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The Luxurious J Vineyards & Winery

J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg is a perfect stop on your wine route.

“Be sure to come hungry!” was good advice prior to my recent visit to the Bubble Room at J Vineyards & Winery, where a parade of preciously detailed small bites adds up to quite the meal at the end of five courses and wine pairings.

Beloved locally for their distinctively packaged Sonoma County sparkling wines, including the popular “J Cuvée 20,” J Vineyards was also an early innovator in the small bites scene, employing the culinary arts to show off their wines. While the Bubble Room and J’s other food pairing options cannot be considered a restaurant, you may certainly think of the one-to-two-hour seating tasting as lunch by any other name.

The Luxurious Bubble Room

There have been big changes at J since the last time I dropped in for an update in 2014, but I’m pleased to find that the Bubble Room program is going strong. Only, first I had to find the Bubble Room.

J was founded 1986 by Judy Jordan, daughter of the founders of Jordan Winery — note the similarity of the big “J” on the labels. Initially focusing on sparkling wines made in the traditional champagne method (they flew in a French vintner to help get the first bubbles in the bottle), J added other varietal wines to the lineup and expanded the food and wine experiences. But in 2015, Jordan sold to a sort of bigger family winery, from Modesto, California — a little outfit called E. & J. Gallo, have you heard of them?

Locals wondered what changes were in store for J. So far, so good, as I found when a colleague whom I’d invited to the Bubble Room tasting pointed out that if I just turned around, I’d find it right opposite the door I’d been peering in.

The old Bubble Room is now J’s Legacy Room, and the new, expanded Bubble Room occupies space that was formerly filled with staff cubicles but had a brilliant, underutilized view of the terrace and attractively landscaped “moat” (really a creeklet, with lily pads) that fronts the modern-styled, concrete visitor center.

Gallo’s primary directive to the staff at J, according to new executive chef Carl Shelton, was “Do what you do, do it better.”

Hailing from St. Louis, where “everybody has a gooey butter cake recipe,” he says while presenting the post-dessert sweets course (and I thought the fresh goat milk ricotta with smoked and brined blackberries was the dessert). Shelton earned his chops at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Boka Restaurant before heading out west. He comes to J after a stint at the Restaurant at Meadowood.

Affable and democratically minded, Shelton says that the menu design is a group effort, and changes every six weeks with the season — today he says he’s got his chef’s apron stained with fresh plums from trees around the property.

Five-Course Pairing Fun

The treats start before the first course is served, with an amuse-bouche (delightfully translated from the French, “mouth amuser”) of triple-breaded fried squash blossom. Next up, a tender slab of white sturgeon is ringed with tiny cubes of radiantly green “toad skin” melon topped with caviar and garnished with nasturtium.

Our second course finds leg of rabbit, raised just a few hops away at a heritage rabbitry in Sebastopol, mingling with chanterelle and black garlic, a specialty of Shelton’s mentor at Boka. Vegetarians need not miss out on the wheat berries and leathery winter truffles in the third course, as they’ll get roasted eggplant as a substitute for medium-rare beef rib eye and tongue. The kitchen is happy to accommodate those with other dietary restrictions, says Shelton.

The small plates go all too fast, but they do add up, and it was easy to turn down a few of the post-cheese, post-dessert course sweet treats — artfully made though they were. Service and bussing was fast and seamless, and our friendly host was knowledgeable about the wines while presenting them in an efficient and unaffected manner.

I’ve said before that food and wine pairings like this — and there aren’t a lot like this — are quite the values, offering glee for any gourmet for a modest multiple of the regular tasting fee. With the per person tariff now nearly double that of my first visit in 2010, however, I’ll qualify that a bit, and say the Bubble Room is a great special treat — when entertaining visitors, or making it a “date Sunday morning” instead of “date night” — but a must-splurge if you’ve come far to visit Sonoma County wine country.

Small bites from the same well-run kitchen that go beyond cheese and crackers are also on offer with some of the less-pricey tasting flights, including the Legacy tasting ($35) in the Legacy Lounge and the outdoor Terrace tasting ($55) overlooking the lily pads. Get closer to the vines and the inner workings of the winery with the tour and tasting ($30), or just belly up to the stylish bar for the Signature tasting ($20).

A Look Into the Bubbles

Let’s not forget the reason why the Bubble Room: the bubbles.

The newish J Cuvée XB Extra Brut ($45) continues to be my new favorite Sonoma County sparkling wine. The XB means “extra brut,” but you’d never guess it was J’s driest style of sparkling wine by the rich, toasty shortbread biscuit aroma. The slightly salty, musty note of a seashell plucked off the beach helps to marry with the caviar in the first course, while a lean line of citrus zip down the center palate makes it a seafood pairing natural.

The 2009 Vintage Brut Magnum ($125) is light, lemony and steely-clean by comparison, while the Brut Rosé ($45) is a fresh, lightly fruity who-can-not-like-this pink bubbly. Meant to complement the beef course, the smoky, spicy clove-inflected 2014 Robert Thomas Vineyard Pinot Noir ($65) was nearly one-upped, I thought, when I went back for a sip of the silky 2014 Bow Tie Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($45).

Fans of some of J’s more offbeat varietals, like Pinotage, may be left wanting, as ownership has decided to focus on core Russian River Valley varietals Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with the sparkling wines.

The Russian River's Next Door Neighbor

If the creeklet running past the J visitor center inspires you to seek out the Russian River Valley’s namesake waterway, consider renting an inflatable canoe, with pickup service and all, from Russian River Adventures. Their self-guided route takes paddlers through a seldom-seen stretch of the river that feels remote and wild, although it runs by some of the most famous vineyards of the Russian River Valley — some of which you may only glimpse through the riparian thicket that grows along the banks. Or do the popular river run north of town, operated by River’s Edge Kayak & Canoe Trips.

The Pink Party celebrates J Vineyards’ new Brut Rosé release with food, music and pink-tinted fountains, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, 6:30–8:30 p.m. 707-431-3646.

J Vineyards & Winery, 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 707-431-3646. Open daily, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Bubble Room: six seatings Thursday–Sunday only, $110. Reservations encouraged. 

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