A visit to The Bubble Room at J Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County is a special treat any time of year, but the “gastronomic exploration” shines even brighter during the holidays when the wine pairings shift solely to all sparkling.
This holiday season starting mid-December and continuing on into January, however, J Vineyards’ Winemaker Nicole Hitchcock and Chef Carl Shelton take things to another level by delighting guests with an all-sparkling selection of wines. It’s a perfect way to celebrate the holidays while also challenging perceptions about the ways in which sparkling can be enjoyed.
It’s easy to appreciate J Vineyards’ crowd-pleasing sparkling wines in any situation, especially during the holidays, as it has a reputation as one of the top sparkling wine producers in California. One of the things that sets J Vineyards & Winery apart is the use of traditional winemaking methods that incorporate many Old World techniques, such as hand-harvesting all fruit at night in cool temperatures so that the grapes remain in the finest condition. Amongst the winery’s most popular offerings are the Cuvée XB Extra Brut NV, their driest option with a hefty dose of crisp acidity; the Cuvée 20 Brut NV, which has a creamy mousse and lively finish; the Brut Rosé, a vibrant wine interlaced with notes of raspberry; and the zesty Blanc de Noirs, made with Pinot Noir grapes.
While you’ll have to visit J Vineyards this December to delight your senses in the all-sparkling Bubble Room tasting experience, Chef Shelton did give us a glimpse into the preparation that goes into the menu creation. It all starts, he said, with the fact that when it comes to the festive all-sparkling wine menu, there’s no holding back.
“When I’m creating the Bubble Room menu, I start with what’s in season and what I can get from my local purveyors throughout Sonoma,” Shelton says. “We source 80 to 90 percent of our produce from Sonoma County and we try to use local farms along the Russian River to fit our terroir.” From there, he looks at technique, what he can do to let the wine’s flavors and aromas shine, and then starts to have some fun.
“Working in a winery is completely different from working in a restaurant. I believe that creativity comes with boundaries and borders and here the wine is my border. It tells me where to go and more importantly when to stop.”
A chef doesn’t give away all their secrets, but one sneak peek for this coming Bubble Room menu is a prime rib from Sonoma County Meat Co. that’s currently being aged for a total of 60 days.
“As I’m creating the dishes, that points me in the direction of what we’re going towards, but nothing is set in stone until we sit down and taste it. That’s when we see what flavors we can add to the dishes to make the wine pop and make the pairing as perfect as possible,” Shelton explains.
And while the dryness and effervescence of a sparkling wine are known to pair well with foods like caviar and shellfish, guests can expect a few surprises, like a ribeye cap that will be cooked in leftover pinot noir leaves, plus other dishes inspired by the winter bounty — think white truffle, black truffle, and possibly some Cornish game hen. “This is going to be my third all-sparkling menu and I have more of a grasp of what I can do. We like to bend the rules, but you have to know the rules to break the rules. We don’t have big cabernets you’d traditionally pair with a ribeye steak, but we like to challenge that with our all-sparkling menu and do pairings with bigger foods that people aren’t expecting to get.”
For caviar and shellfish lovers, there’s no need to fret. “You can of course expect some Dungeness crab to be on the menu,” Shelton says. “And we always have a caviar supplement, usually from Tsar Nicolai, during the holiday menu as well.”
Chef Shelton’s hope is that the Bubble Room is a learning experience about how food can complement the wine and how wine can complement and enhance the food. It’s a subtle seminar for the palate; one that occurs gradually over the five courses, and that people might not even realize is happening. “Everyone thinks that sparkling wine is for special occasions or just seafood or the beginning of the meal. The holiday menu really shows how diverse and expansive sparkling can be.” It’s the most wonderful time of the year, indeed, and we can’t think of a more fitting way to toast the season.
The Bubble Room at J Vineyard & Winery is open Thursday through Sunday with seatings at 11am, 11:30am, 12pm, 2:30pm, and 3pm. The meal takes about two hours and is $125 per person, plus tax.
Photos courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery