Interview: winemaker Nicole Hitchcock (J Vineyards & Winery)

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Winemaker Sonoma County

Nicole Hitchcock discussed J wines during an Eastside Knoll Vineyard lunch.

Nicole Hitchcock has set her sights on wine for over two decades. The Carmel native earned a B.S. degree in Viticulture & Enology from the prestigious program at University of California, Davis. She recently enjoyed her 21st harvest, saying, “It’s gone by in a flash.” Hitchcock has been head winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery since 2015. I met her in Healdsburg as part of “Shifting The Lens,” an inclusive wine pairing dinner series that showcased three guest chefs: Jenny Dorsey, Preeti Mistry, and Shenarri “Greens” Freeman. Hitchcock collaborated with the chefs on J wine pairings for each dish and on a limited edition Shifted Lens Brut Rosé designed to complement each chef’s chosen flavor profiles.

Nicole Hitchcock’s personal story ties into J’s mission to elevate talents and voices that don’t necessarily fit with wine industry archetypes. “When I went to UC Davis, it was actually a split of about 50/50 male and female, but not a lot of diversity beyond that,” she says. “When I actually made my way into the industry and started working in wineries, I found out that the mix was quite different. There weren’t a lot of females working in the cellars in operations and the winemaking aspects of production. To me, and I think to anybody else who is in the minority, it can be intimidating, right? You know, you’re in this new atmosphere, learning all of these new skills, and you’re in the minority.”

She shared a specific example of the institutional challenges women face in the wine world. Hitchcock remembers, “I was doing a harvest in Australia, back in 2004, working in the cellar, and there were two of us. There were two females on the cellar team, and we just kept getting assigned to all of the cleaning jobs. So we were cleaning tanks, we were power washing floors. This was the first two, three weeks of harvest, and I was having a blast where we were, but I didn’t go all the way to Australia to learn how to power wash floors, right? I kept thinking that, hey, I’m a hard worker, someone’s going to recognize this, they’re going to start assigning me better and more interesting tasks, and that just didn’t happen. It was actually a visiting winemaker who came in midway through harvest who was like, ‘Why did we have you doing all this stuff?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, they’re gonna figure it out. They’re gonna recognize,’ and he’s like, ‘No, no, you gotta say something.’ So he advocated for me. That’s when I realized that you can’t just sit around and wait for people to recognize all of the amazing work that we’re doing. There’s a point when you’ve got to advocate for yourself. That was a huge takeaway for me at that early stage in my career, and it’s helped me get to where I am today.”

Joyce Chen, Marketing Director for E. & J. Gallo Winery, J’s parent company, called “Shifting The Lens” a career highlight. “I would absolutely echo that,” Hitchcock says. “It has been really amazing to partner with these chefs, and challenge some of the norms that people think of when they think of food and wine pairing, and everything that goes along with that. A newer team member asked me the other day, ‘How did you learn so much about food and wine pairing’ I love food, and I love wine, and it’s been many years of consuming them together. But I will say the last few months sitting down and tasting through these just mind expanding menus, and looking at the different wines within the J portfolio that pair nicely with them, I’ve learned more in the past few months than I think I’ve learned in my entire career when it comes to the pairing aspect. On behalf of the team, we’re just so proud to be championing some of the conversations that we hope to have today. And that we’ve been having in the past residencies that just, you know, push the boundaries of where we consider ourselves today in the wine industry. So let’s raise another glass to that. Cheers to more conversations.”

After “Shifting The Lens” concluded, I had an opportunity to get more insights from Hitchcock on her approach to wine.

Josh Lurie: What are the criteria for a J Vineyards wine?

Nicole Hitchcock: We have three key principles for the crafting of J wines: top quality, sustainably farmed fruit along with an attentive and customized winemaking approach. The result is a collection of delicious wines that are each unique and reflective of where they were grown and of J’s house style. Broadly, I’d define J’s house style as a fresh, classic interpretation of California wines with an utmost sense of place and time.

JL: What was the first wine you ever made, in what year, and how did it turn out?

NH: The first wine that I made was a Carneros Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard that surrounded the winery where I completed my first winery internship in 2001. Another intern and I picked about a ½ ton of second crop Pinot Noir, which is fruit that matures after the initial crop has been picked. The grapes were of ideal maturity and were absolutely delicious. We were so excited to see how the wine would develop and evolve, and decided to store it in a barrel in her parent’s garage until we were ready to bottle it. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to see how it turned out, as my intern friend ventured off to do a harvest in the southern hemisphere, and conveniently I never heard from her again!

JL: What continues to inspire you about wine?

NH: I’m inspired today by the same motivation that got me into the industry to begin with: that the more I learn about winemaking, the more questions I have. Making J sparkling wines is a great example of this. There are an infinite number of choices that I can make while crafting each of the different sparkling styles that we produce. I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons of each decision throughout a wine’s lifecycle; knowing that the choices I’m making today will ultimately influence the wine that J fans will enjoy in years to come. I believe that making wine is all about the journey, and I’m very much enjoying the ride.

JL: Who else do you look to in the wine world for inspiration, guidance, and advice?

NH: I am most inspired by individuals in the wine and culinary world who often have not had the easiest path to get to where they are today, and are not afraid to push institutional boundaries and create new and exciting food and beverage ideas. J’s partnership with the incredible chefs featured in the Shifting the Lens series is a great example of this. I learned so much from tasting and pairing wines with each chef, and hearing about their unique experiences and passions was unforgettable.

JL: If you could only drink one more glass of wine, what would be in the glass? What foods would you pair it with, and who would join you?

NH: What a question! I’m going to answer it in reverse order. My family means the world to me, and we love to share great wines with one another. I’d raise a glass of J’s 2015 Vintage Brut with my dad in particular. He was the person that nudged me into pursuing a winemaking career. Although he’s no longer here physically, I’d be so proud to share a glass of sparkling that I made during my first vintage at J. We would enjoy with a heaping bowl of moules et frites, clinking our glasses in celebration of delicious wines and great company.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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