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Winds of Change at J Vineyards

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When Judy Jordan founded J Vineyards & Winery in California's Russian River Valley in 1986, she had a very clear goal to produce sparkling wines that would rival Champagne, the gold standard for the genre.

By that measure, she and J have achieved a level of success many thought not possible. The sparkling wines of J are elegant and stylish. They are among the finest made in the New World and certainly on a par with many outstanding Champagnes. Yet nearly 30 years into the ambitious project, Jordan and J are flirting with a new direction.

There is the rapid expansion of its successful pinot gris program on the horizon, and a nifty array of offerings such as vin gris made from pinot noir, a delicious pinot meunier, and a growing selection of chardonnay and pinot noir. There's even an unusual blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinotage.

The goal is to ramp up the pinot gris to as much as 100,000 cases annually within a few years, and emphasize the table wines, primarily chardonnay and pinot noir, that can be made from grapes grown on J's nearly 300 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

It was no accident that J went out and hired winemaker Melissa Stackhouse away from Jackson Family Wines a little more than two years ago. Stackhouse was a pinot noir and chardonnay specialist at Jackson Family's La Crema winery through 2010, when she was appointed winemaster to oversee pinot noir production for all Jackson Family brands before accepting the position at J.

That decision marked a turning point for J. It was a signal that Jordan was conceding the obvious, acknowledging that domestic sparkling wine, no matter how good, remains a tough sell when competing with Champagne. Table wines made from the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes that would have gone into sparkling wine production can fetch the same price or more, and gets to market sooner and is less costly to produce than high quality sparkling wine.

"When the recession hit, our wine club kept us afloat," said George Rose, spokesperson for J. "The American consumer typically buys sparkling wine once a year, and that's around the holidays."

The changes underway at J don't mean the winery will get out of the sparkling wine business, but it is a clear signal that diversity is the new mantra. What separates J from neighbors Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros, both in the nearby Carneros region, is that those two companies are backed by two titans of the industry. Gloria Ferrer is owned by the Spanish wine company Freixenet, the largest sparkling-wine producer in the world, and the French Champagne house Taittinger owns Domaine Carneros.

The bet here is that J will continue to make dazzling sparkling wines. But the day will likely come, and sooner rather than later, that it is best-known for estate grown Russian River Valley pinot and chardonnay.

BEST VALUE

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale.

Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Sogevinus Veedha 2010 Douro DOC, Portugal ($13) — Scant attention has been paid to the recent rise in quality (and availability) of red table wines from Portugal's Douro region, which is best known for its sweet, fortified Ports. A growing number of growers and producers in the area now make dry table wines using the same grape varieties that go into Port. Touriga Nacional is the most common of these, and it is the basis for Veedha, a remarkably complex and muscular red despite its modest price. This vintage is firmly and powerfully structured. It unfolds on the palate in rich, dark-fruited layers, with excellent balance and a firm grip through the finish. The average price for this wine at Wine-Searcher.com is a mere $9. No surprise, I bought a case. Rating: 89.

TASTING NOTES

Mar de Frades 2012 Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain ($25) — Complex on the nose, this albarino seduces with aromas of tropical fruit, citrus peel and melon. With impressive weight on the palate for an albarino, the Mar de Frades is fleshy yet firmly structured, a magical combination that makes it appealing both as an aperitif or a companion with simply grilled fish or briny raw oysters. Rating: 93.

Goldeneye 2010 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($55) — This dark-fruited beauty from Goldeneye is a seductively elegant pinot that offers a hint of what's to come with an alluring floral note in the glass and a hint of spice. On the palate it shows ripe raspberry and blackberry flavors, with complex notes of cola and sweet baking spices. The tannins are beautifully integrated, and the wine finishes with just a bit of bite on the back end. Well crafted, this wine should improve and hold its form over the next five to seven years. Rating: 93.

Sojourn 2011 Pinot Noir, Ridgetop Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($59) — Despite torrential rains and significant loss of crop to rot, any number of producers in Sonoma took a deep breath and made good wine in 2011. Sojourn's Ridgetop Vineyard Pinot is an excellent example. This is an earthy pinot that exhibits aromas of damp forest floor, with rich, ripe black cherry and strawberry fruit that coats the tongue without being too heavy or overbearing. Firmly structured, this is a pinot that should improve over the next two to three years, though it is certain to please those who can't wait. Rating: 92.

Sojourn 2011 Pinot Noir, Gap's Crown, Sonoma Coast ($54) — The Sojourn Gap's Crown from this vintage is forward, supple and ready to drink now. It offers a burst of bright raspberry and red berry fruit aroma on the front of the palate, with mouth-coating viscosity and a lingering, spicy finish. Though it lacks the structure to go for the long haul, it's a delicious expression of pinot from a very challenging vintage. Rating: 90.

Bibi Graetz 2010 Soffocone di Vincigliata, Toscana IGT, Italy ($45) — A Toscana IGT that mirrors the composition of many top Chiantis (90 percent sangiovese, 7 percent canaiolo, 3 percent colorino), the Bibi Graetz Soffocone exhibits a firm acid backbone, fleshy black cherry fruit and medium weight on the palate. This is an exceptional food wine that calls out for grilled red meat. Rating: 90.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators at www.creators.com.

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