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Meet the maker
Since establishing his reputation at Newton Vineyards in the 1980s, where his Unfiltered Chardonnay became an instant classic, John Kongsgaard is now rightfully revered as the one of the finest winemakers in California. From their bunker-like winery at the top of Atlas Peak Mountain, John and his wife Maggie produce profound wines from Chardonnay, Albarino, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon with the help of their son Alex and assistant Evan Frazier. The wines are produced in tiny quantities and are difficult to find, but the trouble is more than worth it once the cork gets popped.
Like his friend and contemporary Cathy Corison, John Kongsgaard studied at UC Davis in the mid-1970s and had a front row seat for the explosion in interest in Californian wines following the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting. Having decided to make Chardonnay his speciality, John scored a winemaking job at Newton Vineyards and was duly dispatched to Burgundy to witness how the best white wines in the world were made. After visiting, befriending and observing the winemakers at Coche-Dury, Comtes Lafon and Bonneau du Martray, John decided to bring much of what he learned back with him to California. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, however, as these practices flew in the face of the technical training he had received at UC Davis and the conventional Californian wisdom of the time. Rather than load his must with sulphur dioxide to protect it, and laboratory yeasts to ensure a quick fermentation, John decided to follow the old school European Burgundian approach and let the must oxidise. This high risk strategy requires bravery and patience, but John was rewarded when the wine emerged from its brown stupor brighter and fresher than ever before. It also had more weight and complexity than expected, and when the world got to taste the results a new star had been born.
These principles are still followed to this day at Kongsgaard, the label that John founded in the mid 1990s. He is also insistent on using the highest quality low yielding fruit, which he either farms himself at his home vineyard or purchases from long term partners such as Larry Hyde and Lee Hudson (two of the finest grape growers in the USA). The wines are fermented and aged in French oak barrels, with native yeast fermentations, minimal sulphur additions and minimal batonnage. The results are Chardonnays that combine incredible weight with grace and a lightness of touch that is amazing considering their concentration. In Burgundian cellars, you have to wait until the Grand Cru wines before experiencing this level of power and finesse. While all of this is true of the regular Kongsgaard Chardonnay, the 300 case production of The Judge (named for John’s father, who worked in the profession) is an even more intense experience.
In addition to producing great wines, John has also acted as mentor for some of the most important young winemakers now plying their trade in the state. Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project, Duncan Meyers of Arnot Roberts and Andy Ericksson of Mayacamas (and previously Screaming Eagle) have spent time learning from this modern great of Californian wine.
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