Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker at J Vineyards, sings praises of Sonoma County soil for grape growing. (Courtesy photo)

On The Vine: J Vineyards celebrates the marriage of wine and cheese

Russian River Valley vintner, chef present, promote pleasant pairings

Wine and cheese have been linked together for centuries. In her book “Cheese & Wine, A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying,” Janet Fletcher describes cheese and wine as a time-tested marriage, consumables produced both for the future and for daily life.

After finding Fletcher’s book a decade ago, I became interested in wine and cheese pairing and still use it as a reference when I create my own. The basic rule of such pairings is to maintain the cheese’s role to enhance the wine, not overpower it.

California food writer Janet Fletcher’s “Cheese & Wine” is an excellent resource. (Courtesy photo)

Naturally, I was excited to discover that a scheduled tasting of new J Vineyards releases with head winemaker Nicole Hitchcock included local cheese pairings. Dairy farms and vineyards coexist in the North Bay and their products are destined to be paired with each other.

The added cheeses also opened the opportunity for Nicole to preview some culinary programs that will resume at the Healdsburg winery once pandemic-related distancing restrictions are lifted.

J Vineyards is a longstanding winery founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan of the Alexander Valley winemaking family to produce Sonoma County sparkling wine. She later added vineyards for pinot noir and chardonnay. The winery grew and thrived for 30 years and, in 2015, the property and the brand were purchased by the E&J Gallo Company.

J Vineyards staffers continue to do what the organization always has done, and currently maintain an impressive portfolio that includes sparkling wines, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris from six estate vineyards throughout the Russian River Valley.

Hitchcock became J Vineyard’s head winemaker in 2015. Born in Carmel, she learned about the wine business from being a server. She attended University of California, Davis and earned a degree in viticulture and enology before setting course for winemaking gigs in Italy, Australia and later, Northern California.

She loves being in Sonoma County and claims there is more diverse soil here than in all of France.

Today, the J Vineyards portfolio includes over 20 releases.

Our tasting began with the J Vineyards Cuvee Twenty ($30), the vineyards’ first non-vintage sparkler, the one mostly likely found in local stores. After initial fermentation in stainless steel and neutral oak for added creaminess, the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier blend spends 30 months in tirage (second fermentation in the bottle).

J Vineyards Cuvee Twenty sparkling wine pairs well with Point Reyes Original Blue from the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. (Courtesy photo)

The effervescent nutty, fruit overtones of the Cuvee Twenty paired well with the salty notes of the popular Point Reyes Original Blue from the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. This cheese, and Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery, also in Point Reyes Station, pair well with most sparkling wines.

The aged, triple cream Mt. Tam, Cowgirl’s most popular, complements creamy textures in the J Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($30) and the barrel-best J Vineyards RRV Strata Chardonnay 2017 ($40), both products of hand-selected grapes, new French oak, full malo-lactic fermentation and aggressive battonage. The creamy, soft mushroom hints in the cheese elevated the texture and toasty notes in both wines.

The grapes for the J Vineyards RRV Pinot Noir ($40) are sourced from six vineyards throughout various Russian River Valley neighborhoods, each with different climates and characteristics. Aged nine months in French oak, 32% new, this pinot exudes earthy red fruit and cola flavors that paired well with the Estero Gold Reserve from the Valley Ford Cheese Company, an aged hard cheese from Sonoma County, touted to complement most red wines.

With fewer than 100 cases produced, the J Vineyards RRV Strata Pinot Noir ($55) is composed from selected barrels that present heightened aromas and concentrated flavors of candied red fruit and anise. It was paired with a guest cheese, the soft-ripened Harbison Cheese from the Jasper Hill Creamery in Vermont. The nuanced flavors of the spoon-able cheese lifted the pinot noir, but could also pair well with a sparkler.

J Vineyards has expanded on the marriage of food and wine under the leadership of executive chef Carl Shelton. The vineyards offer a cheese pairing option with their legacy tasting of small production reserve wines and the Bubble Room, a gastro-artistic collaboration between Nicole and Carl that includes a five- course experience, each carefully paired with select wines.

These programs will return once the new normal begins.

In the interim, the winery is hosting virtual tastings twice a week, Nicole hosts a virtual Friday Night Happy Hour and chef Carl conducts virtual food tastings on Instagram.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com

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