WINDSOR, Calif. — J Vineyards & Winery is steeped in the history of California wine. It was founded 30 years ago by Judy Jordan, who grew up in the wine business as the daughter of Tom and Sally Jordan. The Jordan Winery, founded nearly 50 years ago by her parents, is a benchmark cabernet sauvignon brand that played a huge role in convincing a skeptical public that California wines could compete with the French.
Judy chose a different path, striking out on her own at the age of 25 to create J, a winery dedicated to Russian River Valley sparkling wine and pinot noir.
Before she sold J last year, the spread encompassed 300 acres of vineyards, and J had become one of California's premier sparkling wines. The sale, to E. & J. Gallo Winery, may have caused a little anxiety for longtime J customers, who wondered what direction the winery would go post-Jordan, but the future for J has never been brighter.
For one thing, Gallo has been a good steward of other iconic wineries it has acquired, the best example being the Louis M. Martini Winery, which Gallo brought back from the brink of bankruptcy when it purchased the Napa Valley winery more than a decade ago.
J was hardly a rescue project, but there was still apprehension from many loyalists.
J's new winemaker under Gallo, Nicole Hitchcock, has an inclination to push the quality envelope to another level.
Hitchcock, who was a rising star at Gallo of Sonoma prior to accepting the winemaking position at J, has her sights set on J's Cuvee 20, the winery's most popular and best-selling wine.
"Cuvee 20 has traditionally been about ripe citrus, pear, tree fruit, but with some toast or brioche to be sure," she said during a recent visit at the winery.
In other words, it is a true California-style sparkling wine. What she aims to do is move Cuvee 20 more in the direction of Champagne.
"I want more toast in the wine," she said. "I'm looking, with mouthfeel, to make it richer and rounder."
To achieve her goal, Hitchcock suggests she will do more lees stirring of the base wines, incorporate more reserve wines in the final blend (Cuvee 20 is a non-vintage brut) and possibly give it more age (two years is now typical) prior to disgorgement.
"We want to build the mouthfeel," she said. "Lees stirring helps with the texture. And in 2015 we did more malolactic (fermentation) to add creaminess, roundness and richness."
Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that converts sharper malic acid into softer lactic acid. For those who have a bit of experience with Champagne, I would compare the two Champagne houses, Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck. Piper is all about crunchy apple and pear fruits, while the Charles Heidsieck style is rich, round and toasty.
Hitchcock takes great pains to explain that she's not out to shock or alienate fans of Cuvee 20.
"We aren't changing it just to change it," she said. "And we don't want to turn it upside down. We want to inch in this direction. It will happen gradually. I am really looking forward to the 2016 Cuvee because we learned a lot in 2015."
It was a bold move for Judy Jordan to found J Vineyards. The ambitious 25-year-old brought a culture of innovation to the project, and it seems the new winemaker is of a like mind.