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Jordan: The Self-Assured Route to Excellence
By W. Blake Gray
Nov 13, 2012
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Despite being consistently one of the most popular wines in restaurants in the United States, Jordan is not easy to write about.

It's not a wine geek's winery:  Jordan makes only the most common varieties in the USA, namely, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  But it's not a score-worshipper's winery either.  Jordan keeps its wines below 14% alcohol, and has suffered for it in critics' ratings.  The wines aren't cheap enough for value wine columns, at $52 (Cab) and $25 (Chard), but they're not exorbitantly priced either.

Most years, let's be honest, the wines are good but not mind-blowing, mainly because that's part of their mission:  To go with food, not overpower it.  It's hard to get publications interested in that.

So year after year, Jordan sits near the top of consumer polls while the wine media, depending on its focus, extols something cheaper, weirder, more powerful, harder to get, newer, more traditional…you name it.

Here's where Jordan's useful.  I don't drink Jordan very often in San Francisco, where there's always something more exotic. 

But if I happen to be over-nighting in Oklahoma City or Canton, Ohio or Rochester, Minnesota, and they've got Jordan on the list, I'll order and drink it with pleasure.  And confidence.

I want to point out what I love about Jordan.  The winery makes only two wines, no reserve wines or single-vineyard wines, so you never get the sense you're not getting the winery's best grapes.  That's very unusual in California.

"When I took over the winery, our national sales director said, we need to make a reserve wine," John Jordan says.  "That struck me as fundamentally wrong for Jordan.  For one thing, we're capacity-limited.  But more important, it was incompatible with the covenant we had made with consumers.  We would have to say, we weren't telling you the truth before.  We can make something better.  Our national sales director is now gone.  He really wanted that reserve wine."

I love the wines' restraint.  Tom Jordan divorced his wife Sally in the early 1990s and both walked away from the winery, leaving an accountant in charge until their son John took over in 2005.  Tom has rarely been back to the winery since.  But from his home in Colorado, he kept insisting on a clear focus for the wines:  Table wines that go with food.  Restraint is a constant.

I love that Jordan has had one winemaker since its inception:  Rob Davis, who was hired by consultant Andre Tschelistcheff to make the very first vintage in 1976.  The only winemaker in California I can think of who has been in charge longer is Paul Draper of Ridge, but Draper has relied on a team of assistants for years.  Davis has had 36 vintages and counting, and as he's in good enough shape to participate in triathlons, he might be the world's longest-tenured winemaker before he's done.

Considering the conflicts Davis and Tom Jordan had over the direction of the winery during the accountant phase, that's amazing.  Tom and Sally had fallen in love with French wines and they wanted to make an estate wine; it was as much a part of their vision as the food friendliness.  But in the early 1990s, phylloxera struck the estate, and it had to be replanted.

"For the first time, Rob had to go off and buy grapes.  Rob discovered the benchlands of Alexander Valley," John Jordan said.  "He discovers the fruit is terrific and lacks pyrazines that give Cabernet those vegetal flavors.  My dad is pressuring Rob to go back to estate fruit.  It was a conflict of visions.  Rob believed in these fruit sources, but he was taking a lot of heat from my dad."

Understand, Tom Jordan isn't the kind of man you'd enjoy taking heat from.  John either.  Tom is a geologist who struck it rich in oil.  John is a lawyer and partner in his own firm, owns a software company, has an MBA, is a Naval Reserve Officer, flies his own planes, and is unable to sit still at lunch because he always has business to attend to.  People seem to like working for him; he's flying some employees to Hawaii to vacation together in December.  But I don't know how good I'd feel about opposing him on a mission-critical issue.

"Rob was not enthusiastic about my being his boss," John Jordan said.  "I'd known him since I was four years old, but now I was some 33-year-old guy who doesn't know anything about the wine business.  And I knew about the conflict between him and my dad.  But it seemed to me that Rob knew more about wine than me or my dad."

John decided to agree with Rob on the estate-wine conflict.  He won over his mother, who says, "We're not static people." I don't know if he won over his father.  Tom never comes to the winery and I've never talked to him.  He remarried after divorcing Sally and the second marriage lasted 14 years.  When Tom divorced for the second time, John handled the legal side.  I thought that sounded touchy, a son handling his father's divorce.  I asked if it was uncontested.  "It wasn't uncontested, but it didn't go to trial," John said.  So that wasn't easy, I speculated, but John smiled.  "I didn't like her very much," John said.

When he took over, John Jordan asked Davis if there was anything he wanted to do to make Jordan wines better.  "He said, 'I thought you'd never ask.  Here's a list'," John Jordan said. 

The points on the list are so basic that they're shocking.  Point one is that terroir matters.  Sally Jordan says they had always believed that husbandry mattered most, and had carefully tended the vines on their estate.  They still do, but now they sell much of that fruit in favor of the grapes they're buying on contract from outside growers with better soil profiles.

"We work to be a desirable business partner," John Jordan says.  "We'll pay the day the grapes come in.  We pay a quality bonus.  And we don't let our grapes get overripe.  You want to work with Jordan because we're picking sooner than later."

Second on the list:  More French oak.  Wow.  Like I said, the winery had been run by an accountant.

Back to what I love about Jordan:  Even in ripe years, their Cabs are under 14% alcohol, which is very rare among Cabs over $12 in California today.  They can't do that just by picking early.  Davis, on his 36th vintage, has had to change his winemaking style.

"We're macerating for a shorter time," says Davis, who is such close friends with San Franciso Giants announcer Mike Krukow that he keeps photos of them together -- from Krukow's playing and announcing days -- on his phone.  "I was at Petrus last year and I talked with Christian Moueix about this.  Christian says we've gone away from what wines are about.  He said he had to change his winemaking style on Petrus because the grapes are different now; 23 brix 20 years ago is not the same as 23 brix today in the flavor profile.  We really don't want to push the alcohol beyond 14 because we think the acid-tannin-alcohol balance is best expressed before that.  But it's more work to do that now."

For the 40th anniversary of the Jordans' purchase of the land, the winery presented a vertical of its Cabernets.  Hearing the story, and then tasting it, was a fascinating evolution.  The 1976 is still beautiful; an amazing first effort, thanks no doubt to the love and obsession they lavished on it.  The 1990, one of the last before the replanting, was green and tannic and not a wine I'd want to drink; it proved Davis' point about buying grapes.  The 1999, with grapes from outside Alexander Valley, was meh. 

The 2001 was the best wine we tasted, and still available direct from the winery for a reasonable $86.  I tasted this with a group of media judges bused over from the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and we all swooned over it.  To me, it tasted timeless, not young but not mature: elegant, smooth, complex, with just the right balance of tannins and fruit, and just 13.5% alcohol.  This wine is precisely what Jordan was shooting for from the beginning.

The more recent wines, with Davis' new techniques, are getting more blueberry fruit and seem a little softer in the mouth, though that's not a bad thing on release.  I quite liked the '09, which isn't out yet.

The thing is, I'm intellectualizing and differentiating these wines.  Jordan's customers will just buy the '09 or the '07 or whatever's on the list, confident that they'll get the consistent smooth food-friendly experience they expect.  They don't need The Wine Spectator (which isn't strewn around Jordan's offices) or Mutineer  (which is) to validate it.