Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: J Vineyards & Winery

Though not its goal, J Vineyards & Winery of Healdsburg in Sonoma County has set itself up as the place where yuletide shoppers can find something for virtually every wine enthusiast on their gift list.

J Vineyards & Winery, a sparkling-wine house, is best known for the dark-green bottle of Brut adorned with a simple yet striking “J” in brush-stroked gold, but over the past 27 years, since the father-and-daughter team of Tom and Judy Jordan founded J in 1986, the brand has diversified to such an extent that today table wines still account for about two-thirds of J’s yearly output of about 100,000 cases.

“So many people said you couldn’t do that – have a sparkling-wine house make varietal wines. We asked ourselves why we couldn’t do both well. We have the soils,” says Judy Jordan.

The soils of the Russian River Valley were the key to the transition, which began in 1996. Judy Jordan knows rock and dirt. She holds a degree in earth sciences/geology from Stanford.

Today, nearly three decades after she and her father started J as a spinoff of the family’s Jordan Winery – also just outside of Healdsburg, but in the Alexander Valley – she sounds as enthralled as a college freshman just starting her studies in geology.

“I’m a rockhead. I just get excited about the history of the earth,” Jordan says.

“In Burgundy and Bordeaux, their soils are wonderful, and they do their part, but they’re very simple,” she says. “I love their wines, but their geology is rather boring. It isn’t as much fun as California’s geology. Here, we have so much going on – the San Andreas fault, the glaciation of more recent history, and the vulcanization because of the clashing plates. ... That makes winemaking more exciting, more fun.”

Today, J has 240 acres of estate vineyards in Russian River Valley spread across nine vineyards and “more variations in soil types than in all of France,” Jordan says. So far, she’s defined 20 different soil profiles under her Russian River Valley vineyards. Her description of each vineyard not only includes the varieties of grapes but the nature of the soil: Arbuckle and Clough loam at Nicole’s Vineyard; multiple layers of alluvial silt and loam at the Robert Thomas Vineyard; Arbuckle, Cortina, Yolo and Zamora loam at Bow Tie Vineyard; and so on.

One young 15-acre vineyard, Canfield, is planted solely to pinot noir on the valley’s most cherished soil, Goldridge, prized for its fine loam and moderate drainage – “formed from vulcanization on top of glacial product on top of bedrock,” she notes.

All this talk of soil leads to the dicey matter of “minerality,” a popular if vague descriptor for wine. What is it? To Jordan, the term “minerality” doesn’t suggest flavor as much as texture and structure. “For me, when I think ‘minerality’ I’m thinking of the great white Burgundies, and how we’ve translated that characteristic for us in Russian River Valley.”

A wine’s character, she suggests, emanates from a combination of significant factors, of which soil is but one. Soil doesn’t impart flavor to a wine, but it can enhance the nature of vine and fruit when it is matched carefully with several other factors, including the most appropriate grape variety and the best trellis technique for a site.

It’s a challenge that she acknowledges can give her headaches. “It is difficult, but it also goes back to the joy of winemaking,” Jordan says. “Our vineyards are not contiguous. They form a checkerboard throughout the Russian River Valley. That gives us a larger palette to choose from when we make our wines.”

Today, J even makes a couple of dessert wines in addition to four sparkling wines and 14 varietals, the latter of which include five pinot noirs. Still, its most readily recognized release remains the J Cuvee 20 Russian River Valley Brut (12.5 percent alcohol, 1.4 percent residual sugar, 31,500 cases, $28), which basically delivers with panache and power every notable attribute expected of a sparkling wine.

Its rich creaminess comes largely from aging about a third of the cuvee in oak casks. The wine is a blend of 50 percent chardonnay, 49 percent pinot noir and 1 percent pinot meunier. It’s the first sparkling wine to be made by J’s winemaker, Melissa Stackhouse, a UC Davis graduate who had focused largely on pinot noir at other wineries before joining J two years ago.

As she finished the J Cuvee 20, Stackhouse also was preparing to release the brassy and surprisingly complex J Russian River Valley Brut Rose (12.5 percent alcohol, 1.15 percent residual sugar, 10,000 cases, $38), a blend of 66 percent pinot noir, 33 percent chardonnay and 1 percent pinot meunier.

Stackhouse’s baptism at J came during the rain- and rot-plagued harvest of 2011, but she nevertheless salvaged enough pristine fruit to preserve the winery’s standing for pinot noirs of authority and grace. The introductory J Vineyards & Winery 2011 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir (14.3 percent alcohol, 7,000 cases, $37) is a densely colored tribute to the richness, suppleness and tension that the appellation delivers in the varietal. It’s packed with enough deep, dark fruit to hold up to foods such as wild mushroom risotto and duck confit.

More luxurious but just as lively with fresh fruit is the J Vineyards & Winery 2011 Russian River Valley Barrel 16 Pinot Noir (14.5 percent alcohol, 400 cases, $75), a wine with the capability to continually unfold and astonish during a special holiday dinner, particularly if the table centerpiece is a slowly braised cross-rib roast.

As evidence that Judy Jordan doesn’t spend all her time in a vineyard studying soil, she early on recognized the potential for pinot gris both in the coolness of Russian River Valley and in the affections of the country’s wine drinkers. She introduced the winery’s first pinot gris with the harvest of 1996, the same year she bought the former Piper Sonoma sparkling-wine facility.

With the vintage of 2010, she expanded production of pinot gris with an entry-level release bearing a “California” appellation. The current take, the J Vineyards & Winery 2012 California Pinot Gris (13.8 percent alcohol, 45,000 cases, $15), is substantial, spicy and balanced, showing with its clarity, spunk and pear tones why the J Vineyards pinot gris has become the most popular interpretation in the nation priced more than $10.

For a holiday soiree, it has both the fruit and grace to welcome guests, unless, of course, the host wants to rely on a more traditional sparkling wine, of which J also makes plenty.