Boy, do I have another fun story for you today about J Cage and how they came to be on my tasting tour during my five-week adventure in Sonoma County!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you never know who you’ll bump into or sit next to in wine country. It happened again the other night. I was sitting at the bar in Valette enjoying dinner. I really enjoy sitting up at the bar because it’s easier to strike up a conversation with folks around you. Even though I’d made a reservation and could have a table, I happily grabbed a seat at the bar.
There I was – enjoying my pasta appetizer paired with my favorite by the glass Pinot Noir by Sam Lando when a couple sat down next to me. I heard them tell the bartender that they wanted to try the new red blend on the “by the glass” menu. That sounded odd. And the tone in everyone’s voice had a “knowingly joking” tone to it. Then I noticed the gentleman’s hat matched the label on the bottle. Hmmm…fishy. So, I struck up a conversation. They are newish winery owners making small batch Pinot Noir. Hello!
Though, it wasn’t one of their Pinot Noirs that is being served by the glass. It was a red blend. Maybe I live under a rock, but the blend was rather unique – 50% Sangiovese, 40% Zinfandel, and 10% Petite Sirah. Uhhhh…..what? We chatted about all sorts of topics over the next couple of hours. I asked about their winery and how they started. I was surprised to hear that they were acquaintances with Adam Lee back in Texas and he’s now their winery consultant. Okay….if Adam Lee is involved, maybe their Pinot Noir is pretty decent. Their son is their winemaker. He’s also employed as a winemaker over in Napa. And, it must be pretty good wine if Dustin Valette has their wine on his menu, right?
Without me realizing it, a glass of wine appeared. Donna pushed it over towards me. They’d ordered me a glass of their red blend. It was SO good. I can see why it’s such a crowd pleaser. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d like this blend. And it’s only $38 per bottle! Then they told me the story of how it came to be. Apparently they were sitting around the table with Adam working on their wines and blends and had some leftover Zinfandel and Sangiovese but not enough to really do a bottling of either varietal on its own. That’s when Donna had the great idea to blend them. Adam was like – why not? So, they did. And it worked! And now they can’t stop making this wine! Donna’s pretty dang proud of this wine – and she should be!!!
Roger and Donna were at dinner tonight because they’d just received the news that their wines had won all sorts of Gold and Double Gold recognition. They were celebrating. And now I feel guilty that I’m interrupting their celebration. But they assured me that they were enjoying themselves and I wasn’t interrupting.
Roger and Donna are amazingly wonderful, down-to-earth, friendly folks. I immediately felt like a member of their family. And I wanted to taste their Pinot! We exchanged information and the next day I reached out with what little availability I had left in my last few days in wine country. I was thrilled when Donna wrote back that they could squeeze me in for a tasting that afternoon! It was going to be a tight race to get all of my last-minute errands done and make it to the tasting. But, I did it.
My Visit and the Wines
They were so welcoming. It was like they were inviting an old friend over for a visit. The three of us sat around the tasting table and they walked me through their wines and gave me some more background about themselves. It felt as if I was joining them around their own dining room table in their home as friends.
We started with their 2018 Sauvignon Blanc. I’ve been served a ton of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s the wine almost every winery starts out with. But this one was nice. Roger explained that it actually sees some oak and goes through a little malolactic fermentation. So, it definitely had some of the characteristics I enjoy in a Chardonnay. Thinking back, maybe I should have revisited that one! I kind of forgot about it among the sea of Pinot Noir.
Next up was their 2018 Chardonnay. And I loved this Chardonnay. I was sad to learn that the 2019 vintage will be their last. They’d decided to stop producing a Chardonnay (for now). This wine received a Double Gold Medal and a 95 point rating by American Fine Wine – so I’m not alone in loving their Chardonnay.
Then we transitioned into Pinot Noir. I was pretty excited about this. I was also excited to see they have a single-vineyard pinot from the Van Der Kamp vineyard. I recalled that Dutton-Goldfield just started producing a pinot from that vineyard of the same vintage. I have several bottles but was explicitly told to lay them down for at least a year when I picked up my club order. And I obeyed. I shared this advice I’d received. And they agreed that they could see that that could hold true for wines from that particular vineyard. I’m excited to take them home and try them side-by-side……in a few months.
Next was their 2017 Hallberg Pinot Noir. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous. It was good. I wouldn’t complain if I was served this wine. But, I just liked the Van Der Kamp better. And apparently everyone else understands why based upon the wines I’ve said that I enjoy. I’ll trust them!
The final Pinot Noir of the “official” tasting was their El Coro. And, for me, this one blew the Van Der Kamp away. Though, I kept remembering my initial reaction to the Van Der Kamp. It was rated as one of the Top 100 Wines of 2019 by Sonoma Magazine. I believe they said only 13 Pinot Noirs were recognized. So at least I was in good company in liking this wine.
But there was one last surprise – a tasting of a pre-release of their 2018 Wedding Block Pinot Noir sourced from some Martinelli fruit off of River Road. It was indeed young. I’d like to revisit this one in about a year as well.
Towards the end of my tasting their son, Conch, joined us at the tasting table. And we all sat around chatting about their wines, my experiences, his other winemaking gig, and variety of topics. This is the type of tasting I enjoy – sitting with the winemaker and the owners and feeling their passion and pride for their wines.
My tasting was running long when another group showed up for their tasting. I continued to chat with Conch and Roger chatting about their wines and whatever else was on our minds but we realized the other group might enjoy visiting with them as well. So we invited ourselves into their tasting! Come to find out one of the women was the very first wine blog to write about their wines. She also apparently works at Firehouse Wine Cellars in South Dakota as their Wine Club Manager. She had brought along the General Manager of their winery, their Winemaker, and his wife.
This was VERY different than my tasting with Occidental where I had another winery owner/winemaker join me. It wasn’t all about them. I ended up being seated in between the two winemakers and got very lost in their conversation about winemaking topics. Though, when I joked that I was lost, they patiently and excitedly explained what they were talking about. I wanted to be part of both conversations – the winemaking discussion and the business discussion being shared between the women. I was in heaven. I was totally getting my “geek on” from both conversations. And, of course we were revisiting their wines.
We had such fun that we took a group selfie together. Michelle and Kara have invited me to South Dakota to try their wines and have offered me their spare bedrooms. I may seriously take them up on that offer.
I sat there and thought to myself several times – how did I get here? How did I get so lucky? This is not the type of experience you have by popping into tasting room after tasting room up the Westside Road in Sonoma County or along the Silverado Trail over in Napa. This is what I love. Small wineries. Family-owned wineries. Passion. A relaxed environment that invites you to sit, relax, and stay awhile.