to him. But if I were him, I don't believe I would have made my choices any differently. You go, Kenzo.


Needing something to mock, I'd like to post this sign that was on my door at Silverado Resort. My room cost $205; the room they suggest I am depriving my family of is $425.


Anonymous said...

What an awful person you are for not taking your family and I’m sure glad they pointed it out to you;)

Anonymous said...

If some of the wines are undrinkable or overly oaked how is it a good value? Just because a famous name is behind it? I say if its crap-its crap.

Anonymous said...

I was there as well and enjoyed the spacious elegance of the place. I also enjoyed all of the wines although, as mentioned, they are overpriced--then again, what would I have expected. They were good expressions of the terroir and finely crafted. The overall party was well done and elegant--not cheesy or over-the-top. But it's not about value... I could have done with a shorter speech by Abreu, though--he way overtalked after Barrett...

Anonymous said...

What a joke. Overly oaked whites, reds left on the vine till shrivel. Oh yea, all this for $60-150 a bottle. Lucky us.

Thanks corporate for bringing us more crapploa. It's ok, in like 5 years, we'll be sifting through the nice ss equipment looking for a deal.

Yeah for another corporate joke.

W. Blake Gray said...

It's fair to level criticisms of excess at Kenzo, but not corporatism. It seems to be a one-man ownership operation, and he doesn't appear to be in any financial difficulty. So I fear you're going to have to look for cheap used equipment elsewhere.

Try Rosenblum or Sterling.

Anonymous said...

You're hilarious, Mr. Gray. Did you happen to try the Japanese toilet/bidet/blow-ahem!dryer all-in-one in the guesthouse? I was hoping you'd mention that, as it was the most delightful part of my tasting visit to Kenzo last year. Also, is Michael Terrien still GM? He's great and would have off-set Abreu nicely.

W. Blake Gray said...

Re Japanese toilet: Having lived in Japan and discovered the awesomeness of the washlet, I am proud to have one in my home, albeit a cheapie model without the blow dryer. Next to my wife and the fog, it's what I most look forward to seeing when I get home from abroad (unless I was in Japan of course, where they even have them in train stations now.)