Kenzo Estate was founded by Mr. Kenzo Tsujimoto and his wife Natsuko. Kenzo is a long time entrepreneur, born in Kashihara, Nara prefecture, Japan (about a 45-60 minute drive outside of Osaka) and businessman whose career began in 1966 when he opened a confectionery store in Osaka – then began selling cotton candy machines followed by gaming machines. His success in sales led him to start a gaming production company in 1974 called IPM Co., Ltd – four years later the wildly popular Space Invaders arcade game was released and IPM benefited greatly from the sales of this game.
Kenzo then founded Capcom Co., Ltd in 1979 in Osaka Japan – initially focusing on arcade machines but with the popularity of Nintendo gaming systems, soon changed their business strategy to produce games for Nintendo and developed Mega Man, Street Fighter and Resident Evil. Several years later Capcom Co., Ltd opened a subsidiary of the company in California’s Silicon Valley.
Kenzo has traveled the world and has enjoyed wine for many years. He visited the Napa Valley numerous times before acquiring this piece of property in 1990. Prior to his ownership the land served as an equestrian center; in 1984 the Olympic US Polo team trained here. One of their vineyards is even referred to as the Polo Field Vineyard. The property was originally planted to vines in 1998 and the first vintage was released in 2005 (in the early years the wines were made at another winery as Kenzo’s own winery was not yet built).
This is one of the Napa Valley’s largest winery estate properties, but despite its size is still under the radar for most visitors to the valley. Kenzo Estate is located on 3,800 acres in the hills above Monticello Road (Highway 121) heading towards Lake Berryessa (only about a 20 minute drive from downtown Napa). The property is in the southern end of the Vaca Mountain range on the southeastern side of the valley. There are no other wineries in the immediate region.
The winery is located at about 1500 feet in elevation; this part of Napa is far enough to the south so that is receives the moderating influences from the San Pablo Bay including afternoon breezes and cooler temperatures as compared to further north in the valley. As a result the growing season is usually a long one. Because of their location the vine growth is generally behind the valley floor; often advantageous especially if rains fall late in the season just prior to bloom.
With nearly 4000 hillside acres only a small percentage of vines are planted on the property (150 acres) – only about 4% of the entire estate. Flat land is at a premium here – the terrain is mostly rolling hillsides with plenty of native vegetation. And part of their vineyards are in the Napa Valley’s most ‘obscure’ and least known sub appellation, Wild Horse Valley. Wild Horse Valley is one of only two sub appellations in the Napa Valley along with Carneros to cross county lines – part of the Wild Horse Valley AVA is in Solano County – an AVA that contains only one physical winery (Oliva Brion).
The entrance to the winery is located at the high point of Highway 121 just before the road drops down in elevation; enter through the gate and drive along a narrow road about 3/4 of a mile passing a small lake before reaching through a second gate (which opens automatically) before arriving at the small parking lot. All visits are by prior appointment only.
Architect Howard Backen, of the firm Backen & Gillam Architects is one of the most influential winery architects of his generation, having designed numerous premium winery properties within the Napa Valley including Kenzo Estate, Harlan Estate and Dana Estate. His work often blends in with the surrounding environment using earth tones and darker woods in his designs.
Two winery buildings are on site – one dedicated to red wines and the other exclusively for white wine. Due to the elevation and deep aquifers, wells had to be drilled down over 700 feet. A number of 150+ year old olive trees were brought onto the site and planted – they produce olives every other year and Kenzo Estate bottles a small amount of olive oil.
A 22,000 foot cave was built into the hillside (with plans to expand this at some point) – it was designed with the wine making team in mind and is extremely functional incorporating wide tunnels and extra square footage so barrels can line the walls without having to be stacked more then one on top of each other.
Kenzo employs both a dream team in the winery and in the vineyard; Heidi Barrett is the winemaker (she often commutes here in her helicopter) and David Abreu is the vineyard architect and manager. Both are highly sought out in the valley for their various skills.
In October 2017 fires came through parts of the property and burned a fair amount of vegetation (easily seen along their driveway) and destroyed one large guesthouse. The fire burned almost to the winery but remarkably did not burn the winery – the surrounding vineyards certainly helped as a fire break.
The 2008 Kenzo Estate Asatsuyu Sauvignon Blanc (meaning “morning dew” in Japanese) shows more citrus notes rather than tropical characteristics on the bouquet – although a passion fruit nuance is revealed as the wine continues to breathe. The palate offers flavors of grapefruit and lime along with some interesting mineralities. Sometimes this variety with its citrus like flavors and higher acid can be too tart or “green” on its own but this wine doesn’t have those characteristics. The texture is rounded and supple across the palate. The wine did not go through any secondary (malolactic) fermentation.
Rindo (referring to a Japanese purple flower) is a red Bordeaux style blend often with Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant variety. The 2016 Kenzo Estate Rindo offers plenty of fruit on the bouquet – highly aromatic with aromas of raspberry, dried rose petals, a subtle sage note along with secondary aromas such as mocha, espresso and milk chocolate. Extremely approachable in its youth, this is a crowd pleaser. Features a lovely tannin profile – these are soft integrated tannins that linger delicately.
