In 1986, Judy Jordan raised eyebrows when she and her father, Jordan Winery founder Tom Jordan, created J Wine Co. for the expressed purpose of producing sparkling wine. An infatuation with bubbly and visits to Champagne left Judy certain that fine fizz was her future. 'My first baby: Bubbles,' she says.
The debut bottling from the company, now called J Vineyards & Winery, was the 1987 J Vintage Brut, released in 1991. Instead of an elegant, gold-foil paper label as is the norm with Champagne and other sparkling wines, J had (and still does) a bold yellow 'J' painted on the dark-green glass--a daring marketing move at the time that helped end the notion that the Jordans were trying to copy Champagne. Instead, they aimed to make the best California sparkling wine they could from their Sonoma County base.
There is no mistaking a bottle of J sparkling wine on the shelf, unless you're Ivana Trump. Judy Jordan tells of pouring the J Vintage Brut in New York and giving Donald Trump's now-ex-wife a bottle of the wine. A note Ivana sent to Jordan thanked her for the bottle of 'I,' not 'J.' I guess when you're a Trump, it is all about you.
Jordan Winery and many of its vineyards are in Alexander Valley, a region too warm to grow high-acid Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the grapes used to make traditional methode champenoise sparkling wine. Judy Jordan, a trained geologist, knew the Russian River Valley's diverse soils and cool climate gave them the best shot at success, so they converted an old prune processing plant into a winery and set to work.
Any doubts folks had over Judy Jordan's commitment to the labor-intensive, costly sparkling wine business were eliminated what she bought out her father's share of J Wine Co. in 1995, becoming sole owner. After the prune plant-turned-crush pad flooded in 1995 and 1996, Judy purchased the Piper-Sonoma bubbly facility on Eastside Road, next to Rodney Strong Vineyards and just south of Healdsburg; to help finance the deal, she agreed to let Piper-Sonoma make its wines there under a custom service contract, which expired in 2007.
Although J Vineyards & Winery now produces still wines as well as sparkling (watch for the noteworthy Pinot Noirs made by vice president of winemaking George Bursick's), Jordan is still keenly focused on bubbly. A vertical tasting of J Vintage Brut, from the initial 1987 bottling through the 2000 ($50), revealed the changes Jordan has made over the years to improve the quality of her wines.
I wasn't a big fan of J's earlier brut bottlings, finding them tart and austere when young, and with a hard citrus edge--traits Jordan herself mentioned at the tasting. Yet, after trying the 1987 Vintage Brut last week, the edgy, citrus acidity had softened, and yellow stone fruit, tangerine, and peach liqueur notes had replaced the tart lemon. Nicely balanced and with the moderately oxidized, mature character I enjoy in older bubbly, the 1987, it was a vivid demonstration of how time can transform a wine.
But the next wine, the 1990, really blew me away. In 1988, Jordan purchased an expensive Coquard press, the type used in Champagne. Typical presses tumble the grapes in a cylinder, mixing juice with skins, seeds and stems. In a Coquard, the whole clusters remain stationary while the sides of the press gently squeeze them, releasing the juice, as Bursick says, with no solids and thus no bitterness. He also uses the Coquard for J's still wines.
The 1990 Vintage Brut was beautiful, with a fresh fruit and slightly yeasty nose. The palate was full and rich, slightly oxidized (again, a good thing when it is indeed slight), with gentle pear and tropical fruit notes, a hint of ginger, and bright, palate-cleansing acidity. The finish lasted at least 20 seconds--quite a feat for fizz.
In 1993, Pinot Meunier was added to the mix, joining Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the wines thereafter showed more complexity and depth. The early vintages were made from grapes grown in several coastal growing areas; since then, the amount of Russian River Valley fruit has increased, and by 1999, the Vintage Brut was 100% Russian River Valley--which Jordan prizes for its '20 to 28 soils types, depending on which geologist you talk to. France has four to six soils types.'
The 1997 Vintage Brut was in perfect drinking condition at last week's tasting, a blend of crackling freshness and yeasty maturity. There's more Pinot Noir influence in this wine, lending a pretty berry note to the pear Granny Smith apple flavors; the mouth is rich and creamy. The 1998, from a tricky vintage, was softer in body, with an even fuller mouthfeel, yet still crisp on the finish.
In addition to being made entirely from Russian River Valley fruit, the 1999, mostly from J's estate vineyards, also was dosed with a small amount of barrel-fermented Chardonnay to add creaminess and spice. Its mineral, pear, Meyer lemon and green apple notes are delicate, the structure firm and the wine focused. It likely will blossom with a bit more time in bottle--one definitely for the cellar.
The 2000 Vintage Brut, the last wine in the vertical, is also a baby, with an enticing brioche nose, creamy mousse, green apple, tropical and citrus fruits, and a spicy kick of ginger. It has, dare I say it, some true Champagne personality to go with sunny California fruit.
Bursick and assistant winemaker Hollis Price aren't done tinkering. They're experimenting with adding brandy to the dosage (which is the sugar addition to the wines that stimulates the secondary fermentation in the bottle). Foudres, temperature-controlled, 1,600-gallon oak ovals popularized by Champagne Krug, are on the horizon for the fermentation of Chardonnay.
Fermentation temperatures might be turned up a few degrees to better development a yeasty, baked-bread character.
According to Price, who has been at J for eight years, the style has settled into one that has 'crisp acidity, more tropical fruit flavors than citrus, a warm, yeasty character and a little bit of spice--warm cinnamon and clove--and some white peach in recent years.'
'We can't mess too much with the J Vintage Brut, because customers expect a certain style,' says Bursick, who left Ferrari-Carano Winery after 22 years as winemaker to start his own consulting company, then was lured by longtime friend Judy Jordan in May 2006 to oversee winemaking, after Oded Shakked departed for his own Longboard Vineyards brand. 'Yet we're putting the old ways up against the new and comparing the two. If change makes a better wine, we'll do it.'
That Bursick hadn't made sparkling wine until joining J Vineyards & Winery was seen by some as a handicap, though Jordan figures it's a plus. Price has the sparkling wine production experience and knowledge of the evolution of the J style, and Bursick adds the varietal winemaking skills and a love of experimentation.
J Vineyards & Winery is not alone in California in fine-tuning its sparkling wines. Similar advances are being made at Roederer Estate in Mendocino County, Schramsberg, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon and Mumm Cuvee Napa in Napa Valley, Gloria Ferrer and Iron Horse in Sonoma County, and Laetitia in Arroyo Grande Valley (formerly Maison Deutz). The well-made, value-priced bubblies from Korbel also keep ticking up in quality.
Champagne producers have been at it for three centuries, whereas California wineries (with the exception of 125-year-old Korbel), have only been pursuing sparkling excellence for three-plus decades. To come so far so fast with such an intricate product is remarkable, and best is likely yet to come. These wines will never be Champagne, but there's no reason why they can't match Champagne in quality and interest.