This year, some one billion people in nearly 200 countries will commemorate Earth Day on April 22, marking the world’s largest celebration of sustainability in all its forms. At the famed Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Santa Rosa, California, they’ve been doing just that for decades, ever since the winery planted its first vineyards and gardens in the 1990s.
Today, master culinary gardener Tucker Taylor carries on the estate’s tradition as a leader in sustainable crop development, with Michelin-starred chefs vying for his produce. “We have a six-year waiting list of chefs who want to work with us,” Taylor says. “We’re in the process of getting permits for three greenhouses just so we can increase production.”
Growing up in Florida, Taylor learned the art of organic farming from his father. “I grew up on a lot of lands and managed our landscape from the time I could ride the lawnmower, or even earlier,” he says.
When we have garden tours, we let our guests smell our lemon verbena trees, then drink the wine, and suddenly the notes of lemon are more pronounced—Tucker Taylor
By the time Taylor was in college he’d pretty much mastered his farming skills, but he decided a business degree was a safer bet. But the itch to grow and tend to Mother Earth proved strong. While working a part-time job at a local cafe, Taylor revamped the surrounding landscape, earning the restaurant a city beautification award.
“I had a lot of planting experience and informal design experience that I learned from my dad and from visiting other gardens,” he says. “After that, I started going to farmers’ markets and local potluck dinners, and fell back into the world of farming, so I decided to get a second degree in horticulture.”
He spent the next several years working at organic farms in Atlanta, Georgia, and Portland, Oregon, before moving to California to design the culinary garden at Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry—a three-Michelin-star restaurant, and the catalyst behind so much of the farm-to-table movement.
It was there that Taylor’s practice of sustainable farming gave way to regenerative farming, which is how he describes the crop production at Kendall-Jackson today. “Sustainable is a loose term,” Taylor says. “In my circles, things are moving towards regenerative farming.”
High-quality soil yields high-quality wine and food through a slow, symbiotic relationship between the soil and roots. It allows the plants to truly express themselves—Tucker Taylor
Considered the next wave of sustainability, regenerative agriculture recognizes how natural systems are impacted and looks for ways to restore them to their natural state. It takes a more holistic view of farming, whereas sustainable farming solely seeks to maintain the systems without degrading them.
As part of Kendall-Jackson’s Rooted for Good program, the estate is planning to transition all its vineyards and gardens to regenerative farming and cut its carbon footprint by 2030.
When asked why this type of farming yields such wonderful flavors in both food and wine, Taylor is quick to point to the root cause of all that goodness. “High-quality soil yields high-quality wine and food through a slow, symbiotic relationship between the soil and roots,” he says. “It allows the plants to truly express themselves.”
Alfresco Dining Delight
From exotic crops such as Scottish oyster leaves and ice lettuce from coastal Africa to petite carrots, turnips, leeks, microgreens, and herbs, the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens has earned its reputation as a top purveyor of more than just the world’s best-selling Chardonnay. It’s also credited with bringing Napa Valley farm-to-table dinners to the forefront.
Today, visitors to wine country can take part in the estate’s farm-to-table dinner series, a private outdoor experience enjoyed under majestic walnut trees or on the estate’s flagstone patio. Each meal features the day’s harvest from Kendall-Jackson’s expansive culinary gardens, paired with free-flowing wines.
After indulging in an alfresco feast, guests can play outdoor bocce ball on the lawn or take private tours of the award-winning, four-acre culinary gardens and seven sensory gardens with none other than Taylor himself.
Take a Tour of the Gardens
The gardens are, after all, Taylor’s masterpiece. “I redesigned them when I first arrived and created a long pathway down the center,” he says. It was Taylor’s idea to host farm-to-table dinners there. “I did it in Georgia and understood how impactful it could be. Each time we have a different guest rancher and cheesemaker, and an average of 150 guests. We’ve become known for the farm-to-table dinners because we have produce that comes straight from our kitchen every day.”
Daily visitors to the Kendall-Jackson estate can also sip wine while walking through its seven sensory gardens, enjoying the sights and smells of the sections dedicated to whites and reds.
“In the Pinot Noir corner, we have cherry trees, blueberry bushes, and violets, all of the descriptors in different Pinots,” Taylor says. “A lot of times when we have garden tours, we let our guests smell our lemon verbena trees, then drink the wine, and suddenly the notes of lemon are more pronounced.” The stunning garden display serves as a sensory bridge to help people develop the right vocabulary when it comes to smelling and tasting wine.
For those who can’t make it to Santa Rosa, several restaurants throughout San Francisco rely on Taylor’s produce for their farm-to-table cuisine. “When a chef opens a box of produce, I want them to feel like it’s their birthday,” says Taylor. Some of those chefs include Michael Tusk of Quince, who was named “Best Chef: Pacific” by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Quince was awarded its third Michelin star in 2017.
“Not all the restaurants we work with are fine dining, but the ones keyed into what we do understand that we take the labor that used to happen in their kitchen and we do it on our farm. In other words, once we harvest and prep, it’s truly ready to eat.” When it comes to sustainable farming practices and the delicious-tasting results it yields, it doesn’t get much fresher than that.
Banner image: The Kendall-Jackson Garden Estate. Courtesy: Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens