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Jordan – Where The Wild Things Are

June 23, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 1 Comment

Big ships turn slowly so the adage goes. The wine industry once took hundreds of years to see significant changes and as such longevity was valued over agility. In recent decades, change has come with increasing speed, testing how quickly wineries both large and small can respond in uncertain times.

Starting in the late 70’s and building throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the influence of wine critics shaped perceptions, palates, and some winemaker’s styles (whether they admit that or not). While some of the styles in wine changed, much of the marketing remained the same, with a handful of big publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and The Wine Advocate serving as the leading critical voices in American wine.

The mid 2000’s saw the addition of wine blogs like Alder Yarrow’s Vinography, which helped to shorten the time it took to publish a critique from weeks or months to days if not hours. A Critic could now share an opinion almost instantly, which was then easily spread from blog to blog and forum to forum. Throughout the late 2000’s and continuing at present, social media tools like Facebook, and Twitter, continue to shorten the time it takes to distribute information. A news-worthy wine story now spreads to thousands via Twitter and Facebook in a matter of moments. Public opinion is being formed and shaped live, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Where wineries once had weeks or months to prepare a response to critical reviews they now have days or even hours.

While it is not the biggest ship in the sea, but no ski boat either, Jordan Vineyard & Winery is putting forth every effort to navigate the treacherous and unpredictable seas of the modern market place with as much agility as possible. A few weeks ago, I sat down with John Jordan, CEO of Jordan Vineyard & Winery and the son of Jordan’s Founder Tom Jordan. We were joined by Jordan’s Director of Communications Lisa Mattson. We discussed the challenges facing established brands like Jordan, their social media program, and some of their efforts to pursue sustainability.

There are four things done at Jordan John says, “Cabernet, Chardonnay, hospitality, and now communications,” referring to their social media program. They produce two wines, a food friendly Chardonnay fashioned in the Meursault style with minimal oak and good acid and a Cabernet. Both highlight the goal of Jordan: to make elegant wines that compliment food. “My parents fell in love with food before they fell in love with wine,” John explains. The Cabernet was originally crafted and still is to reflect the great wines of Bordeaux, a balanced wine that compliments food. “It is designed to make a restaurant Chef look good and enhance the enjoyment of the meal, not be a meal unto itself,” John says of the Cabernet. “To be a happy participant in the pleasures of the table.”

A profile of a winery like Jordan presents a challenge. Where to start? I could write of the nearly four decades of success Jordan has enjoyed, or the personal history of John. I would love to write an entire article on some of the infrastructure projects Jordan has taken on recently or their PG&E ClimateSmart certified carbon neutral status. I already wrote a recent article on their social media program for Palate Press (Social Media More Than a Buzzword at Wineries like Carr and Jordan). But what stays with me the most from my time at the vineyard is the beautiful land Jordan calls home.

I have been privileged to spend time in some of the most beautiful places in California while walking vineyards with farmers and winemakers. Each vineyard is unique. While a few stand out to me as exceptional pieces of land (Star Lane’s Happy Canyon vineyard, Jean-Pierre’s Wolff Vineyard), Jordan’s vineyard outside Healdsburg, is an absolute marvel. The property sits on 1,300 rolling acres of oaks tree studded beauty. Only about a quarter of the property is a developed vineyard, the rest is left in its natural condition. With a dedication to sustainability from vineyard to winery that includes owl boxes and bass stocked ponds that assist with reclaimed water, the vineyard explodes with wildlife. Quail, hawks, rabbits, turkeys, deer, coyotes, and numerous other animals share the vineyard in great abundance. However, sustainability is more than a few owl boxes and some cover crop. There is science, lots of science.

“We have become better stewards of the land,” John says. “There has been an enormous list of projects that cost a fortune, but they had to be done.” Projects range from a new energy efficient roof to future plans to meet the wineries energy needs with solar power. One such project was an extensive soil mapping study conducted by Brent Young, Jordan’s Viticulturalist. By analyzing different soil types, their nutrient composition and water retention abilities, Young and Jordan’s Vineyard Manager Dana Grande can customize their farming practices from block to block and even on specific rows. John explains that with the help of GPS equipment they can now determine “down to within two feet what drains where in the different soil types.” That detailed level of information allows them to customize their farming techniques row by row. The result is a more efficient use of water and reduced electricity use. Cover crops can also be adjusted for each block or row, thus putting the proper nutrients back into the appropriate soils. Science is neat!

Much of Jordan’s success comes in hiring the right people. Rob Davis has made wine at Jordan for over 35 years, a length of time rare for California winemakers. The addition of Brent Young in 2008 ensured that the winery would make the most out of the technology available to them. “My favorite aspect of my job is the people,” was John’s response when I asked him what his favorite aspect of wine making is. “I love the people I work with. Without all of the people it would just be walls and tanks… I marvel each day at all of the different disciplines that are practiced here.”

