Not everything that sparkles in California is gold. Sometimes it's J!
With the holiday season approaching, I found myself in Healdsburg in the heart of Sonoma County a week ago speaking at a technology growth and innovation conference. Meeting many cool and impressive techies and social media gurus was a lot of fun. That, plus a picture-perfect 80-degree weather in the middle of November put me in a groovy mood. So on the way back to Palo Alto, I felt like sparkling wine.
Sonoma county is relatively well known for a number of reputable sparkling wine producers, who make bubblies in the traditional Champagne method (i.e. second fermentation in the bottle). In my mind, with all due respect to all other methods of getting CO2 into a wine, the method of Champagne is the only way to go for any serious drinkin'! And while nothing touches Champagne itself (with the exception of perhaps Italy's Franciacorta and Trento DOC), our traditional method domestics from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, such as Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Mumm, Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer, are not bad at all, and offer really delicious and cheaper alternatives, and a sense of patriotism.
One of the names that immediately popped in my head was J. I'd enjoyed their bubblies in the past, as well as wonderful food & wine pairings at their Signature Bar and the Bubble Room. Located just 10 min down the road from Healdsburg, in Russian River Valley, J Vineyards are well known for good quality and very elegant bottles. Founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan (thus "J") the daughter of Jordan Winery's founder Tom Jordan, they initially focused entirely on sparkling wine. While other California houses have expanded their sparkling production, J have actually been reducing theirs, as they've tried to assert themselves as a world-class expert in Pinot Noir. Let sparkling wine be more of a boutique item for J, let the French mega-brand-controlled estates churn out volume. Truth be told, sparkling wine is still a specialty item in America, drunk primarily on special occasions and holidays, thus the demand is relatively lower than in France where it's treated more as a versatile food wine - a notion I subscribe to wholeheartedly. On the other hand, America's love affair with Pinot Noir seems at all-time high, with Russian River Valley in Sonoma, Santa-Rita Hills in Central Coast, and Willamette Valley in Oregon carrying significant prestige in the eyes of the American (and even Asian) consumer. So why not try to elevate J's Pinot into the same elite ranks as Williams Selyem, Rochioli, and Gary Farrell?! -- all near-cult Pinot entities that made grand reputations on the soils of the Russian River Valley (or RRV), and in turn applied the strengths of their own brands to make "RRV" a brand name as well.
I tried the 2006 Nicole's Vineyard RRV Pinot Noir - and it was as good as any I've had from Sonoma County, wonderfully textured, with nothing sticking out. But for anyone who's read this blog for any duration of time, you'd know that being a huge Burgundy fan, I need that acid, earth, and veggie. None of that typical sweet balsamic (sensuous?) stuff that enchants millions (sorry, my friends), ever since Sideways.
So I dropped by and met with J Vineyards PR Director George Rose, as well as their winemaker George Bursick, who prior to J had been a founding member and winemaker for 22 years at Ferrari-Carano winery.
Iron Chevsky and George Bursick, the winemaker at J Vineyards since 2006, holding a magnum of J Brut, in front of designer wall which represents the Russian River, the sparkles of the bubbles in J wines, and the soils of the Russian River Valley.
We went through the lineup of their entry-level "Cuvée 20" NV Brut ($22), NV Rose ($30), 2002 Vintage Brut ($40), and 1999 Late Disgorged (after 9 years of cellaring) Vintage Brut ($65). All made from the locally grown classical Champagne varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. In a word, wonderful wines, great acidity, but also nice roundness. The vintage bruts showed the anticipated yeastiness and brioche, and the '99 in particular hinted at nuttiness that I so enjoy in more mature sparklers. Their Cuvée 20 is the bestseller - they make about 23000 cases, and it flies. I was not surprised because for ~$17 (if you search on wine-searcher.com), it really tasted very good! It boggles my mind that if we can achieve such great acidity in the local sparkling wines, why can't we have some of that in those damn still whites and reds?! It's got to be you - the sweet-toothed consumer!
During the tasting, I brought up a topic of disclosing disgorgement dates on labels. Most Champagne producers don't to it, but many wine lovers absolutely want to know how old a non-vintage Champagne is. Some wine collectors, in fact, will not buy sparkling wine without knowing the vintages and percentages of the constituent wines in the blend and the disgorgement dates. At J, this question apparently had never come up, especially given they don't even put a label on their designer-shaped bottle. Traditionally, Champagne and other sparkling wine producers have a "house style" for each of their non-vintage cuvées that is supposed to be so consistent from year to year (via blending multiple vintages together) that the question of dates is not necessary. That's a theory that serious winos take with a grain of salt. Plus, as a consumer I want to know how old a non-vintage wine I am looking at is? Without any reference date, a cynic in me says - that's an unfair advantage to the retailer - if they have something that's been sitting there for years past its prime. The impression I got from J is that they envision their bubblies to be consumed relatively soon upon release, and if they wanted you to wait, they would hold on to those bottles, as they do with their vintage bruts.
Now I was in a positively good mood, and with J having awakened my taste buds, headed to a highly-Zagat-rated Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar in Santa Rosa. Perhaps after a recent trip to the fantasic Pizzeria Delfina in the city, my expectations for good pizza had gone up way too much. And Rosso utterly disappointed with both their pizzas and their wines. About the only good thing there was the super fresh and large (it looked like it was on steroids!) arugula, which Rona and I devoured to suppress the rough flavors of the pizza and the alcoholic tasting, low-acid, Zin-like Sangiovese (2008 or 2009, Italy) that they were nice enough to swap for a lighter and fresher Nero D'Avola (tolerable, but far from enjoyable). Shocking - a Sicilian Nero D'Avola being lighter and fresher than Tuscan Sangio!
Ah, but the weather, with the help of the delicious arugula, and the fresh memories of J's bruts and the sharp folks at the conference outweighed the momentary despair of the offended foodie, as Rona and I headed to our next stop to pick up the long-awaited shipment of 1996 Henriot Des Enchanteleurs - one of the greatest Champagnes of all.