“It is really a dream come true to be able to demonstrate the spectacular range of sparkling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay styles that are possible in the Russian River Valley.” That is how Nicole Hitchcock describes her role as winemaker at J Vineyards, which has been able to move up to the next level of its growth following its acquisition in 2015 by E&J Gallo Winery. Here she shares her background in wine, how she became a winemaker and just what it is about the Russian River that gives J Vineyards all the tools a winemaker would want to make a wide range of classic Californian wines.
Nicole Hitchcock could not be happier with the tools she has to work with at J Vineyards in the heart of California’s Russian River Valley.
Tell us about your background and how you got into wine?
I found my love of wine initially while working alongside sommeliers in upscale restaurants in my hometown, Carmel-by-the-Sea. I studied Viticulture & Enology at the University of California at Davis, and from there set off on a trajectory that included cellar internships, stints in sales and many vintages learning the craft of winemaking.
Why did you want to be a winemaker?
I wanted to be a winemaker because I thought it was the perfect intersection between all the activities that I enjoy doing: being outside, experimentation, biology and chemistry, and of course, the artistic expression that comes along with making wine.
Where did you train and first really get your confidence as a winemaker and have you always focused on cool climate varietals and styles?
No, I have not always focused on cool climate varietals and styles. In terms of confidence as a winemaker, I’ve had the benefit of working in wineries of all sizes, from tiny boutique producers to large-production cellars. My confidence comes from having these diverse experiences. I’ve seen so many different sides of winemaking, I feel prepared for whatever might happen in any given vintage.
You also travelled and made wine in Europe and Australia before California – how important was that for you in terms of experience and what do you think you learnt the most that you are able to use in your work now at J Vineyards?
It was immensely important for me to gather diverse experiences in various parts of the world. Through my travels, I was exposed to all kinds of different varieties, equipment, and techniques. Working in Western Australia in particularly allowed me to immerse myself back in winemaking after having taken a hiatus by working in sales. I was able to dive back in.
How did the move to J Vineyards & Winery come about?
When the opportunity came up to join J and continue their incredible legacy of Russian River Valley sparkling and varietal wines, I jumped at the chance. At J you have an opportunity to make red and white wines but also specialise in a wide range of sparkling wine.
Was it important for you to have that wide portfolio of winemaking styles to work with?
Yes, absolutely. I am somebody who thrives on variety and diversity. It is really a dream come true to be able to demonstrate the spectacular range of sparkling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay styles that are possible in the Russian River Valley. For me personally, that’s really gratifying. For our consumers and tasting room guests, J offers a taste or style for everybody. For those who like a little more adventure, our portfolio is a great base from where they can continue to explore.
What do you see as being the most important influences a winemaker can have over their wines – but sparkling wine in particular?
Good decision making is at the core of winemaker influenc – that means everything from when to prune, when to pick, and how to plan and carry out your harvest and cellar work. You have to be attentive to the details, specifically with sparkling because it’s so transparent as a wine. You must make good decisions at every step of the process, otherwise any oversight will be reflected in the glass.
How would you describe the style of sparkling wine you like to make and has that changed over time?
I like to make sparkling that reflects the region in which it is grown. One of our missions at J is to highlight the best of what is possible from the Russian River Valley. The J Cuvée 20 is the quintessential example of our house style: lively, vibrant and crisp, bursting with notes of bright fruit, citrus and toast, finishing with fullness and finesse.
My style is to let the region lead the way, so that has not changed over time. As I’ve learned more about sparkling winemaking and the grapes that we work with, I’ve been able to fine-tune that attention to detail and decision-making.
What influence does the Russian River AVA have over the styles of wine you are able to make compared to other AVAs?
The Russian River Valley is renowned for its ideal climate for growing top-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean, the Russian River Valley growing season is marked by clear, warm days moderated by coastal breezes and cool misty fog during the cold nights. This consistent diurnal shift allows fruit to develop mature, ripe fruit characters while maintaining the region’s signature bright, crisp acidity.
The beauty of the Russian River Valley is its diversity. The Russian River Valley’s tumultuous geologic past provides us with incredible topographic diversity today. There are mountains, valleys, plains and riverbeds throughout the region that are comprised of gravel, loam and sandy soils, depending upon location. The soils of the Russian River Valley are generally more acidic with good drainage, requiring the vines to burrow their roots deep into the earth in search of moisture and nutrients.