The 2006 Kenzo Estate Murasaki, meaning “purple” in Japanese is a proprietary red blend. This wine sees slightly more new French oak during its aging then the Rindo and is aged longer. The bouquet reveals elegant notes of mocha powder some of which show up on the finish. This wine has excellent balance and acid management – it has big but not overbearing structure and depth of flavor (mostly darker fruits).
The 2006 Kenzo Estate Ai Cabernet Sauvignon is named after the Japanese art of creating indigo dye…appropriately named for the wine’s dark color. This is Kenzo’s “show wine”, their boldest wine in the portfolio, a wine meant for aging. It is a robust wine, with plenty of layers, flavors and structure. The bouquet initially shows an herbal note, dustiness and a bit of cigar smoke. Spices, black pepper and black fruit follow on the palate.
Ten years later we tried the 2016 Kenzo Estate Ai Cabernet Sauvignon – noticeably dark in the glass it offers cigar smoke, a hint of jalapeno with briary blackberry aromas. Somewhat savory in its aromatic presentation. Shows both red and darker fruits on the palate including a finish with flavors of red cherry and currant. Long lasting tannins maintain a tight grip on the finish. A very ageworthy wine.
The 2018 Kenzo Estate Muku is a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc; straw color in the glass offers bright, ripe and sweet fruit aromas including honeysuckle, pear, red apple and pineapple guava. Sweet, with an ethereal texture across the palate, this wine is packed with flavor including mandarin, apricot and ripe peach. A freshness of acidity shows, especially on the finish – not tart but bright and lively, dancing across the palate. Good acidity is important in wines such as this – otherwise they would just be linearly focused on sweetness. Available as a 375ml in an appealing lithe shaped bottle.
Several Napa Valley based wineries or producers will pair food with their wines but its rare to find a partnership like the one Kenzo has with famed chef, Thomas Keller. Kenzo has partnered with Keller (French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc etc) to offer a Bouchon prepared lunch and small plates including sandwiches, salads, charcuteries and other tasty items paired with select Kenzo Estate wines. This experience is one of the highlights of visiting the estate.
Kenzo Restaurant, Napa
In late 2016, Kenzo opened Kenzo Restaurant, Napa in downtown Napa located in a space formerly occupied by Pearl Restaurant. This is arguably one of the Napa Valley’s finer restaurants and certainly tops the list of the few Asian restaurants in the valley. Their wine list includes as expected, the full lineup of current-release wines from Kenzo Estate and select wines from mostly other Napa Valley based producers.
Despite being located in downtown Napa, Kenzo Restaurant maintains an under the radar presence. This is partly due to their limited signage and also the fact they are not located directly on any of the city’s busiest streets (IE First or Main Street). The restaurant was awarded a coveted Michelin star in 2017 and has also received the Wine Spectator Restaurant Award of Excellence several years running.
The restaurant seats only 27 people – organized among 10 tables and the 10-seat sushi bar but with plenty of space left between diners at the bar so it never feels crowded. The interior was designed by Kenzo’s wife Natsuko. While the five Kenzo properties in Japan have more of a masculine interior feel, Kenzo Napa is more feminine in its interior approach, both elegant yet simplistic at the same time.
Once reservations are made, Kenzo Restaurant will email a sample menu several days before the reservation. Allow 2.5 to 3 hours for dinner. The meal is Kaiseki style – a multi-course traditional Japanese cuisine. The menu changes seasonally – the focus of the cuisine is on an intriguing array of flavors, textures and visually appealing presentations. While chef can prepare a variety of sushi the cuisine is exceptionally diverse. Fresh fish is flown in daily from the Toyosu Market in Tokyo (formerly Tsukiji market). Select seasonal fresh ingredients are also sourced from Kenzo Estate Winery – including spring water used in several of the dishes.
Several memorable dishes during our visit included the Sanriku Bonito Tataki, select sushi and arguably their most impressive dish (and the one that nearby patrons were obviously experiencing a heightened enjoyment from), the Satsuma Wagyu Tenderloin Kuwayaki. The pace of the meal is choreographed well – and when each course is delivered, the server takes time to explain the food. Those sitting at the bar will have an intimate view of the sushi preparation and are welcome to chat with the sushi chef.
Kenzo Estate maintains five wine bars/restaurants in Japan, three of which are in Tokyo and one each in Kyoto and Osaka. Often it is hard to combine both a tasting room with culinary excellence, but Kenzo Estate has successfully done this across all their Japan based properties. The focus of the cuisine is a mixture of culinary influence from both Japan and France.
At least some of the staff in all of the locations speak some English and during our visits of all 5 locations, we met at least one person in each tasting room who had been to the Napa Valley including of course, a visit to Kenzo Estate.
