Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bubble Lady - Judy Jordan has built J Vineyards and Winery into a top-name sparkling wine house, Press Democrat, July 23, 2011

Bubble Lady

Judy Jordan has built J Vineyards and Winery into a top-name sparkling wine house

Published: Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.

SCOTT MANCHESTER / For The Press Democrat
With J Vineyards sparkling wine in hand, Judy Jordan, Founder and President of J Vineyards & Winery and second generation vintner, during her 50th birthday party cruise on the San Francisco Bay on the Empress of Sausalito motor yacht on Saturday night June 11, 2011.

Judy Jordan was only 25 when she leveraged the resources and knowledge of her dad, Jordan Winery founder Tom Jordan, to launch her own sparkling wine house, J Vineyards & Winery.  A geology graduate and college tennis star out of Stanford, she settled on the Russian River Valley as her base.

“If I were talking to the 25-year-old who started this company and I remember enough about her, she was spicy and spunky,” Jordan recalled. “At that time I really believed that nothing could get in my way, and I was so passionate about sparkling wine and about geology and about the Russian River Valley.”

Recently 50, she's still at it, having turned J into a marquee name in Sonoma County and a popular bubbly brand across the country.  Along the way, she has survived floods and down markets, winemaker changes and a move into varietal wines.  As a single, very much working mom, she is also raising two kids, Nicole and Robert, now in their teens.

“What I didn't know at 25 was how many times I was going to run up against walls and how many times you think you're on a certain path and are sure that's the right path and bam. You hit a wall,” she said.

 Judy Jordan, 1987

“And how often, with a big sore on your head, you move back from it and go, okay, that hurt, and finding how to get around that wall and finding a path that works.

“I'd say, don't get so wrapped up in the emotional swings.  Now what I know is, you get through it. Sometimes it has not been a pretty landing, but I have ended up on my feet.”

Emotional swings indeed. The ambient lighting in Jordan's winery office gives off an air of calm, as does the soft-spoken, deliberate Jordan, tall and still athletic with blonde, short-cropped hair.

So singularly committed to making sparkling wine, Jordan still is mired in a business that's not always joyful.  She is committed to a product that's expensive to make and subject to the weather, market fickleness and a never-ending parade of competitors and Johnny-come-lately trends in taste and price.

J  Sparkling Wine

“You either continue to make smaller quantities at very high quality and you position your wines that way, which is what we choose to do,” she said, “or you make a lot of wine.  After 25 years we're all-American, high-quality from Russian River Valley vineyards, but we also like to think of ourselves as fun, as joyous and attainable.”

Adaptation has been key.  In the last year Jordan has hired former Kendall-Jackson public relations king pin George Rose to take on J's communications needs.  She also has lured winemaker Melissa Stackhouse away from La Crema to make J's sparkling and varietal wines, starting this harvest.  She takes over from Jordan's personal friend George Bursick, who wanted to go back to consulting.

Melissa Stackhouse, J Vineyards & Winery Winemaker

“What appealed to me about coming to work for J is Judy's offbeat sense of humor and sharp independent streak,” said Rose.  “She brings a sense of fun and a uniquely all-American spirit to the winery that, when mixed with hard work, brings out the best in people.”

Stackhouse is happy to get back to making more artisanal pinot noir and chardonnay, noting that “Judy is very focused on producing world-class varietal wines from her 10 Russian River Valley estate vineyards.”

 J Sparkling, J Vineyards Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, J Pinot Gris

In the early days, the wines were made in an old, ramshackle prune processing barn without indoor plumbing and a leafy roof.  In 1995, it flooded under five feet of water.

The first release, a 1987 J Vintage Brut, came into the market in 1991 at about the exact moment the Gulf War in Kuwait began.  Jordan and her team pounded every strip of pavement across the U.S. to sell 4,000 cases in 32 cities.

Sales eventually added up, and Jordan was able in 1997 to buy the Piper Sonoma winery, another sparkling producer, on Old Redwood Highway south of Healdsburg, where J still sits.  Included in the deal were 118 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

J Vineyards & Winery Entrance

Jordan now owns 10 vineyards laced throughout the Russian River Valley, leveraging one to get another one and paying off debt as she went so she could be ready to grab more vineyard land.

“I do believe things go in phases,” she said.  “That's the great opportunity in life, to re-invent and re-engineer yourself to be relevant for new times.  It's very important to stay relevant and avant-garde.”

Convinced of sparkling wine's ability to pair with a wide range of food, Jordan was among the first in Sonoma County to devote a part of J's tasting room to food and wine pairing, starting in 1999.  The Bubble Room remains popular.

J Bubble Room Experience

Now she's pushing forward with J pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris to further make that point.  After all these years, she doesn't want to have all her eggs in the sparkling wine basket, stressing that she likes and needs diversity.

“I had a midlife crisis a few years ago, a teenage crisis because I wasn't quite midlife yet.  Midlife is at 60, I hear,” she joked.

“I purchased this winery back in 1997, and it was a very big deal for me.  I put a little bit of money down and had to pay it off with lots of debt and (was) mortgaged up the wazoo.  It forced me to make the decision in the early 2000s, what did I want to be when I grew up? A big sparkling wine house or did I want to be high quality?  I chose the latter.”

Her decision to broaden has been challenging because people often tell her that if you're a sparkling wine house you're not capable of being a quality pinot noir or chardonnay house.

J Barrel Room
Producing High-Quality Pinot Noir & Chardonnay

“I'm very competitive by nature, and I'm like, okay, says who?” Jordan countered.

Her brother John agrees.  He is CEO of Jordan Vineyard and Winery, the Alexander Valley winery started by their parents, Tom and Sally Jordan.

“Judy has always been fiercely independent and unafraid to approach the business in her own way,” he said.

Ultimately Jordan is proudest of the fact that her kids have witnessed her evolution.

J  Vineyards Pinot Noir

“It's a joy to have built a business as a single mom and have my kids see what that's like, to go through the ups and the downs,” she said.

“I've been scurrying around and scurrying around the last 25 years, and now I feel this is home, I can settle down.”

SCOTT MANCHESTER / For The Press Democrat
Judy Jordan, Founder and President of J Vineyards & Winery and second generation vintner, tries on the captain's hat on the Empress of Sausalito motor yacht during her 50th birthday party cruise on the San Francisco Bay on June 11.

A celebration of J's 25th Anniversary will be held September 17 at the winery's Visitor Center and Bubble Room, in tandem with the winery's annual harvest event.  The festivities are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will feature specialty food producers and tastings of past, present and future J wines.  Admission is $55, which includes a commemorative glass and culinary creations by J's Executive Chef Mark E. Caldwell.

To purchase tickets in advance, call 431-5430.  http://www.jwine.com

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.

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