I never knew Kathryn Kennedy—I wish I did.
When I began my wine education and learned about Kathryn Kennedy, I was instantly intrigued, although I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because she was among the first female winemakers in California, maybe it’s because she was a trailblazer with an innate talent for viticulture, or perhaps it had to do with her spirit. I think there’s something about her spirit that lives on and you still sense it in her wine.
Her wine is now in the hands of her son, Marty Mathis. He has that same spirit and carries on the winemaking tradition that his mother so skillfully cultivated.
This is not the first article written about Ms. Kennedy, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but she is the very first winemaker that I have chosen to write about.
A little history
Born Helen Kathryn Kennedy in July of 1927, she was only 19 years old when she graduated from Stanford University where she studied art and education. She later married Ray Mathis and, in 1949 they built their home on 2.5 acres in the hills of Saratoga, California. Years later, they would acquire two four-acre parcels behind that property.
In 1965, Kathryn and Ray divorced, leaving Kathryn with 10 acres of land, the taxes that went with it, and four children. She desperately needed a way to continue to support her family. She examined the condition of the remnants of the old orchard behind her home and began to think of ways to mend and cultivate it to earn money.
After speaking with winemakers and neighbors, as well as curiously watching workers harvest grapes in a neighboring vineyard, Kathryn began to realize the idea of planting a vineyard of her own. The decision was finalized in 1971 when she returned home from a trip to Europe.
A little side note—There was a time when she toyed with the idea of planting a Christmas tree farm, but then she’d miss out on all the family fun during the holidays. A vineyard was the better idea.
Kathryn was now focused on a vineyard and grape growing. To gain knowledge, she consulted with neighbors and winemakers; read General Viticulture, and attended two semesters at UC Davis. It was her neighbor, Mario Gemello and her professors at Davis, who told her that Cabernet Sauvignon was the best variety to plant on her estate.
While attending Davis, she had the good fortune to obtain 3,333 Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings from David Bruce. She drove the cuttings home in a borrowed station wagon, and with the help of family and friends, the vineyard was planted in 1973. The first leaf appeared in the spring of 1974. Kathryn was 46 years old.
At first, there was no intention to make wine, only to grow and sell grapes and earn a living. So, in 1976 the first crop was sold to Martin Ray winery and in 1977 and 1978 larger crops were sold to Mt. Eden winery.
Mt. Eden’s winemaker, Bill Anderson, liked the fruit from Kennedy’s vineyard and when she decided to start her own label, he agreed to be the winemaker. While Anderson’s enthusiasm for winemaking was great, his tenure as her winemaker was brief, and after only two vintages, he left to pursue other interests and her son, Marty took over.
Not much attention was paid to the ‘marketing’ of wine back then, and when the 1979 vintage was ready to sell, it was met with skepticism and sexism. Retailers didn’t want a wine bearing a woman’s name. When Kathryn was asked why she put her name on the label, she plainly said, “It was my effort, my gamble, my land, my money. If David Bruce and Martin Ray could do it, so could I.”
The Wine Today
Since that first vintage, Kathryn Kennedy’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon remains a beautiful expression of Santa Cruz Mountains’ wines, and the courage of her convictions continues to inspire women and others today.
For the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of pouring these wines at a local charity event. And, as I said, I’m not sure why, but I’ve felt a connection with these wines and with Ms. Kennedy—maybe it’s because she had four children too—I don’t know.
In a time where many wineries are growing larger and sold off to big corporations, it’s nice to still savor a sip of the Cabernet grown right here, from a little vineyard, in our own backyard.
There are times when we feel that we can’t start something new now, or I’m too old, too young, or … fill in the blank … to do that (I know, I do it too). Remember what Kathryn did, and, she did it all after the age of 45. Now that’s inspiration for ya! =)
Now, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to share a memory of Kathryn Kennedy wines or have something that inspires you, leave a comment.
For more information about Kathryn Kennedy wines, please visit: www.kathrynkennedywinery.com
You can usually find this wine at Uncorked in Saratoga, CA, or contact the winery directly. (info is on their website)
Special thanks to Marty Mathis for his help and the feature photo of Kathryn.
Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the details in this article; however, I am human; if you think there is an error, please email me, and I’m happy to research and correct if necessary. lynne[at]winegal[dot]com.