Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week
By Heather Irwin
Lowdown: When you live in wine country, everybody's got an opinion about a favorite tasting room. From the far reaches of the Silverado Trail to the uppermost tip of Dry Creek, we've all got that handful of wineries we drag visiting friends and family to time after time after time. But when you ask around, J Winery in Healdsburg seems to come up on a lot of lists, along with much of the rest of the Russian River Valley. Just off of Highway 101, J is a great place to start out a day of winetasting through the valley.
Vibe: J's become such a local favorite in large part due to the consistently friendly and knowledgeable tasting-room staff, who guide sometimes bewildered guests through the process of pairing food and wine. One of the philosophies of the winery is to showcase often locally produced foods with wines to help folks understand how certain flavors in each complement one another. It's amazing how many resist the experience, but the $10 fee for four wines and a small plate of appetizers from in-house chef Mark Caldwell is well worth it. Trust us on this and stop being such a tightwad.
Mouth value: The current flight begins with a 1998 J Vintage Brut ($30) paired with smoked salmon with white corn relish and dill crème fraîche on an English cucumber. The Brut is a favorite, with lots of the winery's signature fruit and floral notes. The crispness of the wine cuts the oil of the fish and complements the herbaceaousness of the dill and cool cucumber. The 2003 Russian River Valley J Pinot Gris ($18) was a little young and not overly interesting, even when paired with a poached shrimp with avocado aioli and mango salsa. The 1997 (Nicole's Vineyard, $40) and 2001 (Robert Thomas Vineyard, $50) Pinot Noirs were both passable, the '97 faring best as paired with olives and roasted tomatoes on a crustini. But the 1999 Nicole's Vineyard Pinot ($35) stood out as exceptional body and flavor, lots of smoke and sweet fruit with a great dessertlike finish. Paired with truffled huckleberry potatoes and caramelized shallots, it was a knockout.
Led by amazingly competent and friendly tasting-room staff who kicked out solid opinions on the wine (a rare quality), we were lead through several other tastings, including a tasty new 2002 Zinfandel ($35), a solid 2003 Alexander Valley Viognier ($30) and the J Ratafia ($42) dessert wine that was like drinking a flower-infused crème brûlée.
Don't miss: Friday through Sunday, the winery opens its more elegant tasting room, the Bubble Room, to guests. Floor-to-ceiling windows bring in the afternoon light while tasters are served a selection of J wines and such appetizers as tempura prawns with spicy ginger aioli and five-spice barbeque duck dim sum. Also be sure to investigate the massive art installation behind the tasting bar. Created by Napa artist Gordon Huether, it is a steel and glass interpretation of champagne. Can you find the bubbles?
Five-second snob: J's owner, Judy Jordan, is the daughter of Cabernet king Tom Jordan, whose winery sits just up the road.
Spot: J Winery, 11447 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. Open daily, 11am-5pm. Bubble room open Friday-Sunday, 11am-4:30pm. Food and winetasting fee, $10 (buy it!). 707.431.3646.
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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.