Kenzo Estate Winery Roppongi Hills, Tokyo
This wine bar and a sit-down restaurant is located in the upscale Roppongi Hills part of Tokyo (nearby neighbors include Rolex and Louis Vutton). Kenzo Estate Winery is only about a 7 minute walk from the nearest metro stop, the Hibiya line at Roppongi Hills. On the way here one passes numerous shops, a cinema and the Mori Tower, housing the Mori Art Museum and the Tokyo City View observation deck located on the 52nd floor.
Located on two floors – the first floor contains a small wine shop, counter dining and wine tasting options and the second floor houses the small restaurant (15 tables including a private room which can be reserved ahead of time). An impressive menu features a number of creatively designed dishes including numerous fish selections. From the counter, food can be ordered a la carte or from a fixed price menu.
The style of the Kenzo wines are testament to how well they pair with this type of cuisine. Wines can be ordered by the glass (various sized pours), half bottle or full bottle.
Kenzo Estate Winery, Ginza Tokyo
This Kenzo Estate location is only a several minute walk from the Ginza metro stop – this is a very busy part of Tokyo with numerous luxury brands and restaurants located in or around the main street (Ginza). This is one of the most coveted retail sites within Tokyo.
This Kenzo location contains two separate lounges – the earlier opening one, 1F Lounge “Ai” which features a long table for both tastings and meals along with a small adjoining wine shop and the B1F Lounge “Murasaki”, which opens later in the afternoon.
A full selection of Kenzo’s wines are available for tastings. Outside of the dinner hours, small bites can be ordered to pair with the wines. The dinner menu is extensive and can be enjoyed in either of the lounges. An a la carte menu is available with seasonal offerings as well as more substantial plates.
Like at all of their Japan locations, a screen rotates images showing the history of Kenzo Estate Winery in the Napa Valley as well as select events.
Kenzo Estate Winery, Hiroo Tokyo
This is the oldest of the Kenzo Estate locations within Japan. Located about 10 minutes from the Hiro-o metro stop in a ‘quieter’ section of Tokyo as compared to the other two locations. Located on the first floor of a three story building – next to much taller buildings.
An extensive menu that changes seasonally is offered for dinner – like at their other locations a full selection of Kenzo Estate wines are available for tasting. Guests can sit at the counter, tables or reserve the private room ahead of time.
Unfortunately this location was undergoing a major interior remodel during our visit and while we were able to walk inside briefly, the interior was in not in any shape to be photographed.
We will revisit during one of our next trips to Tokyo and update our notes.
Kenzo Estate Winery, Gion Kyoto
Gion is a charming section of Kyoto with numerous Japanese style houses including tea houses, restaurants, bars and assorted clubs. Easily accessible from Kyoto’s major east west connector, Shijō Street – walking in Gion feels worlds away from the commercial shopping centers and stores that line both sides of Shijō Street.
Historically famous in Japan for its geishas, Gion was the location in the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. Also the pretty Shirakawa River runs through the district as well as being bordered by the much larger Kamo River (a popular place in the spring and summer for pedestrians). Of the select cities in Japan that we have visited over the years, Kyoto is by far our favorite.
Like the other Kenzo Estate locations, Kenzo Estate Winery Gion is located very close to the metro – only about a 3-5 minute walk from the closest stop, Gion-Shijō. Features one primary room on the first floor with a tasting bar – with small bites served before 5pm and a la carte or larger dishes served after 5pm. Our recommendation: the Kobe Beef Carpaccio paired with the Muku dessert wine.
A private room located upstairs can be reserved by appointment. A very tiny wine shop is located near the entrance.
Kenzo Estate Winery, Osaka
Located in a very busy part of Osaka surrounded by tall high rises, this Kenzo tasting room and restaurant is located only a several minute walk from the closest metro station, Nishi-Umeda. This was the second Kenzo Estate property established in Japan – it is located only about a 30 minute walk from the Capcom headquarters (a nice walk if you have never been to Osaka before).
This location is one floor – with a long tasting counter greeting visitors at the entrance and a private dining space tucked away in the back with several tables. Delicious food – highly recommended is their Caesar salad (probably the best Caesar salad we have ever had) and validated by a representative from the Society of Wine Educators Japan Chapter who happened to be sitting at the bar at the same time as our visit. Also intriguing, is the Chef’s Selection for dessert (varies seasonally).
Total production each year is usually between 20,000 and 25,000 cases with about 80% of their wines shipped directly to Japan. Locally their wines are available at the French Laundry in Yountville and at select other premium restaurants. For more information and or to join their wine club, visit: www.kenzoestate.com or the Japanese version: www.kenzoestate.jp/
Kenzo Estate Winery
Kenzo Restaurant, Napa
JAPAN BASED PROPERTIES
Kenzo Estate Winery, Ginza Tokyo
Kenzo Estate Winery, Gion Kyoto
Kenzo Estate Winery, Osaka
Kenzo Estate Winery, Roppongi Hills Tokyo
wine bar/shop/counter dining
Kenzo Estate Winery, Hiroo Tokyo