Kistler Vineyards

Kistler Vineyards has been playing the long game when it comes to creating exquisite Chardonnay wine in Californian soil

Patience. That’s the key requirement for Jason Kesner, President and winemaker of Kistler Vineyards in Sonoma County, California. He operates with such an elongated notion of time that he talks with great enthusiasm about vineyards that won’t come to fruition for another decade at least. “There is a recognition here that patience pays off,” he says. “There’s a point in the life of a vine where it just turns the corner and there’s suddenly an ease with which they reach these elevated tones and complexities. That’s something that only comes with time.”

Kistler Vineyards is unusual in several other ways. For a start, it was one of the first vineyards on the West Coast to recognize the potential of Californian Chardonnay, focusing on that varietal from the moment it was founded in 1978 by Steve Kistler and Mark Bixler. In the mid-1980s, Kistler innovated further, deciding to focus on a single clonal selection that had arrived in California from Burgundy at some point in the 1930s or 1950s (sources vary). They felt it would be ideal for the sort of wines they wanted to make, so the selection was planted across every site and vineyard in the estate.

“You have this one clone planted across all of the sites,” says Jason. “We talk to our growers, select a spot and then put our clonal material on the vineyard root stock. When we do that, we know these are 50-year relationships we are establishing. So the only difference in your source material is the root stock, and the main driver is the site itself. When the grapes get to the winery, they all go through the exact same programme and any house style is applied equally across all the wines. That creates
a very special line-up of wines because there is immense personality across the sites. To have the opportunity to uncover that is pretty special.”

Jason was raised alongside the vines. His mother was a microbiologist at one of California’s largest wineries and by the time he was 10 he could drive a tractor and prune a vine. In 2000, he was running one of the vineyards that grew for Kistler and developed a friendship with Steve Kistler. In 2008, he started working in the cellar alongside Kistler and then in 2017 he took over completely.

It was a long gestation. “The length of that relationship is not typical in California, but we are both patient guys,” says Jason. “I feel as if we are now continuing a conversation that Steve and I started 20 years ago. I love the fantastic attention to detail and the very thoughtful, mindful approach to everything we’re doing.”

The clone used by Kistler is low-yielding with small berries that result in enhanced concentration and a strong propensity to retain its acids. This creates Chardonnay with real weight. Around 80 per cent of the winery’s production is Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir making up the remaining 20 per cent. Kistler wines are available throughout the US, Europe and Japan via select stockists, and there is also a members’ allocation list – some customers have been on that list for 30 years. “Our wines are not shrinking violets,” says Jason. “There’s a beautiful tension between the concentration and the acidity. It’s beyond the idea of balance, it’s like a hidden energy that comes together in a beautiful and natural way, if you are patient.”