One evening after a busy night working at an Italian trattoria in California, Nicole Hitchcock was handed a glass of Amarone by the restaurant’s owner. It was a meaningful, revealing moment.
“I was enthralled,” Hitchcock says. “I was intrigued by the diversity of wine, how each different region produces its own style and has its own unique qualities.” That encounter years ago was the first step in a career that has seen the pioneering wine- maker spend time working in a diverse range of restaurants, study winemaking in Italy and Australia, and become head winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery in the Russian River Valley.
“Having a connection and feel for the raw materials — the grapes — and then using my experience to guide them into delicious wines is my general approach,” Hitchcock says, during the heart of this year’s harvest. “Having worked in a broad range of restaurants from rustic to fine dining, as well as in wineries large and small, I feel that I have a good sense of the range of people’s palates and the different occasions that food and wine serve.”
It was that combination of experience, passion and captivation that made her a perfect fit to head-up J Vineyards & Winery’s winemaking program — which is known for its sparkling and food and wine program. It all began in her Carmel, California home, however, where the worldwide appeal and diversity of wine first captured her imagination. She was always fascinated by the variety of labels that were passed back and forth in front of her during dinner — especially wines made in far-off places.
“My dad’s enthusiasm for exploring the world through wine inspired me to want to learn more,” she says. Wine played an integral role in her family’s dining experience. “I grew up in an area with a prominent food and wine culture,” Hitchcock says. “There was a high value placed on food and wine, and in particular how they unite to elevate a social experience. I worked in restaurants in Carmel that are very well-known for their culinary and wine programs. Discovering the interplay between food and wine is what initially got me fascinated with this industry. It’s a platform to make people’s lives more interesting.”
The global reach wine can facilitate became more apparent as she continued her studies at UC Davis. It was during that summer abroad that she grasped a true understanding of the role wine and food play as a cultural pillar. “We have an appreciation for it here in the States, but once you spend time in a place like Italy, you see its importance in an entirely different light,” she says. “Celebrating wine and food is an integral part of people’s daily lives in Italy. The experience reinforced my interest and provided me with a heightened perspective on wine.” Working the harvest at the Houghton Winery in Western Australia in 2004 helped cement the importance of traveling and tasting different wines and cuisines, and how it helps provide a broader understanding of the world’s wine culture. “I’ve found that having diverse winemaking experiences makes me a much more creative winemaker than I would be otherwise,” Hitchcock says. “Wine just sparks so much connection and discussion. From what I’ve seen, people enjoy food and wine that are authentic to a place, are well-made and just taste good.”
J Vineyards & Winery is one of those places. With its unique climate, Sonoma County — and the cooler pockets of the Russian River Valley — is an ideal spot to craft sparkling wines. One of the most defining aspects is the huge day-to-night temperature shift. The mornings are cool, usually with misty coastal fog curling up the Russian River from the Pacific Ocean. By midday, the sun breaks through for clear, warm days, ripening the grapes. At night, the coastal breezes and fog cool everything down again, letting the vines rest and thus preserving the wonderful, crisp acidity. This gives Russian River Valley fruit its signature structure and layers of flavor and complexity, Hitchcock says.
“Our sparkling wines are vibrant, bursting with notes of bright fruit and elegant toast, and finish with fullness and finesse,” Hitchcock says. “Our J sparkling wines are lively, bubbly and crisp, but also have depth and nuance. It is also great how food-friendly bubbly is. You can pair our bubbles with almost anything — especially since at J we offer a full range of styles from Extra Brut to Demi-Sec.”
The team at J bottles 12 different sparkling wines. J Cuvée 20 is the best-known, initially created to celebrate the winery’s 20th anniversary 13 years ago. “We make all our sparkling wines in the exacting, time-intensive traditional method, which was developed centuries ago in France,” Hitchcock says. “We like to say that we fuse Old World techniques and New World style for a unique winegrowing and winemaking philosophy.” The fruit is hand-picked at night and then delivered to the winery early in the morning while it is still cool.
“We have two Coquard presses at the winery, which were designed in France specifically for sparkling winemaking,” she says. “These are rare in the United States — there are only a handful of them being used here. The Coquard acts almost like a basket press, where the juice strains out and there’s minimal maceration of the grapes. The result is that you get really crisp, texturally-pleasing juice — there aren’t any disjointed elements. It’s amazing to have this tool.” The winemaker selectively uses malolactic, lees stirring and incorporation of reserve wine, which serves to enhance the creaminess, balance and concentration of the final blend. “That’s what we’re aiming for stylistically,” she says.
J’s sparkling wines age entirage for a minimum of 24 to 30 months — and often much longer, depending on the wine — which is significantly longer than the 12 months required for Champagnes. Hitchcock says that time is crucial to achieving the balanced mouthfeel, autolytic characters and creaminess that has defined the J style. “It takes years to make Traditional Method sparkling wine like we do,” she says. “It can be three or four years between when we start growing and picking the grapes for the J Cuvée 20 or Brut Rosé to when we release the wines. It’s a process where you are dedicated to putting in lots of hard work before you get to show the world what you’ve been doing — and then you can only hope that people like it.”
Written for Celebrate by Bill Burke.