There’s nothing unusual about a new winery owner setting out to best the Bordeaux wines of France with their Cabernet Sauvignon. Among Sonoma County wineries, there is something unusual about Jordan Vineyard & Winery: Jordan has retained the same winemaker for more than 38 years in puruit of that goal. Fresh out of the UC Davis winemaking program, Rob Davis landed a job making the inaugural vintage of a new project founded by Bordeaux-besotted Tom and Sally Jordan. The year was 1976. Since then, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon has become one of Sonoma County’s most celebrated wines, and is a favorite on restaurant wine lists nationwide.
In a conversation with Rob Davis recently, I learned just how deeply rooted Jordan’s Cabernet program is in Bordeaux, philosophically, as it is physically rooted sunny Alexander Valley, California. Unlike most other local wineries, but more similar to the practice in Bordeaux, Jordan makes just one estate cuvée of Cabernet Sauvignon each vintage. In his fast-talking but friendly manner, Davis explained how he found his way into the winemaking profession, speaking with particular reverence for his mentor, André Tchelistcheff, whose knowledge and connections in the wine world were invaluable. Born in Russia, and a veteran of the Russian Civil War, Tchelistcheff studied enology in France and earned acclaim as the winemaker for Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyard.
I was also happy to learn that the winemaker for one of Sonoma County’s most esteemed estates rides his bike to work through the Alexander Valley!
SC: How’d you get into winemaking?
Well, I grew up in Sacramento and belonged to a rather abstemious group (although once I became a winemaker, they converted pretty quickly). I was at UC Davis on a pre-med team, and was a cross-country track runner.
I didn't know that UC Davis was a top wine school in the world—I never paused to think about how people make wine. But my roommate did know about the wine department. When he told me he was studying to be a winemaker, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “There are classes for that?”
So, I started taking classes and fell in love with the fun-loving group of people…I just liked everybody in the industry, they were the most friendly, fun-loving people that I could imagine—which contrasted with the pre-med group I was with (very serious, weren’t the easygoing type of folks). So, my counselor said, “What are you doing with all these wine courses?”
SC: How did you start with Jordan? Did you know it was going to be an America’s favorite wine at the time?
I took the internship with Jordan when I graduated in ’76. At the time, there were 300 wineries in all of California. And now I think there’s 5,000. Back then, Napa was the main thing—if you said, “I work in wine country,” they said: “Oh, which part of Napa? Alexander Valley? Oh, where’s that?”
Jordan was so unique, from the very start. They wanted to create a Bordeaux style wine, not one that would be compared to California.
SC: The Jordans had hired the region’s preeminent wine consultant of the time, André Tchelistcheff, to oversee the construction of their estate winery. Tchelistcheff, 75 years old when Davis came aboard in 1976, took the green college graduate under his wing.
I didn’t know how long he was going to continue consulting in the industry, but I knew what I could learn from this guy I’ll never learn in a book. He was a tremendous source of the poetry of wine as well as the technical aspect.
(Because of his relationships with so many of the wineries throughout Europe), I carried what I call the André card—or I traveled directly with him to exchange information. Each year, beginning in ’78, I would travel to Europe, primarily to France, learning about winemaking from their point of view. André I call “the wine god.” If you can imagine traveling three weeks with him, meeting the wine professors and winery owners—it was the most ideal situation I could possibly imagine.
I remember calling him almost night, asking him about the winemaking: “I observed this,” or “what do you think about that.” I think it’s a great mentoring process for anyone to have.
Davis was great, I had a wonderful time at the university studying wine. But it teaches you the basics of making wine. So much of winemaking is not linear…that mentoring aspect, I cannot overstate how important it is. It was tremendous in my understanding of winemaking.
SC: Because of the Jordan’s and Tchelistcheff’s connections in France, and the the winery’s guest suites, Davis got to meet with and share information with Bordeaux owners and winemakers when they traveled to California.
That was amazing. Here’s this young kid, 22, you know, and coming out of Davis, and to meet the owners of Haut-Brion or Chateau Yquem. Or my travels to visit Chateau Latour or Mouton or Margaux…I guess, just looking at it now, I was such a lucky person to be in that position.
SC: As consistent as the Jordan style is, with the same winemaker at the helm for over three decades, Rob Davis says that the program moved forward when Tom and Sally’s son John came on board.
I think Tom looked at the success of the grand crus, and they all owned their own vineyards. That I didn’t agree with. Far more important than the husbandry was the site, the soil and the climate.