These different soil types and microclimates each add a slightly different variation to the fruit’s character, providing us with truly site-specific, terroir-driven wines. Spending time getting to know the intricacies of each estate vineyard is critically important. It allows us to make decisions that are specific to each lot of grapes that we bring in. If we get things right in the vineyard, it gives us the best shot at making a perfect wine.
What have the last couple of harvests been like in terms of quality and volume and their position in the market place?
I would say that 2019 was a great vintage. The fruit was beautifully balanced and very expressive. It was a bit smaller than in 2018, but delivered on exceptional quality. Vintage 2020 offered very concentrated flavours and structure. It was a smaller vintage, especially for Pinot Noir.
Each vintage has been well received in the marketplace. California is an incredible place to grow and make wines because we have such reliably good conditions year after year.
What are your hopes for 2021 vintage?
We are hoping for a nice, well-paced harvest with perfect weather conditions. Harvest is always a bit crazy, with early mornings and long hours, but in an ideal year the pace and tempo can be rather predictable. That’s what we are hoping will happen in 2021. So far, the fruit quality is looking good. It’s very clean fruit and there is good balance on the vines.
You also have an award-winning tasting experience at J Vineyards & Winery – does that help you in terms of the styles of wine you are making and making sure they are well tuned with cuisines and eating?
Yes, as a winemaker I am always considering the wine’s relationship with food. Having a connection and feel for the raw materials – the grapes – and then using my experience to guide them into delicious wines is what I find so fascinating. 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. I love that we continually highlight that relationship between food, wine and experiences here at J.
The Bubble Room is an incredible partnership between our winemaking and our culinary team. The five-course pairing menu at the Bubble Room features innovative, Sonoma-inspired dishes paired with our portfolio of wines. J was the first winery to offer food and wine pairing experiences in Sonoma County and I think the Bubble Room takes that culinary dedication to an even higher level. There is so much care and attention given to each seasonal menu, which changes every few weeks. Each pairing is perfected through extensive tastings prior to release. As a winemaker, what I enjoy most about the Bubble Room experience is that it can often challenge guests’ notions of how to pair food with wine, especially when it comes to sparkling wines. It is a culinary adventure, an educational endeavour, and a seasonal celebration all wrapped up into one glorious experience.
Wine tourism is of course something that J is renowned for, is this part of the business picking up now things are opening up more?
J’s tasting room has reopened for tasting experiences. People are excited to visit Sonoma County and to enjoy Sonoma wine country. It is invigorating to once again see guests enjoying flights of wine, often paired with our artisan cheese pairing plate or different culinary offerings.
What are your outstanding ambitions as a winemaker?
I would really like to see J wines, especially our small lot wines, get the recognition they deserve. I fully believe that Russian River Valley sparkling wines can compete with the best of the best in the world. I would love to elevate the reputation of Russian River Valley wines internationally.
What next for J in terms of its growth and potential?
J Vineyards & Winery has a decades-long legacy of crafting exceptional sparkling and varietal wines. We are excited to continue to innovate and develop new ways to reach the luxury consumer, whether on menus in restaurants, in fine wine retailers, online, or in person at our winery in Sonoma County, California. We have grown and evolved over the last 35+ years and look forward to writing the next chapter of wine traditions.
What is the split between export and domestic sales and is that changing at all?
Currently, the domestic market is responsible for about 95% of our sales. However, we are always eager to explore international markets to reach new consumers.
What are your key markets around the world and why?
Great Britain, Canada and Sweden are currently our key focuses internationally. We also have limited distribution in other select markets around the world.
You’ve been an active participant in Gallo’s Women Behind the Wine initiative with the Women of the Vine & Spirits, can you tell us more about this?
Women Behind the Wine is a great opportunity to highlight the work and successes of some of the women who work in wine and spirits. I’ve always put a high value on relationships and especially those who are working hard toward accomplishing their dreams. I love being part of something that highlights the accomplishments of my colleagues as well as women who are just starting out in their career.
Our Women Behind the Wine Educational Fund helps empower the professional development of the next generation of women in the wine, food and beverage business. The scholarships, awarded through the Women of the Vine & Spirits Foundation, ensure that talented women can focus on their skills and education, not worry about their funding.
- You can find our more about J Vineyards at its website here.
- J Vineyards is part of E&J Gallo Winery’s portfolio in the UK.
- E &J Gallo Winery is a partner supplier to The Buyer.