When you think of the world’s best bubbly, you probably think of Champagne from Reims, Prosecco from Cartizze, or maybe Cava from Penedès. And méthode champenoise-style sparkling from… the Russian River Valley?
It might not be top of mind when it comes to bubbles, but Sonoma is uniquely suited to produce world-class sparkling wines. Its climate, its terroir, and its fruit combine to make remarkable vintages that would add to any celebration — or make any weeknight an evening worth celebrating. Wine lovers are familiar with the delight of popping open a delicious bottle from an unexpected place, which is why, when you’re planning your next trip to Napa and Sonoma, it’s worth stopping for a tasting experience at J Vineyards & Winery.
“Everybody loves sparkling,” says Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery. “It’s this wonderful surprise if people don’t already know about Sonoma as a sparkling wine producer. Sonoma does a lot of different wines and a lot of different grape varieties really, really well.”
A pioneer in California sparkling wine, Judy Jordan founded J Vineyards in 1987 at a time when there was almost no sparkling coming out of Sonoma. “The fact that she identified sparkling wines as being such an opportunity in the Russian River Valley when there was no proof of that tradition,” Hitchcock says, “I think that was pretty incredible.”
As the wines grew in success, Jordan acquired more vineyard sites, which now total six estate vineyards, all sustainably farmed, across the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. “I consider it my job to help translate the qualities from those different properties into a bottle of wine that both reflects the vineyard and just tastes really good, that will bring joy to whoever is drinking it,” Hitchcock says.
The Art of Creating an ‘Unapologetically Californian’ Wine
“I like to use traditional methods and a traditional approach,” Hitchcock says. That method involves two fermentations. Once the juice is extracted from the grapes, that liquid goes into a tank for its primary fermentation, making a still wine. Then that still wine is bottled with added yeast for a secondary fermentation, which at J lasts two to three years, longer for its magnum bottles. The secondary fermentation, according to Hitchcock, provides nuance, complexity, and mouthfeel — all of the things that make sparkling wine so delicious.
But, she says, the resulting wines are “unapologetically Californian.”
“We are farming fruit that is absolutely from California. I don’t try to tamper that down in any way because I’m trying to make wines that are reflective of where they’re grown,” she says. “We’ve got the climate, we’ve got the soils, we’ve got the topography — we’ve got everything we need to make world-class sparkling wines.”
Hitchcock’s traditional approach to winemaking and respect for California’s terroir has not gone unnoticed. For her work with J’s still and sparkling wines, Hitchcock was named the 2021 Winemaker of the Year by the Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition.
But Hitchcock would be the first to admit that she had a silent partner aiding in her success as a winemaker at J Vineyards: the fruit. Grapes grown in Sonoma have “that beautiful, bright acidity that you see in other really famous sparkling regions of the world,” Hitchcock says, but also a fruit expression that comes from Sonoma’s warm, sunny days and cool nights, with fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean.
“Coupled with the diversity of soils that we have from this area, it really promotes an element of fruit expression that’s more vibrant and less subdued than you would see in some other regions of the world where different characteristics of sparkling wines are emphasized,” Hitchcock says. For example, Pinot Noir grapes from the Russian River Valley bring out hints of red fruits like cherry and strawberry, while Chardonnay grapes have notes of tree fruit like lemon and orange.
Enjoy a Taste of the Russian River Valley
J Vineyards & Winery makes a California Cuvee and a Cuvee 20 Brut that are widely available in stores across America. But at the winery, you can taste the full range of its sparkling wines (and still wines like Chardonnay, rosé, and Pinot Noir) in expressions like a Cuvee XB, Brut Rosé, Blanc de Noirs, late-disgorged Vintage Brut, and cellared vintages going back a decade or more.
Judy Jordan wasn’t just a pioneer when it comes to Sonoma sparkling wines. When she created J, she intentionally made food an integral part of the experience, crafting food-focused tastings that highlighted food and wine pairings, not just wine alone. While you can reserve tastings of just still and sparkling wines at J, you’d be missing out if you didn’t enjoy a food experience too.
Created by estate chef Forest Kellogg, there are two different types of culinary tastings at the winery. In the Legacy Lounge, you can enjoy a Legacy Tasting, a cheese plate built in five sections to complement the five different glasses of wine in a still or sparkling flight. Maybe you think you’ve had a cheese plate before, but you haven’t had this one, with cheeses all from Northern California and toppings that change with the seasons. In the late spring this year, Kellogg’s selections included cheeses paired with Castelvetrano green olive tapenade and green garlic, mushroom popcorn, and candied ginger pistachio granola with sherry caramel.
“[The food] really helps to highlight our wines and what we’re doing here,” Kellogg says. “My whole job is to bring out the best in our wines with food. It creates a really fun and immersive experience that you won’t get at a lot of places when you’re doing wine tastings.”
In the Bubble Room, there’s a much more immersive tasting experience, with five to seven food courses paired with still and sparkling wines. “I think the thing people would find most surprising about pairing sparkling wine is how versatile it is,” Kellogg says. “You can really cover a lot of ground. It doesn’t need to be an introductory wine. It can be something that stands up throughout the course of a meal.”
In addition to growing exceptional grapes, Sonoma is also a producer of a huge bounty of different foods, many of which find their way onto Kellogg’s menus. “It’s one of the most diverse produce-growing and farming regions,” he says. “We have that perfect Mediterranean climate that you might find in Tuscany or southern France.”
His menus emphasize not just visual appeal and taste, but also compelling textures and, maybe most crucially, aromatics. Kellogg will often utilize teas from local Sonoma producers to create brines and sauces, layering subtle scents that enhance the wine tasting experience with every bite. A recent spring menu included selections like McFarland Springs trout with hibiscus rosehip tea, makrut lime, black radish, and puffed rice, paired with J Brut Rosé; and oat milk panna cotta with honeycomb, blueberry, kumquat, and pistachio crumble, paired with J Demi-Sec sparkling.
“J has absolutely been a trailblazer in terms of challenging people’s expectations for how they’re going to enjoy their wines,” Hitchcock says. “Not just in the types of wines that they enjoy, but then also in how they combine with food on different occasions.”
Maybe the biggest takeaway is how well sparkling wines pair with all courses, not just as the opening or closing to a meal. Hitchcock’s philosophy? “Sparkling wine doesn’t just have to be a celebratory thing.” Unless, of course, you think every day is worth celebrating. Raise a glass of bubbly on any day that feels like a good day. Better yet, do it at J Vineyards & Winery, and taste some of Sonoma Valley’s most trailblazing winemaking history while you do.
This article is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery.