Fresh out of UC Davis with a bachelor's degree in fermentation science, Sacramento native Rob Davis signed on as an intern at a brand new winery just outside of Healdsburg in northern Sonoma County, Jordan Vineyard & Winery.
He was 22. His intent was to work through the harvest, Jordan's first, then see what other prospects might develop. That was in 1976, and Davis still is at Jordan. He's been Jordan's only resident winemaker. His 35-year tenure with one California winery isn't unprecedented, but it is rare.
His initial thoughts of moving on after that first vintage got scuttled when he found himself working alongside legendary enologist Andre Tchelistcheff, whom Tom and Sally Jordan had retained as a consultant for their ambitious 275-acre estate in Alexander Valley.
"This guy has so much information I couldn't get out of a book," Davis recalled, thinking of his early working relationship with Tchelistcheff. "He gave me a better understanding of winemaking."
They worked together until Tchelistcheff's retirement in 1992. They made several trips to European wineries, whose practices and stylistic goals continue to shape Jordan's cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, broadly characterized by finesse and balance.
One of Tchelistcheff's lessons that Davis readily absorbed and applied is the crucial link between place and grape, especially with respect to the nature of soil and how its composition can vary even within a short distance.
To this day, Davis continues to study soil samples, looking for what he considers the critical ratio of calcium to magnesium. He trudges through vineyards, especially on dismally cold and rainy days, so he can track drainage patterns. He likes wet soil that doesn't stick to his boots.
He remembers strolling about one vineyard with Tchelistcheff, who paused to remark, " 'There's only one good thing this block will produce hay.' Sure enough, that's what we are growing there now," Davis said.
At the outset, the Jordan business plan called for producing strictly estate wines, meaning the family would grow the grapes as well as make the wine. In the mid-1990s, however, during an outbreak of the root louse phylloxera, which kills vines, the Jordans had to go beyond their own vineyards for fruit.
They found several growers within the Alexander Valley who were growing grapes superior to their own, recalled Davis.
Then, in 2005, when John Jordan took over as CEO from his father, Davis said they pondered whether they would continue to "make the best cabernet sauvignon the estate can produce or the best cabernet, period."
They agreed to shoot for the best overall cabernet sauvignon, and accelerated their purchase of grapes from other growers in Alexander Valley.
An early result of that decision is the Jordan Vineyard & Winery 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, an exquisite interpretation of the varietal for its equilibrium and complexity. It isn't a blockbuster cabernet sauvignon; that's not the Jordan style. Rather, it speaks to the more refined side of cabernet, the Bordeaux side.
In smell and flavor, the wine's fruitiness suggests bright and lively cherries and blackberries, but there also are hints of horehound candy, leather, menthol and earth. The structure is lean, even sinewy, but it isn't going to back down from a thick cut of grilled rib-eye steak.
The 2007 growing year in Alexander Valley was largely benevolent, starting with a warm spring and ending with a long and steady picking season. Yield was down from the year before, but smaller berries meant more concentrated flavors.
The juice was fermented by individual vineyard blocks, and only those lots with the distinctive flavors that Davis seeks were retained for the final blend.
For his cabernet sauvignon, he seeks "succulent" tannins, which he gets through an aging program that involves old, large and neutral oak casks and smaller American and French oak barrels, about two-fifths of which were new.
The final blend was 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot, 4 percent petit verdot and about 1 percent malbec. To better assure that the wine is integrated, accessible and mature when it goes on the market, it is aged in bottle for two years before release.
Jordan Vineyard & Winery 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
By the numbers: 13.8 percent alcohol, 66,000 cases, $52.
Context: While the wine has the build to stand up to a rib-eye or porterhouse steak, its tannins are so gentle that it also can accompany assorted game and even grilled chicken, said Rob Davis. "But lamb is my favorite rack of lamb with a berry or cherry sauce." He suggests that the bottle be decanted at least half an hour before serving.
Availability: Jordan's cabernet sauvignons are widely distributed in the Sacramento region, including Total Wine & More, BevMo, Costco, some Raley's stores and Carpe Vino in Auburn. Wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.jordanwinery.com.
More information: Reservations are required to visit Jordan Vineyard & Winery; call (800) 654-1213 to schedule an appointment.