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Get to Know J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg

This house of sparkling wine, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay just keeps getting better. Although the J Vineyards visitor center may not make it on our list of Sonoma County’s “wine castles,” with its modernist, pebbled concrete and glass design — I might almost say, a bit of the “Brut”-alist school of architecture, but I hesitate to pun so badly.

On the other hand, it is situated on the other side of a rather attractive moat. If your idea of a fairy-tale winery includes vintage bubbly and fancy cheese plates, cross that bridge and enter a land of sumptuous treats.

Event: Pink Party with Brut Rosé, oysters and live voodoo blues and swing, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 6:30–8:30pm. 707-431-3646.

Of Bubbles and Terraces
Located adjacent to Rodney Strong just south of Healdsburg, the facility was originally built to produce Piper Sonoma sparkling wines. Meanwhile, recent college graduate Judy Jordan got a gift a little bigger than a car, but with more responsibility: Help from her father, founder of Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley, to split off from the family’s wine business and create her own breezily-named “J” sparkling brand.

Today, the success that she’s made of it is all her own. To mark the brand’s 20th year, J created the bright and slightly sweeter J Cuvée 20, now one of Sonoma County’s favorite sparkling wines. New on board, winemaker Melissa Stackhouse came over from La Crema.

J was ahead of the times when the tasting room opened in 1999, offering not just a walk-up bar, but gourmet food pairings with the wines. This year, new spaces and new experiences are under construction and being added to the menu.

A behind-the-scenes walking tour wends from the Pinot Gris vineyard through the utilitarian inner wine works. Highlights include strategically placed bottles so that you may keep sipping all the way through.

Overlooking the bottling line from upstairs, the new Legacy Reserve Lounge hosts seated tastings ($30) five times a day, with add-on options like a cheese and fancy treats plate ($20) with some of my favorite high-end curds, like Bellwether Farms Pepato paired with 2011 Pinot Meunier ($50), a chewy, cherry jelly-flavored wine from a grape that’s more often used in champagne and sparkling wines.

There’s a cheese option for the Terrace Tasting ($45) as well, but duck confit with seasonal greens and prosciutto sounds tempting, too. The terrace looks out to the landscaping and lily pads in the “moat,” which is actually a creek (keep a watch out for an occasional otter visitor).

The Bubble Room experience ($75) is all about lounging around on sofas while being served three food courses plus cheese course and dessert, with full flight of wine. Nice portions and good stuff: A recent menu includes smoked trout with Tierra Farms new potatoes; Dry Creek peaches, zucchini, lamb; roasted duck with Bhutanese rice. They offer it Thursday through Sunday.

You can still drop in at the tasting bar ($20), but as I’ve said before, these kinds of food and wine pairings offer a lot of value if you’ve got a little more time and an extra Jackson or two — and J has been honing theirs the longest.

If there’s one complaint to make, it could be that there are too many choices to make now. But the joint is well-staffed and seems well-run, and all of the options are well worth the price of admission.

Tip a Flute
The J Cuvée 20 is still a light, bright bubbly, but the new J Cuvée XB Extra Brut ($45) was a revelation for me: It sends the toasty richness of lemon tart crust surprise to the nose, then delivers sizzling grapefruit acidity to the tongue. You can’t call this champagne by name, but yes, Sonoma County does top sparkling wine.

In the 1990s, Judy Jordan brushed off naysayers who said she can’t make still wine from sparkling wine vineyards. Well, the 2011 Robert Thomas Pinot Noir ($60) is just as plush and loaded with black cherry fruit as they come. The 2011 Barrel 16 Chardonnay ($48) is regally golden, with golden raisin, apple cider, and fine oak notes. Managing to focus the varietal’s characteristic apricot fruit into a lean line of flavor, infused with lime cream and spritzed with the faintest essence of toffee, the 2013 Hoot Owl Viognier ($30) is an unexpected stunner.

Wine Geek Corner
You know enough wine-French to know that the “noir” in Pinot Noir is the same “noir” as in Le Chat Noir and film noir — meaning black, also making a red wine of the same name.

So why does champagne and sparkling wine made with a traditional blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir turn out a light gold?

The juice of Pinot Noir is usually quite clear, unlike the typically pink juice of ripe Syrah, for instance. And to ensure the gentlest extraction of juice, J Vineyards employs a special, French-made press that squeezes the grapes without tumbling them, as occurs in a cylindrical press. This one has steel walls that move in on the grapes — think of it like the trash compacter scene in Star Wars, if that’s appealingly nostalgic to you.

Go with the Flow
A left turn out the driveway takes you to Healdsburg, the Russian River Valley’s culinary hotspot. If you’re interested in getting a closer to the Russian River itself, consider renting an inflatable canoe, with pickup service and all, from SOAR Inflatables. Their self-guided route takes paddlers through a seldom-seen stretch of the river that, although it runs by some of the most famous vineyards of the Russian River Valley (you won’t see them from the river), feels remote and is full of turtles, birds and fish lurking in the deeper water. Or, do the popular river run north of town, operated by River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe Trips.

J Vineyards & Winery, 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Open daily, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Tasting options, $20–$75.

Event: Pink Party with Brut Rosé, oysters and live voodoo blues and swing, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 6:30–8:30pm. 707-431-3646.

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