BY JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT • JWRIGHT@RGJ.COM • FEBRUARY 9, 2011
It's last fall in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, and it's raining. Biblically, torrentially raining. A pray-for-the-harvest rain. The kind that soaks in quick and deep like petite sirah.
But inside the visitors center at J Vineyards & Winery near Healdsburg, Calif., there's a party in full flower.
Ranks of vintage and Cuvée 20 brut whoosh by on trays. Flutes of brut rosé blush in the Bubble Room, J's sleek pairing space. At the tasting bar, beneath soaring panels of painted steel, a trio shares a bottle of creamy, biscuity '99 Late Disgorged brut.
All of which is to be expected. For 20 years, J has made its name with bubbles, and for some drinkers, the winery's iconic bottle -- a golden J brushed against cool green glass -- has become nearly synonymous with domestic sparkling wine.
But there are other pours at this party: crisp, gently honeyed pinot gris; nicely finishing Russian River Valley chardonnay; and a cluster of pinot noirs from J's nearly 275 vineyard acres.
In fact, even as J's image continues to be strongly shaped by bubbles, it has devoted significant resources in the past several years to expanding and promoting its varietal wines.
"Sparkling is what brought us to the dance, but there are other opportunities in the vineyards," said George Bursick, J's vice president of winemaking. "The future for J is in the varietal wines."
In 2008, J acquired three new varietal vineyards and sold three vineyards previously devoted to sparkling wine.
In 2009, the winery debuted new labels and the J Vineyards brand to distinguish the varietal wines from the sparklers.
Northern Nevada wine merchants carry the '08 Russian River Valley chardonnay, '09 California pinot gris, the '07 and '08 Russian River Valley pinot noirs, along with the Cuvée 20 and brut rosé sparkling wines.
And Bursick, whom J founder and owner Judy Jordan brought on board in 2006, has a local connection. For many years, he was winemaker at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, owned by Don and Rhonda Carano of Reno.
The 100 percent barrel-fermented chardonnay is lemony and peachy and flecked with spice. The wine, Bursick said, "is more Montrachet in style, more delicate, than I did at Ferrari-Carano."
Bursick's California pinot gris, crafted using grapes from three appellations, is rounder than an Oregon-style pinot gris, owing some of that character to its vanilla flavors and to Bursick's enthusiasm for mouthfeel.
Pinot and more
J produces several pinot noirs, but only the floral, berried Russian River Valley release is distributed locally. For the vineyard-designate pinots, you'll have to visit J's tasting room, one of the most stylish in the California wine country.
Grapes for the Russian River pinot are drawn from J's estate vineyards and from other growers in the appellation.
The fruit for the '08 vintage was harvested at night. The wine was aged for 15 months in French oak barrels, returned to the barrel after blending (and before bottling), and then idled at least six months after bottling.
"All my tricks I learned with sangiovese, I learned with pinot noir," Bursick said. "With both, you have to protect the fruit."
Beyond the core varietal wines, Bursick also is making a vineyard-designate viognier, a Russian River Valley vin gris, and a plush dessert wine fashioned from small amounts of chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir blended with Germain-Robin brandy from Mendocino County to the north.
Bursick is even doing a dusky pinotage, about 400 cases annually, from three acres planted to this red South African varietal.
"We are reinventing ourselves, redefining ourselves," Bursick said of all his and Jordan's varietal efforts. "We hope people keep an open mind."
» Ben's Fine Wine & Spirits, 3480 Lakeside Drive, 775-829-2367, and 10870 S. Virginia St., 775-853-2367
» Fine Vines Cheese and Wines, 6300 Mae Anne Ave., west of Robb Drive, 775-787-6300
» L'uva Bella Wine Gallery, 13925 S. Virginia St., in the Summit, 775-851-1110
» Whispering Vine Wine Co., 3886 Mayberry Drive, 775-787-9463, and 95 Foothill Road, 775-622-8080
11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, Calif.
On the web: www.jwine.com