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Q & A: Melissa Stackhouse, J Vineyards & Winery
By Tina Caputo
Oct 23, 2012
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Q & A: Melissa Stackhouse, J Vineyards & Winery

When the weather turns cool and Thanksgiving approaches, my thoughts turn to festive sparklers and elegant Pinot Noirs -- wines that will pair beautifully with everything from cranberry relish to roasted turkey to sausage stuffing. 

If I had to choose a single source for elegant holiday wines, I’d turn to J Vineyards & Winery, in the Russian River Valley.  Not only does J make terrific sparklers, it makes a range of lovely Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris wines. 

The winery was founded in 1986 as a sparkling wine house by Judy Jordan, whose parents founded Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Sonoma County.  J’s sparklers quickly caught people’s attention not only with their bold, modern bottle -- a refreshing change from traditional Champagne packaging -- but with their fresh, lively character and subtle yeast notes. 

The line has expanded over the years to include a focused lineup of still wines, with Russian River Pinot Noir as its star.  J owns nine estate vineyards in the Russian River Valley covering 274 acres, so the winery is able to closely control production of the fruit going into its wines.

The latest addition to the J winemaking team is Melissa Stackhouse, who spent nearly 10 years making Pinot Noir at La Crema and Jackson Family Wines before joining J as VP of Winemaking in the spring of 2011. 

I had a chance to chat with Melissa at the tail-end of her 19th harvest -- her second at J. 

Although she grew up visiting her grandparents’ farm in Minnesota and later spent six months working on organic farms in New Zealand, Melissa’s path to a career in agriculture had many interesting twists and turns along the way. 

Wine Review Online (WRO): Did you grow up in a wine-drinking family?

Melissa Stackhouse (MS): Not at all -- it was all about milk.  It wasn’t until I was 28 and living in Washington State that I became interested in wine.  I was out wine tasting one day -- this was in `95 -- and just discovered that you could go to school to learn how to make wine.  Until that point I had done all sorts of stuff -- I went to school, dropped out of school, drove a motor coach in Alaska, worked at Kinko’s, painted pottery at a pottery studio, worked at a landscaping company.  I just didn’t know what I wanted to do and couldn’t find anything that I was really passionate about.  And then when I learned that you could study grape-growing and winemaking it just really clicked for me. 

WRO: What did you do after you came to that realization?

MS: I immediately moved from Washington to the Napa Valley and commuted to UC Davis to study enology and viticulture.  I was a pre-nursing student prior to that, so I had a lot of the prerequisites already.  This is my 19th vintage and this is really working for me. 

WRO: What led you to focus on Russian River Pinot Noir?

I had done so many internships -- I was at Mondavi, Sterling, Joseph Phelps, Peter Michael.  It was all very much Cabernet-focused.  But I was looking for an assistant winemaker position, and one opened up at La Crema.  In my interview I told them a little fib that Pinot Noir was my favorite variety, and I got the job.  Over time it actually has become my favorite variety, but back then I was definitely more Cabernet- focused. 

WRO: You’re relatively new to J.  Which of your wines have been released so far?

MS: The 2011 Pinot Gris is in the market now, and the Chards and Pinots will be released in about six months.  I also helped blend the 2010 Chardonnays and Pinots because I started at J in the springtime. 

WRO: What are some of your favorite estate vineyards for Pinot Noir?

MS: We have two vineyards that are named after Judy Jordan’s daughter and son -- one is called Nicole’s and the other is called Robert Thomas.  They’re two very distinct vineyards -- Nicole’s is a warmer site right off of Eastside Road, Robert Thomas is out on Westside Road. 

WRO: How are they different?

MS: The Robert Thomas is a little bit more Burgundian in the sense that it’s more earthy and a little bit mushroomy -- it’s very terroir-driven.  It’s not overly savory, but it has just a kiss of savoryness in addition to the nice plum and cherry fruit.  Nicole’s, because it’s a warmer site, is more hedonistic.  It has more of that Russian River Valley dark fruit, with cola and sassafras.  It’s neat that these vineyards are named after the kids, because they’re also very different from one another. 

WRO: How is the 2012 vintage looking?

MS: This year we should all be making stellar wine.  I said that to my assistant winemaker a couple weeks ago when we were walking in a vineyard.  I just looked at him and said, “We have no excuses this year.  We have to make the most fabulous wine that we’ve ever made in our lives.”  The fruit is just stunning.

WRO: What’s the production ratio at J these days between sparkling and still wines?

MS: We’re doing about 35% sparkling and the rest is Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with a couple other items for the tasting room.  With the vineyards that we have here and the fruit we’re able to source in the Russian River Valley there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t be making world-class Pinot Noir at J. 

WRO: Did you have experience making sparkling wines before joining J?

MS: Not at all, so I was excited to be able to do that.  Fortunately, my assistant winemaker, Scott Anderson, has been here for eight years, and I have this amazing production director, Martin Guzman, who’s been here for 15 years.  So I’m learning from them while I’m steering the Pinot and Chardonnay programs. 

WRO: Do you have any new wines in the works? 

MS: We’re going to be coming out with a Natural, which is a dry sparkling wine with a very limited amount of dosage, and a Blanc de Noir from Nicole’s Vineyard.  Probably what I’m most excited about is that we created a little tier of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay called STRATA -- it’s a very terroir-driven concept.  With the Chardonnay I wanted to make something that was little bit more lemony and had a lot of minerality. 

WRO: In general, does J have a house style?

MS: I’m pretty hands off when it comes to steering fruit in a certain direction.  For the Pinot Noir, I really just let the vineyards speak -- there are a lot of different clones to choose from, so assembling the blends is when it becomes really creative. 

Chardonnay here is a work in progress, and I say that because we have a lot of estate vineyards that are just coming online with different clones -- Hanzell, Wente, Dijon.  So I think our style of Chardonnay is going to change as we go forward, but it’s too soon to say in which direction.  I’m loving the STRATA, so we could actually be building on that mineral-driven Chardonnay.  That could be what our style becomes. 

WRO: Other than your own wines, what do you drink when you’re relaxing at home?

MS: I love white wines, so I drink a lot of Sauvignon Blanc and dry Rieslings, and Pinot Noir for reds.  

WRO: Since Thanksgiving is around the corner, what are your J wine picks for the holiday table?

MS: I would say to start with the Cuvee 20 sparkling wine, and then I would go Pinot Noir all the way.  I would go with either the Russian River Valley Pinot or the Robert Thomas.  We also have a pear liqueur that would be excellent with dessert -- drizzled over anything!