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A New Look at Classic Napa Valley Cabernet

Sommelier Michael Kennedy says there’s treasure to be found in the Napa Valley

Vicki Denig By June 8, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler; Photograph of Michael Kennedy by Suzanne Becker Bronk.

“As a sommelier, I never gave Napa too much attention in my programs,” says Michael Kennedy. “I always thought it was all about new money making wines in a style that didn’t interest my Old World palate.” Kennedy is president of Vin Fraîche Wine Group, which describes itself as a portfolio of “sommelier created and curates wineries.” Times have clearly changed. In addition to becoming a strong advocate for the region’s wines, Michael now vinifies a handful of Cabernet himself — across three different labels. 

After graduating college in 2009, Kennedy started working at a small winery owned by a family friend. “I started behind the bar, and within a matter of days, I fell in love with wine,” says Kennedy. He got straight to studying and, after six months, passed his Certified Sommelier exam at just 22 years old. After working his way up at the winery and obtaining a coveted wine director position, Kennedy moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a sommelier for the Ritz-Carlton, which ultimately took him to the company’s Caribbean-based property. 

In October of 2015, while working as a sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, Kennedy travelled to Napa and spent an afternoon tasting at Bryant Family Vineyard, where he met Marc Gagnon, the estate winemaker, who was formerly of Screaming Eagle. The two hit it off, and after many discussions about soil, fermented beverages, and a handful of other things, the seeds were pretty much planted — figuratively, at least.

A few months later, Kennedy hosted Gagnon at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman for the hotel’s annual Cayman Cookout, for which he is the wine director and sommelier. Later, after Gagnon left Bryant Estate and was thinking about his next steps, he had a number of conversations with Kennedy and the pair decided it was time to collaborate. In 2018, Gagnon-Kennedy Vineyards, now part of Vin Fraîche Wine Group, was born.

“It wasn’t until working with Eric Ripert at Blue that I started to visit the Valley regularly and dig into its incredible history and the characters that make it up,” says Kennedy, saying that although there are still plenty of “awful, brand-driven wines” made in the region, there are also stunning wines from talented farmers and winemakers to be discovered. “When thinking of Napa, you have to start with Cabernet Sauvignon. The rest will follow so easily,” he says. “I also love pouring old Napa wines for my “no Napa” sommelier friends blind — they always call them Bordeaux!”

Here are some of his top picks:

Hendry ‘Hendry Vineyard’ Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($55)

This wine checks a lot of boxes for Kennedy: historic vineyard site, excellent value, not well-known, and small production. “Hendry has been in the same family since 1939, and the vineyard sites on the property are some of the oldest in the Napa Valley — some even date back to 1859,” he says. Kennedy describes the wine as a gorgeous expression of classic Napa Valley Cabernet. “It’s not trying too hard to be anything other than its humble, beautiful self. This is the kind of Cabernet that I am happy to bring to a friend’s house for a fancy dinner or open on a Tuesday with pizza.” 

Hendry ‘Hendry Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon comes from naturally low-yielding vineyard blocks rooted in dry, alluvial soils, which yield high levels of concentration in the fruit. After an extended maceration, the wine is aged for 21 months in 90% new French oak barrels. The wine is full-bodied, dry, and although accessible in its youth, decanting is recommended. 

Lail Vineyards ‘Blueprint’ Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($75)

“For those who don’t know Robin Lail, this woman is perhaps one of the most important people in the Napa Valley,” explains Kennedy. Her grand-uncle started Inglenook Estate, and she worked for both Robert Mondavi and Bill Harlan, then co-founded Dominus Estate, Meadowood, and Merryvale. “She and her family have impacted the Valley to its core, and now she makes this most delightful wine that is the epitome of Napa Valley elegance,” says Kennedy. 

Lail’s Blueprint Cabernet Sauvignon is a Cabernet-dominant blend (83%) rounded out with 11% Merlot and 6% Petit Verdot. The fruit comes from the AVAs of Calistoga, Coombsville, Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap District, St. Helena, and Yountville. The wine ages for 18 months in French oak barrels, 45% of which are new.

Gagnon-Kennedy Vineyards ‘Old Federal Block’ Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($275)

“I’m biased, because we make this wine, but the story of the vineyard is too important not to include,” says Kennedy. It all goes back to 1881, when Hamilton Walker Crabb planted an experimental vineyard in the heart of To Kalon to determine which grape varieties would grow best in Napa Valley. “This vineyard was later gifted to the USDA for federal vineyard research, and later to UC Davis after prohibition,” says Kennedy. He notes that almost every vineyard in the world today has been impacted by the research done here — from clonal development to rootstocks to trellis systems and beyond. “It is important for terroir and for knowledge, and I am so proud that Marc and I can make wine from here,” says Kennedy. Today, he makes this wine in partnership with winemaker Marc Gagnon. The wine is aged in new French oak at the duo’s winery in Coombsville. Only 100 cases are produced annually.