Sometimes people can see the writing on the wall. Call them sages, clairvoyants or simply smart, some wineries — who typically wallow stagnantly in tradition — can do the right thing for their business. And some do it before everyone else does. Three years ago, Judy Jordan, Founder and President of California sparkling wine house J Vineyards and Winery in Russian River Valley (Sonoma County), perhaps sensed the industry might be headed for some rough times. The economy was wavering, the housing bubble hadn’t burst yet and Americans, unlike the relaxed Europeans, still viewed daily bubbly consumption as luxurious decadence. In addition, market pressures from inexpensive Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco loomed. Her sparkling wines, priced in the $25 to $90 range, were having a tough time competing. To make things worse, at the time, she didn’t realize the French sparkling market would also crash, flooding wine shelves in 2009 with less expensive “true” French Champagne bottles designed to grab the dwindling dollars designated for bubbly.
So, like any great business person (and good genes can’t hurt – she’s the daughter of Tom Jordan, founder of Jordan Vineyards and Winery), she reacted and took a different path. She’s been enamored of Sonoma pinot for years. Judy told me she had an opportunity to sit down with the Rochioli family in the mid-nineties, a family-owned winery producing famed Russian River pinot noirs. After tasting them, she said, “The light bulb went on… following subsequent trips to Burgundy, and after tasting some of the other Russian River Valley wines including William Selyem, I decided to embark on this varietal wine journey at J.”
It took a while but she got there. Judy already grew fabulous, sustainably-farmed pinot and chardonnay grapes (and bottled a very small production pinot) on their estate, as well as a small patch of pinot gris, so she prepared J Vineyards in 2006 to make “still” (or non-bubbly) varietal wines. To make the transition, she hired George Bursick, formerly of Ferrari Carano, as winemaker and off they went.
Fast forward three years to now, as the new varietal wines are hitting the shelves. They make six pinots, all from the Russian River Valley. “Our plan is to add two additional terroir-driven wines as our Bow Tie and Canfield Vineyards come on line next year,” says Jordan (side note: she is a Stanford geology grad, so she knows her dirt). It’s pretty extraordinary for a sparkling wine house to go whole hog into the varietal business. Spanish outpost Gloria Ferrer has done a bit of it, as has Domaine Chandon but, as Judy says, “most sparkling wine producers in California have a varietal wine tucked away in their portfolio. But I’m not aware of any producer who has made the decision to tackle pinot noir and chardonnay varietal wines in the way we have.”
Response has been very positive, and my recent taste of the whole portfolio showed me why. The pinot gris – a program they plan to grow – is incredibly tasty and at a value price point. Can’t say the same for the chardonnay and pinot noirs but they’re breathtaking and easily worth the higher prices if you can swing ‘em.
J Vineyards 2008 Pinot Gris Russian River Full-bodied and slightly creamy, with juicy pear and full frontal orange blossom. Sports soft acidity, a steely mid palate and a green apple and lemon-y finish. It has enough sweetness to it that it could pair with Chinese food, enough creaminess and guts to pair with shrimp sautéed in garlic butter and it’s soft enough to drink alone or with someone in a bathtub. Sw= 2. $16. 4.5 stars.
J Vineyards 2007 Chardonnay Russian River My first tasting note for this wine was “salivacious,” a descriptor I picked up from Melissa Stackhouse, winemaker for La Crema Winery. Her chardonnays and the J have equally balanced acidity and oaky-buttery creaminess, rare in California. Almost like the best of both chardonnay worlds. The J is elegant and plush with peaches, toasted almonds and a honeyed finish. Not too rich though and its lemony tartness kisses you goodbye. Sw=2. $28. 4.5 stars.
J Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir Russian River Their “entry-level”, non-single vineyard release. Soft and finessed with red fruits like blueberry, candied cherry and strawberry. Bittersweet chocolate also mixed in. It’s sophisticated and sexy, like a smart woman sitting confidently alone at a bar. Sw=1. $30. 4 stars.
J Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir Nicole’s Vineyard They’ve been making this pinot for their wine club since 1994 and it shows. Absolutely perfect. More robust and less sweet than many California and Oregon pinot noirs. Feminine in style but is elegantly sturdy with dark fruit like black cherry, blackberry and subtle plum. Bittersweet chocolate, well-incorporated vanilla oak tannins, cigar box spices and a caramel finish. So much going on, it’s hard to concentrate. Sw=1. $68. 5 stars.