Kenzo Estate: Napa Valley luxury wine through a lens of Japanese culture

Kenzo Tsujimoto, Chairman of publicly held Capcom Co., Ltd., is the owner of Kenzo Estate, a 15,000 case production winery in the eastern mountains of Napa Valley.  His luxury cabernet sauvignon wines are made with the best talent money can buy but his goal wasn’t to create an exclusive wine that few can buy.  Like the successful video game products his company sells worldwide, his wines are approachable and accessible.

Tsujimoto wasn’t one of the those wealthy businessmen seeking to create a monument to himself in the Napa Valley.  While he visited often and loved the wines, he says wasn’t looking to buy until he was approached by owners of a 4,000-acre natural preserve near Mount George, a property which was largely undeveloped except for an equestrian center.  He acquired the property in 1990.

As a businessman, Tsujimoto spent years determining the best use of the land whether it be for agricultural or equestrian purposes or even as a golf resort.  When the decision was made to develop vineyards, he hired premier Napa Valley viticulturalist David Abreu and cult winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett to create the full-bodied, fruit-driven wines he loves.  But instead of making just 500-1,000 cases per year which keeps prices high, the estate is making a range of wines with a production of 15,000 cases and growing.

Like the immediate gratification one gets from most consumer products, Tsujimoto defines a wine “sale” the point at which the consumer opens and enjoys the wine, not cellar it, so the wines are approachable to drink upon release.  He also believes in making wines that are accessibly priced so they work with restaurants to offer wines-by-the-glass as well as half-bottles at about half the price vs. the usual 60% of the full bottle price.  All of the Kenzo Estate wines are available in half bottles.  If you were a gas station owner, said Tsujimoto, “would you sell your customer a drum of fuel when they only need a few gallons?”

The formula has been working in Japan, his inaugural market beginning with the 2005 vintage that currently represents 70-80% of sales.  In the latest year, sales grew 200% primarily through the restaurant trade and often by reverse inquiry.  His goal is to cultivate U.S. buyers through restaurants and direct sales via mailing list and at the new winery.

The portfolio consists of a sauvignon blanc wine called Asatsuyu and three Bordeaux varietal wines Rindo, Murasaki and Ai.  The red wines are named after the wines’ colors as they are significant in Japanese culture.  When asked if he considered using English names for an American market, Tsujimoto said he had been thinking about that all along but was ultimately encouraged by the team to stay with the Japanese names.

The 2010 Asatsuyu Sauvignon Blanc ($75), literally “morning dew”, is a 100% sauvignon blanc that is as pure as the pristine land where the fruit grows.  Leo Hanami, PhD, Program Director of the Summer Institute of Japanese Language and Culture at George Washington University in Washington D.C. expands on the name.  “Asatsuyu is a very common term in classical Japanese. It usually suggests delicateness but more specifically, the brevity or transience of life, as the morning dew will dry up very quickly in the sun.”

The 2007 Rindo Napa Valley ($75), named after the blue bellflower, is a Bordeaux-style blend that brings together the best of the red varietals in a fruit-driven, aromatic wine:  the floral lift and spice of cabernet franc, the structure of cabernet sauvignon, the silkiness of merlot and a touch of petit verdot for inky color.

The 2007 Murasaki Napa Valley ($150) is named for the deep Imperial purple color that historically in Japan was reserved for royalty.  It is a proprietary blend of primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot from selected blocks on the estate.  Hanami noted that the word Murasaki also has deep resonance in Japanese culture being associated with a central character in Japan’s most famous and enduring novel “The Tale of Genji”, widely acknowledged to be the oldest novel in world literary history.  Murasaki, the object of Genji’s affection, was a woman of exceptional beauty.

The 2007 Ai Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($150), or indigo, is the estate’s cabernet sauvignon varietal wine with dense, blackberry, black currant fruit, classic cedarwood and hint of spice and oak.  It’s an exceptionally well-balanced, precision-made, beautiful example of Napa Valley cabernet with refined and polished tannins.  Ai – the color – is a brilliant indigo blue popular in Japan since the 6th century.  It is commonly identified with Hiroshige’s wood block prints.

The new winery in Napa, designed in California Barn style by Howard Backen, blends seamlessly in nature.  The interior is clean and modern with decorator touches by Tsujimoto’s wife Natsuko.  The calm interior extends to the spacious multi-level outdoor patio where guests can experience wine tasting as well as wine with food prepared by Michelin star Bouchon Restaurant.

Kenzo Estate is located at 3200 Monticello Road, about 4.5 miles east up the mountain from the Trancas Street/Silverado Trail intersection.  Visits are by appointment only and food must be ordered in advance.  Please call 707.254.7572.


Note:  Leo Hanami is Assistant Professor of Japanese Language and Literature at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and is also author’s sibling.