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2022 Winemaker Of The Year J Vineyards’ Nicole Hitchcock On Food, Wine, “Aha Moments” And More

Nicole Hitchcock is the fourth winemaker at Sonoma winery, J Vineyards and Winery, and this year she has been awarded Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast’s 2022 Wine Star Awards. This California native got her start in the wine world after working in a number of restaurants that offered robust culinary and wine programs. It was her formative experiences working in restaurants that valued the importance of serving food and wine in harmony led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Viticulture & Enology at the University of California at Davis, with a minor in Italian language.

Hitchcock got her official start on a winemaking career after her time at UC Davis. Soon there after she began working harvests in Napa and Australia, this was a time she recalls knowing for sure that winemaking was her destiny. In 2002 she landed at E. & J. Gallo, ultimately taking the lead as J’s head winemaker in 2015.

“My philosophy is that high quality grapes are the foundation of J wines. California’s sunshine lends a signature brightness, ripeness and fullness on the palate that is consistent throughout the J portfolio,” says Hitchcock. “If we get the vineyard site, farming and harvesting right, we are set up for success.”

She has over 20 years of wine making experience and works on both still and sparkling wines at J Vineyards, which produces nearly 30 different sparkling and varietal wines.

“We use classical methods that are versatile and responsive to each unique lot of wine,” she continues. “This allows us to maximize each wine’s distinctive personality and style. For me, being attentive to each and every detail throughout the winemaking process is the key to making exceptional wines.”

Hitchcock is also a major advocate and outspoke ally for diversity and inclusion with in the wine industry. This year she brought together her love of food with her passion for wines and helped launch J Vineyards “Shifting the Lens” program which featured three BIPOC chefs highlighting both their unique culinary creations and distinguished career paths paired with J wines over separate two-week residencies.

We chatted with Nicole Hitchcock, Winemaker, J Vineyards & Winery, on her wine and food pairing philosophies, her wine making style, “Shifting the Lens” and more. Here’s what she had to say.

How did your love of food and the restaurant industry bring you to your ultimate passion of wine making?

Many wine professionals can pinpoint their very first “aha!” moment: that first taste that opened their mind to a whole new realm of possibility that the world of wine could deliver. I experienced mine about two decades ago, after working a busy dinner shift as a server at an Italian trattoria in my hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

It was an Amarone della Valpolicella, and I remember it being exceptionally aromatic, with notes of fig and molasses. It was impactful and full on the palate. But the most appealing thing about it was that every time I took another taste, I noticed something new and interesting.

I loved the hands-on aspects of winemaking and learning how the flavors and composition of grapes evolved into wines that were each unique in texture, taste and aroma.

Today, my winemaking inspiration is not very different from what I experienced after that first glass of Amarone. Each day, I notice things about my craft that are new and interesting. Each observation leads to more questions, and it’s the questions that keep me perpetually intrigued as a winemaker.

What are the top three things you focus on when you make your wines?

First and foremost, I focus on the people who play various roles in the winemaking process. It takes many hands to make J wines and requires endless support from the teams in the vineyards, the winery cellar and the laboratory, to name only a few. It is essential that each individual involved is hyper-focused on all aspects of quality, understands the rationale for each step of the process, and highly values safety along the way.

Secondly, I am very attentive to creating wines that demonstrate balance. Balance can be defined in many ways, but for me it means that aromas, flavors and mouthfeel perceptions are in harmony. As a winemaker, I have to make all of the right decisions at the right times throughout the process, like picking the grapes at optimal maturity, fermenting at the ideal temperature, and selecting the right barrels from the very best coopers. It’s like a massive puzzle, but when every piece ultimately fits together, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Lastly, I put a huge value on crafting wines that pair well with a variety of different foods. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed the magic that is created when food and wine work synergistically; each making the other taste even better. I’m very fortunate to see the wines that I make come full circle through J’s Bubble Room food and wine tasting experience, with new menus and pairings released every few weeks. I find that frequent tasting accompanied by food pairings allows me to continuously fine-tune my winemaking approach, crafting ever more balanced and food friendly wines.

Talk about your philosophy on wine and food pairings? What are some of your favorite wine and food pairings?

As with winemaking, I think that seeking balance is key to determining memorable food and wine pairings. Any attribute that stands out in the food should be complemented or countered by the wine.

For example, during J’s Shifting the Lens series, resident Chef Shenarri Freeman featured a deliciously spicy jerk oyster mushroom dish. We paired it with the 2015 J Vintage Brut sparkling. The wine’s fresh acidity countered the spiciness from the jerk seasoning, while the hint of earthiness in the wine complemented the rich, savory texture of the mushrooms. The food made the wine shine, while a sip of the wine made me want to take another bite of the dish.

Having lived so close to the coast for most of my life, I’ve developed a penchant for food from the sea. Luckily, seafood tends to pair exceptionally well with sparkling wine. I particularly enjoy Sonoma County Dungeness crab ceviche with mango, avocado and lime paired with J Cuvée 20.

Blanc de Blancs is also a great choice with seafood. One of my very favorite pairings is J Blanc de Blancs paired with seared sea scallops drizzled with a lemony sparkling wine sauce and fresh herbs. Both shellfish dishes feature a sweeter profile of meat tempered by the brightness of zesty citrus fruits. Paired with J sparkling wines from the Russian River Valley, the food and wine truly sing.

When it came to working with the chefs of Shifting the Lens, how did you approach the wine pairings with each unique cuisine and dish?

Selecting the wine pairings for each Shifting the Lens menu was a truly collaborative endeavor. For me, these were some of the best experiences of the entire series.

First, before the Shifting the Lens series began, I collaborated with the chefs-in-residence on crafting a special sparkling wine that would be featured with a dish on each of their menus, called Shifted Lens. Together we tasted through multiple blend possibilities before landing on an Extra Brut Rosé with a unique dosage made up from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from J estate vineyard properties.

Each chef leaned towards a bright, zesty style of sparkling wine, and they were unanimously in favor of featuring a Rosé. We all felt that this style would pair best with the broad range of dishes across each of the menus. Later, when tasting the Shifted Lens Rosé during our pairing discussions, we discovered that our intuition had been right. The wine was paired across all three menus and was truly a highlight of the series.

In advance of each menu, I sat down with the featured chef-in-residence, along with J Estate Chef Forest Kellogg and Tasting Room Manager Alex Sheedy. Each of us came to the table, quite literally, with our different palates and perspectives, tasting each dish with multiple wine options. We quickly learned that if we based our wine selections solely on descriptions of the dishes, we were often off-track. Each menu featured a wide range of spices, textures and flavors. It was only through tasting each dish and debating wine selections that we were able to uncover the perfect pairings.

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