There is much temptation to say Joseph Jewell has a jewel of a tasting room, or is a hidden gem, or some other punny nonsense.
However, both statements happen to be true.
Joseph Jewell is decidedly off the beaten path, one of three tasting rooms and four restaurants located along a three-block stretch of Forrestville, California. (The whole of downtown doesn’t seem much longer.)
It has a rustic-chic feel, with a wooden bar stretching across most of the back, and light-colored walls adorned with pictures and a set of lit-up “JJW” letters. Guests can lounge in the cozy seating area or belly up to the bar for their tasting.
This was where I ended my tour, but first, winemaker Micah Joseph Wirth whisked me off in the company pickup to take a look at vineyards and see what was going on in the winery.
Joseph Jewell was founded in 2007 and, like many a great California story, it started in a garage, where Micah and his friend Adrian Jewell Manspeaker made their first wine. It was 50 cases of pinot noir from the Appian Way Vineyard.
Their friends thought it was pretty good, and the two decided to run with it, christening the company with their middle names.
Their philosophy, Micah tells me, is to focus on good vineyards, be true to the terroir and vineyards, and don’t force the flavor.
As we ramble through the vines, he shows me Block 15 of the Starscape (formerly Floodgate) vineyard, which was once leased by Gary Farrell, as well as two rows of “old girls” – pinot noir vines that were planted “sometime” in the 1960s. Grapes from both sites go into their wines.
It should be noted that few wineries in Sonoma own all of their vineyards and many, like Joseph Jewell, exclusively source their fruit. Given its small size, Joseph Jewell also borrows winery space, and that’s where we trek next.
Bottling for the current vintage was set to start two days after my visit and in preparation, several wines are in stainless steel containers to let them settle. We taste a couple of chardonnays that have a slightly wild, feral note but also lots of citrus flavors and a bright, almost savory feel, as well as a very earthy pinot ripe with deep, dark fruit flavors.
We then go into the barrel room, siphoning small tastes of the still-aging pinots with a pipette. These wines are very fresh, with classic flavors including cherry, cola and violets. But each also shows the character of its vineyard site: this one has red fruit, that one is earthier, the other, more savory.
The general winemaking process, Micah says, starts with hand-sorting the fruit. The grapes go through a cold soak followed by 10-day fermentation at cooler temperatures. Both processes are designed to bring out the freshness of the fruit while keeping true to its flavors.
Generally, only about 27-30% of the wine goes into new French oak to age; the balance hangs out in neutral barrels. It also goes through a secondary fermentation to create a softer, creamier feel on the palate.
Production is about 2,500 cases and there aren’t plans to get too far beyond that. “We still want to be hands on,” Micah says.
We head back to the truck, and I am delivered back at the tasting room, where Anthony starts pouring wine.
First up is the 2012 Shiloh Hill Vineyard Chardonnay, which sees a very judicious 16% new French oak. It was a nice balance between creamy and sharp, with lovely little notes of apple, peach and lemon. Terrifically refreshing after tromping around vineyards in 90 degree heat!
Next is their 2012 Appian Way Pinot Noir, the latest vintage of their first wine. This is from a cooler, fog-prone area in the lower valley. It was really smooth and refined, with notes of earth, black fruit, cherry and cola. It’s crafted in a leaner, more Burgundian style.
The third wine I try is the 2012 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir. This dry-farmed vineyard was planted in 1999. A lot of spices came out with this one, from sweeter baking spices to zippy pepper. This was definitely less earthy, with red fruit notes and a touch of oak evident.
Anthony next pours the 2012 Grist Vineyard Zinfandel. To me, this was lighter than your typical zin, more zippy and lean than fruity and full.
As a bonus, Anthony somehow comes up with a bottle of the 2007, the first zin Joseph Jewell made. The flavors were quite similar, but the older wine showed notes of spearmint and licorice along with the black fruit qualities of the younger wine.
The tasting room is open daily, but patrons aren’t limited to a simple (if delicious) wine tasting. If you can plan in advance, sign up for their Wine Tasting 101 class or picnic lunch and vineyard tour.
During this 90-minute excursion, either Micah or Adrian will walk you through the Starscape Vineyard, following it up with a picnic lunch and three-wine tasting on a rustic, tree-shaded picnic table nestled among the vines.
It’s an experience that’s definitely a cut above the rest.