“At its core, that’s what winemaking is all about — conducting series after series of trials to optimize the process and outcome,” says Hitchcock, who is now the head winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery, which was founded by Judy Jordan in 1986. We chatted with Hitchcock about her day-to-day work as an acclaimed winemaker and one of Gallo’s celebrated Women Behind the Wine.
That first restaurant job sparked Hitchcock’s curiosity. Not only did she enjoy creating an atmosphere of “magic” for people through tastings and pairings, but she also loved delving into the more technical and hands-on aspects of wine. After earning a degree in Viticulture & Enology from UC Davis, she took on a variety of internships and jobs across the industry, from sales to cellaring. Eventually, that led her to winemaking.
“Becoming a winemaker is not for the faint of heart. It requires relentless dedication, a passion for problem-solving, fearlessness of getting dirty, and true team spirit,” Hitchcock says. “I think that those qualities, combined with a persistent thirst for discovering and producing delicious wines, led me to where I am today.”
Now, at J Vineyards & Winery, her job revolves around creating award-winning sparkling and still wines from grapes grown in California’s Russian River Valley — which is renowned for its cool-climate vineyard sites and diverse soil types — and other Sonoma County regions. She spends her days overseeing every step of the process, from the vineyard to the cellar to the laboratory.
“I start most of my days [during harvest] early, visiting vineyards at sunrise to assess fruit ripeness and vine condition,” Hitchcock says. “From there, I make my way to the winery to connect with my team. I review lab analyses, check-in on cellar activities, and taste fermentation tanks to evaluate quality and determine the next steps in the winery.”
During harvest, she spends a lot of time sampling wines, but the approach is much more technical than an average tasting. “There is always a lot of tasting — grapes, juice, fermenters, and finished wines,” she says. “Harvest time tends to equate to long days that drag into the evening, depending on how busy we are.”
Hitchcock expects each vintage to come with unique challenges and surprises, so she never knows quite what to expect day to day or year to year — and that’s how she likes it.
“On any given day, you might find me in the winery cellar, collaborating with our marketing team, selecting barrels for the upcoming vintage, or meeting up with our estate vineyard manager to discuss vine pruning,” she says. “Variety is what keeps me on my toes and ensures that I’m continuously challenged.”
Though harvest is typically the most hectic time of year—when Hitchcock and her team are constantly monitoring for the perfect time to pick grapes—her work during the winter months is just as crucial. “The wintertime is actually quite busy with bottling, blending, and maintaining the new wines in the cellar,” Hitchcock says.
Once they celebrate the close of harvest season, the work of transforming grapes into everything from single-vineyard Chardonnay to a dozen different sparkling wines, including Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé, begins. “I can always find a plethora of reasons to sip sparkling wine,” she says.“They pair extremely well with a broad array of dishes and cuisines, and since I love to eat, they are an obvious accompaniment.”
“BECOMING A WINEMAKER IS NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. IT REQUIRES RELENTLESS DEDICATION, A PASSION FOR PROBLEM-SOLVING, FEARLESSNESS OF GETTING DIRTY, AND TRUE TEAM SPIRIT,” HITCHCOCK SAYS. “I THINK THAT THOSE QUALITIES, COMBINED WITH A PERSISTENT THIRST FOR DISCOVERING AND PRODUCING DELICIOUS WINES, LED ME TO WHERE I AM TODAY.” --NICOLE HITCHCOCK
Though she loves drinking bubbly thanks to its versatility alongside food, she most enjoys coaxing out the individual personalities of the brand’s 10 annual Pinot Noir offerings. “After any given vintage, we have upwards of 100 different barrel lots of Pinot Noir,”Hitchcock says.
Once the weather begins to warm up and the vines awaken from winter dormancy, she starts to visit vineyards and monitor their progress and also focuses on blending wines. Because the spring season is a bit slower at the winery, Hitchcock takes advantage of the time to continue her technical education, attending seminars and conferences, and to collaborate with other winemakers. “Summertime is spent finishing up on projects and bottling, and squeezing in some well-deserved vacation prior to the onset of the next harvest,” she says.
Though it’s demanding work, Hitchcock finds that winemaking satisfies the creativity and curiosity that her family and her early days working with wine helped to foster.
“When I realized that I could facilitate such enjoyable experiences for people as a career, I never looked back,” she says. “One of the best aspects of being a winemaker is that there is always more to learn and experience.”