In the 1960s Tom and Sally Jordan loved to visit gourmet restaurants in the U.S. and Europe and invariably ordered French wine, especially Bordeaux. A lot of California wine at that time was sweet, and with first growth Bordeaux selling for less than $10/bottle there was little incentive for wine lovers to hunt out the pioneers of European style Cabernet in California.
An epiphany occurred in 1972 on a visit to San Francisco and dinner at Ernie’s Restaurant (closed in 1985). Tom asked the sommelier what Bordeaux wine the restaurant had. He suggested Jordan try a California Cabernet Sauvignon ‘very much in the Bordeaux style’. Jordan had heard this pitch before and demurred. The smart sommelier got the sale however by essentially offering a money back guarantee. If Jordan did not like the wine, for any reason, he could return the open bottle at no charge.
He did not have to pay up on the wager: Jordan was blown away by the wine, which turned out to be a 1968 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford area of Napa Valley. Oil and gas geologist Jordan’s dream of making a Bordeaux style Cabernet wine in California could be realised.
He and Sally immediately started looking for suitable land for a winery and vineyards. The site was ultimately not in Napa Valley, because they thought the area (even in those days) too built up. They preferred the bucolic rolling hills of Sonoma and purchased 1,300 acres in the Alexander Valley, a few minutes north of the small town of Healdsburg.
They hired a winemaker named Rob Davis, who still makes the wine today. Consulting winemaker was Russian emigrée and California legend André Tchelistcheff. Not coincidentally, Tchelistcheff was the architect of the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon that set the Jordans down the path to creating Jordan Vineyard and Winery.
1976 was the first vintage of the Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon but there was no more reason for Jordan to be nationally known than there was for Beaulieu Vineyards. Potential customers could continue drinking Bordeaux.
Then Fate Intervened
Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1980 and discovered that the White House wine cellar (for official events) was essentially a tribute to the fine winemaking skills of French winemakers. He was familiar with California wine, having served two terms as governor of California. He instructed the biggest oenophile among his ‘California mafia’ (as the group of advisors he brought with him were affectionately known), Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, to make it a cellar that treated American wine as a first class citizen. Later, Deaver was interviewed by ‘Les Amis du Vin’ wine magazine and asked what his favorite wine was. He announced that it was 1976 Jordan Cabernet (he was even photographed with a bottle) and that set off a frenzy among winelovers to taste this cult wine from California.
Just about nobody had heard of Jordan before the article, but just about everybody had heard about it afterwards. The wine became embedded in the national oenological consciousness overnight. Even then its trademark was a Cabernet Sauvignon with a silkiness to the tannins, even when young, that went on to prove that it could age. This broke with most California Cabernets being made at the time, which needed time to soften and resolve. Later, a Chardonnay from Russian River Valley fruit was added to the portfolio. It had many of the qualities of a fine Côtes d’Or burgundy.
The subsequent history of Jordan is widely documented, so rather than repeating it I thought it might be useful to provide a snapshot of Jordan today as, on a visit earlier this month, my lasting impression was that there was a lot more than meets the eye.
Tom and Sally’s son, John Jordan, became CEO in 2005. He had previously had a life outside the winery. He rose to the rank of Commander in naval intelligence. After receiving a BA in economics, then a MBA and JD, he went on to establish his own career as an attorney in his own firm in Sonoma County.
At Jordan, he takes a hands-on approach to his job.
One of the greatest reasons for the enduring interest in wine is the continuity of its production process. Tom Jordan hired well in 1976 when he chose newly minted University of California graduate Rob Davis to make Jordan wine, apprenticing initially under the legendary Tchelistcheff. “I went to two schools to learn about winemaking” says Davis, “the school at Davis and the school of André Tchelistcheff”. Davis is still there, 42 years later and long after Tchelistcheff’s passing, having acquired industry respect in his own right. Some of the changes over time that have stuck (in winemaking every vintage is an experiment and a trial of one-offs): Fruit sourcing became the first objective (to complement the estate fruit). Ageing extended to two full years prior to release. A soil mapping study to really understand the terroir and decreased malolactic fermentation of the Chardonnay to retain vibrant acidity.
The phylloxera louse devastated Jordan as it did many northern California vineyards in the 1980s. The winery used it as an opportunity to relocate its estate vineyards to the hillsides of the estate, rather than the valley floor. The change reflected the seachange in viticultural opinion that had taken place since the 1960s. In the 1960s an agricultural mindset prevailed, concerned with yields and accessibility. Grapes were planted in widely-spaced rows for machine harvesting. Vineyards were flat and located close to access roads. By the late 1980s the price of grapes meat that growers were dealing with a crop the price of which they had never seen before. It was worth unique cultivation rules to maximize the value of the final bottled product: hand harvesting with multiple passes, closer rows of vines, and well-drained hillsides were the preferred locations. Jordan’s property had the flexibility to be rejigged.
The results are clear from an hour’s walk through the property. Paths snake through the 1200 acres land with vineyards on either side where there is hillside. Still only 112 acres are planted, Now in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. All viticulture is Sonoma Sustainable and certified in the Sonoma Green Business Program (1999) and Bay Area Green Business Program (2000). The estate was certified carbon neutral in 2009, and solar arrays installed in 2012. These supply 95% of the estate’s power (the remainder being renewables).
Soil types are highly varied. There are six different types including surpentine (clay heavy and doesn’t drain well), terra rossa (a thick clay). It is where the top performing vineyards are planted. A few growers have mentioned a soil called cortina, a gravelly loam, and yolo.
There is also a conservation focus. Rescue donkeys and dogs are kept as they are territorial and protect the goats and chickens from predators like coyotes. “Otherwise”, as Lisa Mattson (Director of Marketing and Communications) says “they are just here to enjoy the Jordan life”.
The Jordan offices and hospitality center are right next to the winery. Indeed, I attended a ‘long table’ dinner and tasting right in the ageng room. Barrels were lined from one end of the hall to the other as we 60 guests ate in the center aisle while energetic service staff ran up and down the space behind us. On a more recent visit our media group of twelve was seated at round tables just off the expansive balcony (the weather was little too cool, given the time of year, for al fresco dining). Resident executive chef Todd Knoll prepared a cheese and meat buffet almost entirely from local product. Vegetables came from the winery gardens.
A new direction for the hospitality staff is the organization of ‘experiences’. For example, a walk through the château block (a 6.6 acre vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) and a vertical tasting in the vineyard, accompanied by a charcuterie board, and a talk about Cabernet Sauvignon as the grape of Alexander Valley for up to 10 guests. Another one is a Champagne breakfast at the estate accompanied by Champagne AR Lenoble, a family grower winery in the Vallée de la Marne subregion of Champagne sourcing grapes from several parts of Champagne. Jordan and AR Lenoble have had a handshake agreement to serve each other’s wines to visitors since 2016.
In fact, now is a great time to arrange a visit to the winery that Tom Jordan thought could not be created. In the meantime, their current vintages are great as well.