2022 Winemaker of the Year J Vineyards’ Nicole Hitchcock on Food, Wine, “Aha Moments” and More

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

Hitchcock began her official career as a winemaker after her time at UC Davis. Shortly after she started harvesting in Napa and Australia, this was a time when she remembers knowing for sure winemaking was her destiny. In 2002 she joined E. & J. Gallo, eventually taking the lead in 2015 as J’s head winemaker.

“My philosophy is that high quality grapes form the basis of J wines. California sunshine brings a signature brightness, ripeness and fullness on the palate that is consistent across the entire J portfolio,” says Hitchcock. “If we get the vineyard, the farming and the harvest right, we’re set for success. “

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

“We use classic methods that are versatile and cater to each unique batch of wine,” she continues. “This allows us to maximize the distinctive personality and style of each wine. For me, attention to every detail during the winemaking process is key to making exceptional wines.”

Hitchcock is also a strong advocate and outspoken ally for diversity and inclusion 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, in which three BIPOC chefs showcased both their unique culinary creations and distinctive career paths paired with J wines during separate two-week residencies.

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

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

Many wine professionals can say their very first “aha!” moment: that first taste that opened their minds to a whole new realm of possibilities that the world of wine could offer. I experienced mine about twenty years 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 figs and molasses. It was impressive and full on the palate. But the most appealing thing about it was that every time I took a different flavor, I noticed something new and interesting.

I loved the practicalities of winemaking and learning how the flavors and composition of grapes evolved into wines that were each unique in texture, flavor and aroma.

Today, my winemaking inspiration isn’t much different from what I experienced after that first glass of Amarone. Every day I notice things about my craft that are new and interesting. Each observation leads to more questions, and it is the questions that constantly intrigue me as a winemaker.

What are the three main things you focus on when making your wines?

First and foremost, I focus on the people who play different roles in the winemaking process. It takes many hands to make J wines and endless support is needed from the teams in the vineyards, cellar and laboratory, to name a few. It is essential that every individual involved is hyper-focused on all aspects of quality, understands the rationale for each step of the process, and has a high regard for safety.

Secondly, I pay a lot of attention to creating wines that show balance. Balance can be defined in many ways, but to me it means aromas, flavors and mouthfeel perceptions are in harmony. As a winemaker, I have to make the right decisions at the right times throughout the process, such as picking the grapes at optimum ripeness, fermenting them at the ideal temperature and selecting the right barrels from the very best coopers. It’s like a huge puzzle, but when every piece finally fits together, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Finally, I place a huge value on making wines that pair well with a variety of different foods. Throughout my career I have witnessed the magic that happens when food and wine work in synergy; making the other taste even better. I am fortunate that the wines I make have come full circle through J’s Bubble Room food and wine tasting experience, with new menus and pairings being released every few weeks. I find that by tasting regularly, accompanied by food pairings, I am able to continuously refine my approach to winemaking, making increasingly 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 the search for balance is key to defining memorable food and wine pairings. Any feature that stands out in the food should be complemented or counteracted by the wine.

For example, during J’s Shifting the Lens series, chef Shenarri Freeman presented a wonderfully spicy marinated oyster mushroom dish. We paired it with the sparkling 2015 J Vintage Brut. The fresh acidity of the wine offset the spiciness of the jerk herbs, 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 have developed a taste for food from the sea. Fortunately, seafood pairs exceptionally well with sparkling wine. I especially enjoy Sonoma County Dungeness crab ceviche with mango, avocado and lime paired with J Cuvée 20.

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

In terms of working with the chefs at 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 real collaborative effort. For me, these were some of the best experiences of the entire series.

First, before the Shifting the Lens series began, I worked with the chefs-in-residence to create a special sparkling wine that would be featured on each of their menus with a dish called Shifted Lens. Together we tasted multiple blending options before settling on an Extra Brut Rosé with a unique dosage composed of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from J Estate vineyards.

Each chef leaned towards a bright, spicy style of sparkling wine, and they were unanimous in favor of a rosé. We all felt this style would best suit the wide range of dishes on each of the menus. Later, when we tasted the Shifted Lens Rosé during our pairing conversations, we found our intuition was correct. The wine paired with all three menus and was truly a highlight of the series.

Before each menu, I sat down with the chef-in-residence, along with J Estate Chef Forest Kellogg and Tasting Room Manager Alex Sheedy. Each of us literally came to the table with our different palates and perspectives, tasting each dish with multiple wine options. We soon learned that if we based our wine selections solely on descriptions of the dishes, we often lost track. Each menu contained a wide variety of spices, textures and flavours. Only by tasting each dish and discussing the wine selections were we able to discover the perfect pairings.