There are sill real challenges John and Lisa are well aware of. How do you ensure that Generation -X as well as the Millennial’s will fill the gaps that Baby Boomers will leave over the coming decades? How do you engage the next generation in a meaningful way? A barrier with some of my friends is the perceived snobbery of wine. It’s an image problem that exisits that Lisa well aware of.  “Jordan had a bit of that too,” she said, referring to a time before John was CEO when there was more of a “velvet rope” attitude at the winery. John and Lisa have been working to reverse that by making the winery more open and yet keeping its dedication to hospitality. “There is still elegance to what we do and still class, but it’s approachable [now],” she says.

These days, some of the greatest wines are made at custom crush facilities and even urban wineries. I see this trend continuing to grow as the cost of vineyard acreage continues to climb. Increasingly, urbanites can visit wineries in their own neighborhoods. While these operations can cut costs, give winemakers the freedom to work from a multitude of vineyards, and in some cases provide the general public a genuine winery experience, they cannot offer the complete experience. Given the opportunity to see either where the wine is made in the vineyard or where it’s produced in the winery, I will take the vineyard every time. Good wine is made in the vineyard.

While the wineries that came of age in the era of Chateaux styled estates may seem like relics better suited to Baby Boomers, they play a key role in how we got where we are today. They can continue to do so. By way of illustration, for some years I dabbled and got pretty good as a graffiti artist, nothing illegal. I still love street artists like Banksy (even though he is a jerk), or Germany’s brilliant DAIM. What they do is amazing, it’s modern, and it’s urban. While what hangs in a museum could be considered a relic by some fans of urban art, it is in actuality the foundation of what these guys are able to do today. If the new breed of urban winemakers are the Banksy’s of wine, Jordan and others are the Rothko’s or the Chuck Close’s  and the great French, German, and Italian wine houses  are the original masters, the Caravaggio’s, the Jacques-Louis David’s, the Gaughan’s. They stand as reminders of where we came from and in some cases still set the benchmark for quality.
The biggest thing lacking in an urban setting or a custom crush facility is a connection to the land. For the public, urban wineries or wineries without a vineyard cannot provide the complete experience. Great wine starts in a great vineyard and Jordan has such a vineyard. For a guy like me who loves the outdoors and nature, the wine life style is not about yachting or the posh cocktail party. For me, the brilliance of wine lies in its connection to the earth and the uniqueness of each place. I have yet to meet a winemaker wearing a tuxedo as he walks me through his vineyard. If ever I do, I will shake his or her hand, because that would be awesome! The people I meet love their wine, but the love the vineyards first.

Wineries like Jordan possess the unique ability to be ambassadors and class rooms for future generations of wine lovers. Beautiful winery? Check. Gorgeous sustainably farmed vineyard? Check. Top of the line production equipment? Check. High quality wine? Check. Jordan has the full deal. John Jordan said it himself, “wine is about place and an experience.” You cannot visit Jordan and not have an experience and be amazed by the place.

The steps I see John and Lisa taking are encouraging. Lisa was 100% supportive of my project since our first correspondence. I was the one who remained skeptical. What would it be like to interview a CEO like John? Would they get what I was doing or try to control the story? None of my fears came true. They understand the challenges of the new wine market and they don’t for one moment believe they can coast on the name they built twenty five years ago. Even more importantly they are looking ahead to what’s next.

I say the following candidly to all industry people who read A Long Pour from time to time: engage young people. Use whatever strengths you have to be a source of education. You know you will have to compete against bargain Chileans and Australian wines, but they are in a different hemisphere and cannot give the one thing you can: place and experience. Arrange events that encourage young people to visit from urban areas. Get them in the vineyards, get them in the winery. Let them wonder your beautiful hills and get freaked out by your giant turkeys like I did. I spent a Saturday morning walking the vineyards of Jordan alone for over an hour. I walked past the pond where John does his bass fishing. I saw numerous mutant large turkeys and rabbits almost as big (people, they are huge). I stood in silence overlooking the beauty of the place. To me, THAT is Jordan.

Trends in wine styles and the way they are made and marketed will continue to evolve. No one can predict with any accuracy how social media will change and what it will or will not mean for wine in the long run. Only one thing is for sure, great wine will always start with great vineyards.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

1474 Alexander Valley Road • Healdsburg, California 95448-9003 • 800.654.1213

Jordan Vineyard Bog

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  1. […] it was all going. Tablas Creek, check! The Ojai Vineyard, a very excited check! Barrel 27, Foxen, Jordan, check, check, and […]

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