Nicole Hitchcock grew up in the Central Coast where wine was ever present, in restaurants and at home. Her family featured it at the dinner table, and her father in particular saw it as a unique way to tour the world.
“There was a high value placed on food and wine and how they unite to elevate a social experience,” Nicole says. “I also worked in restaurants in Carmel that are very well-known for their culinary and wine programs. Discovering the interplay between food and wine is what initially got me fascinated with this industry.
After getting her start at a few different wineries, Nicole became head winemaker at J in 2015, drawn to the winery because of its focus on food and wine as well as the importance it places on terroir. Sonoma County, and especially the cooler pockets of the Russian River Valley, with its cool mornings, warm days and copious amounts of sunshine, provides the structure and layers of flavor and complexity grapes need, making it an ideal location to craft the traditional method sparkling wines J is known for.
Nicole describes her style as unapologetically California. “Abundant sunshine sets us apart from other sparkling wine regions throughout the world,” which results in ripeness that’s balanced by Sonoma acidity.
As the fourth winemaker in our 36-year history, she knew she wasn’t going to change things overnight. “We had decades of experience with approach and protocols,” says Hitchcock,“and what I brought to the table was a fresh pair of eyes.” Her goal was to improve upon the house style by finessing existing techniques for sparkling and introducing still wines to expand J’s sparkling program.
Nicole was especially enamored with the single vineyard potential of Pinot Noir. “Each site gives very specific traits, and in my book, site trumps clones irrespective of the vintage,” she says. Lots not classified as vineyard-designate wines are included in the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
Nicole also enjoys partnering with Chef Carl Shelton to continually explore the intersection of wine and cuisine. “Having worked in a broad range of restaurants from rustic to fine dining, as well as in wineries large and small, I feel that I have a good sense of the range of people’s palates and the different occasions that food and wine serve.”
Patience is also a virtue, and change doesn’t happen overnight. “It takes years to make Traditional Method sparkling wine like we do,” she says. “It can be three or four years between when we start growing and picking the grapes for the J Cuvée 20 or Brut Rosé to when we release the wines. It’s a process where you are dedicated to putting in lots of hard work before you get to show the world what you’ve been doing,” she says.
“Then you can only hope that people like it.”