When I started at Jordan, John Jordan would have been four years old—and I didn’t realize at that time that he’d be the new owner! But he brought a different perspective in the business. When we talked, I said “I think we could take our Cabernet to a whole new level if we got away from only estate vineyard.”
What I felt at that point was, all those years I traveled with André and talked with winemakers, I could apply this experience with the wines we were making with John and take it to a whole new level. Now, it’s still the same elegant profile, with more fruit character. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve.
SC: Do you ever make something crazy on the side, like a Viognier orange wine, for fun?
That’s very good question, because many winemakers like myself want to experience all aspect of varietals. I mean, good lord, you go to Italy and there are 10,000 varietals! I went to New Zealand and tasted Cabernet that blew my socks off. Cab in NZ? This is hand picked, goes for $150 a bottle.
We did make some Pinot Noir that all ended up as employee wine.
SC: Davis also explained that winery founder Tom Jordan asked him to create a sparkling wine for the new “J” program, which was later run by daughter Judy Jordan until the brand was sold in 2015.
I took one trip to Champagne and said, “Tom, the last thing you want is for me to be your winemaker for this.” You really have to have someone who’s trained well in the sparkling wine business (whose palate is trained to tasting 18 Brix, with high acidity).
But, we learned a lot from how they press their fruit and applied it to our Chardonnay program.
SC: Do you have a favorite wine right now, your “desert island” wine?
Right now, my preferences…one way I could say is, evolved; changed. I love Burgundies. I love the Puligny-Montrachets, for their finesse—I just love the way the terroir comes though.
SC: But when they put the Montrachets together in a tasting lineup with the Jordan Chardonnay and other California Chardonnays, Davis says, they always come in last. And the Puligny, second to last. He explains why:
Those wines are contemplative wines. You swirl and smell, and it a minute, maybe, you’ll take a taste.
Of course, I like the Pinot Noir Burgundies, as well. None of them punch you in the face, they’re just so seductive. I love the saying, “God made Cabernet, the devil made Pinot Noir.” That’s André’s. Cabernet, you couldn’t make a more ideal fruit: it’s got loose clusters, it sets well, it’s thick skinned. It can take a rain or two and not all apart.
Pinot Noir, there’s challenge from every aspect I can think of. It reminds me of a sheep: unless you take care of it and watch it all the time, it’s not going to be around a long time. Pinot Noir, you could do everything right and it’s still not turned out very well. From a wine perspective, that’s a challenge.
SC: As for that “epiphany” wine, for Davis, one of the most memorable wines showed up much later in his career: 1982 Chateau Petrus. A gift from Dominus owner Christian Moueix, he brought it to a dinner with Moueix and winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet, of both Chateau Petrus and Dominus.
I tend to like wines when they’re not so aged. People say, “Oh, the ’45!” It’s probably tasting like tea leaves by now.
But the ’82 Petrus, I have to say is one wine that lived up to expectation. It’s so ethereal, in my brain all these neurons kept snapping.
I kept thinking, how great can this wine possibly be? I put my nose to it, and though, “Oh, this is incredible.” I remember looking at Jean Claude, and said, “This is one of the most amazing experiences I have had.” We were sharing with 12 people, so I only had a quarter of a cup. But I kept it forever.
I hear similar stories from our customers, about celebrating the birth of their child, or special moments in their life. The wine was a part of their life and celebration, and they write great poetic comments about it.
Whether it’s an ’82 Petrus, or a new vintage or older vintage Jordan, there’s something in this wonderful medium that we get to enjoy every day that, I think, elevates our life.
SC: What’s your favorite way to get out of doors in Sonoma County?
Each year I train for the triathlon: for one, the Vineman, which is in mid-July. But I’m always training all year round…I bike to work each day, anyway. It’s about 14 miles each way, but I’ll pass a lot of vineyards, some of which we source our fruit from. The biking is amazing, especially this time of year.
We have 100 acres in back of our winery, and a lot of mornings or evenings, I’ll go for a 10k run though the vineyard. Some of my most memorable experiences are when the full moon is coming up on the equinox, and the colors of the vines are changing. It’s one of those moments when your senses are truly alive.
SC: Do you have a favorite tasting room or wine bar in Sonoma County?
I can walk in to almost any place and be greeted like a true friend. All you got to do is carry a bottle of wine, and that’s your admission!
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.