Since the 1990 introduction of Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual Restaurant Poll tracking on-premise wine sales, Jordan Vineyard & Winery’s Alexander Valley (Sonoma County) Cabernet Sauvignon has ranked No. 1 in the Cab category 10 times and finished second another 10 times. It’s never finished lower than sixth -- that happened in the recent 2010 survey -- and its Chardonnay makes a regular top-20 appearance.
Yet I was never excited by the wines. I found Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignons under-fruited and quite tannic when they were released, and I didn’t have the means to tuck them away for five years and see if they developed more complexity with age. The Chardonnays from founder Tom Jordan’s Alexander Valley vineyard were well-made, yet lacked juiciness and vibrancy.
It was no wonder: most parts of Alexander Valley are extremely hot in the summer and early fall, with 100-degree days. In such heat, and planted in deep, valley-floor soils, Jordan’s grapes had little chance to become wines that were fresh and flavorful, with refreshing natural acidity and vibrant fruit. As many Sonoma County wineries moved to cool-climate Chardonnay sources in Russian River Valley and Carneros, Jordan stuck to its estate-grown guns.
Jordan’s chateau-style, ivy-covered winery/visitor center and immaculate grounds are enchanting, yet in the past, one had to be invited to experience the splendor. Only loyal customers and those who had appointments arranged by a distributor, retailer or restaurateur, could visit and taste the wines. As a high-end, restaurant-focused brand, Jordan didn’t need to appeal to the masses; for years, it didn’t even have a sign marking its entrance on Alexander Valley Road east of Healdsburg.
I am happy to say that things have changed dramatically at Jordan, so much so that I’m now a fan of Rob Davis’ wines and of John Jordan, Tom’s son, who took over as CEO in 2005. John, who left his law practice to join the business, has made enormous changes, including in the vineyards, the hospitality center and consumer outreach. Appointments are still required to visit, yet one doesn’t need to know the password or secret handshake. Just call. If you can’t visit, you can go to Jordan’s website for videos that transport you there.
It wasn’t that Tom Jordan wasn’t doing the right thing when he founded the winery in 1972 -- the same year John was born. Back then, most Sonoma and Napa vintners grew their grapes on valley floors, where it was easy to get a high-yielding, financially sound crop. Yet in response to the phylloxera outbreak in the late 1980s, growers began replanting on the benchlands, hillsides and mountains above the valley floor; this gave them grapes with more intensity and complexity.
Jordan was rather late in moving to the benches (for Cabernet Sauvignon) and Russian River Valley (for Chardonnay). Tom’s wines continued to sell like hotcakes in restaurants, as diners were so familiar with and loyal to the brand, and Jordan Cab had the tannic bite to cut through the fat of a medium-rare steak or a slab of prime rib. Moreover, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was reminiscent of young Bordeaux, yet costed a fraction of the price.
Yet wine-drinking trends and market conditions change, and Jordan wines lost some of their gloss as critics and consumers fell in love with the new wave of California Cabs and Chardonnays that were flamboyant, deeply fruited, polished and easy to drink when young. Opulence became more important than longevity and food compatibility, and Napa Valley gained far more cachet than Sonoma’s Alexander Valley.
All the while, Rob Davis, Jordan’s one and only winemaker, was doing the best he could with the grapes he was given. He had fewer crayons in his box than many of his fellow winemakers, yet vintage after vintage, he produced competent wines that showed an admirable ability to improve in the cellar after 10 years or more.
Davis, who was hired fresh out of UC Davis by Tom Jordan in 1976 (on the recommendation of famed consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, mastermind of the great red wines produced at Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley), was rewarded for his years of skilled work when Jordan switched to Russian River Valley for its Chardonnay grapes with the 2000 vintage. The resulting wines have exhibited freshness and minerality that were not possible to achieve from Jordan’s Alexander Valley vineyard.
The last estate Cabernet Sauvignon was produced in 1994, when Tom Jordan began replanting his vineyards. While the new vines reached maturity -- a three- to four-year process for each block, and replanting was not done all at one time -- winemaker Davis used purchased grapes to blend with estate fruit to produce his Cabs.
Today, everything seems to have fallen into place. John Jordan is continuing, in his own way, what his father started in 1972: running a first-class winery property. Changes in the wine industry and U.S. wine-drinking habits convinced John to accept his father’s request to take control of Jordan, and since his 2005 arrival, he has molded Jordan Vineyard & Winery into a more accessible, hospitable place that is producing its best wines ever.
“When John became CEO in 2005, it was the best thing to happen to the winery in 10 years,” Davis says. “He is very much like his dad in taking risks, in being an entrepreneur, and he wants to make better wines. Tom wanted estate wines, but John gave the OK to make better wines.”
That meant using precision farming, soil mapping, trials in irrigation and vertigation, and planting ground cover to prevent erosion and add nutrients to the soil. Blocks are farmed specific to their individual needs, and vines are no longer planted on sites that are not conducive to producing fine wines.
While the vineyard blocks were being redeveloped, Davis purchased grapes to fill whatever holes the estate fruit left. The 2006 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, for example -- the current release -- is a blend of estate grapes and those from nearby Dry Creek Valley, and Mendocino County to the north. The wine bears the Alexander Valley appellation, with 87% of the fruit grown there, yet gets added complexity from the outlying vineyards.
“I told John that the 2006 Cab is the best wine we’ve ever made,” Davis told me, and I agree. It has a remarkable balance of ripe fruit and freshness, with more flesh than in recent vintages, yet it retains the classic Bordeaux character of previous vintages, with notes of cassis, cedar, forest floor and subtle herbs. The wine has a succulence I don’t remember tasting in past Jordan wines, and a generosity that makes it delicious now, yet still begs for cellaring for five years or more.
Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays are appealing to the Old World/New World/drink-young/let-it-age crowd -- in other words, most knowledgeable wine lovers.