‘Shifting The Lens': How J Vineyards & Winery Is Challenging Food & Wine Pairing Traditions
Chef Tu David Phu and J’s Head Winemaker, Nicole Hitchcock. Photo Courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery
For too long, the spirits industry has often been an elitist men’s world with little room for change. With more rule breakers entering the space, the face of spirits is adjusting to reflect the inclusive and diverse world surrounding us. Specifically, within the wine industry, it can be quite intimidating. From the dozens of grape varieties to the intricate process of making the wine itself, approaching wine can be daunting for the average consumer.
In comes J Vineyards & Winery, the Healdsburg, Calif.-based company that has not only been one of the top sparkling and still wine producers in the state (it’s rare to find a winery that produces both, and J does both exceptionally well) since 1986 but also making the art of wine accessible.
In 2022, J Vineyards introduced “Shifting The Lens, " an innovative culinary program inviting chefs from diverse backgrounds to challenge the common conception of food and wine pairings.” Here, we spoke with J’s Head Winemaker, Nicole Hitchcock, EJ Gallo’s Director of Marketing Caroline Shaw, Chef Preeti Mistry (who is a consulting member for this year’s residency) and Chef Tu David Phu on how the “Shifting the Lens” series is helping to push the boundaries of what we’ve come to know about food and wine pairing—and of course, it helps that all of the pairings are absolutely delicious.
Shifted Lens Limited Release Brut Rosé. Photo Courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery
“Founder Judy Jordan was really the first person in Sonoma County to introduce food and wine pairings to guests that came to wineries. So there were really no programs of its type when she started the Bubble Room,” Hitchcock (who was awarded 2022 Winemaker of the Year) tells EDITION. “Now there’s some other properties and other wineries around the area that have taken it on because it’s such a great way to welcome guests. Wine is great on its own, but it’s also something to be enjoyed around a table and to enjoy with other people. So that’s really what we’re trying to do with the Bubble Room: introduce people to that magic.”
The “Shifting The Lens” debut residency kicked off last July at J Vineyard’s Bubble Room in Sonoma County with Chefs Jenny Dorsey, Preeti Mistry and Shenarri Freeman. “The ethos of J has always been that everybody’s welcome,” Chef Preeti Mistry says. She is twice nominated by the James Beard Foundation for "Best Chef of the West," the former owner of Oakland's Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen, a Top Chef Season 6 competitor and the co-author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook.
She continues: “The story that was told to me was whether you walk in here and you’re wearing spandex from being on a cycle or wearing a three-piece suit, no matter what, you’re going to be treated well. But ultimately, you have to make that more proactive, especially in today’s world. To me, ‘Shifting The Lens’ is [saying], ‘Let us show you how. Let us make sure that you see that we’re bringing people together and that representation matters.’”
The Bubble Room. Photo Courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery
The thrilling exploration of varied cultural backgrounds, heartfelt stories behind cuisine and unique wine pairings continued this year with Oakland-raised, first-generation Vietnamese-American Chef Tu David Phu (whose residency ran from May 11-21). His accolades include Top Chef Season 15 competitor, James Beard Award nominee, San Francisco Chronicle “Rising Star Chef” and Emmy Award nominee. From September 14 - 24, Mexican-born and European-trained Chef Ana Castro (who was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2022) will join the residency.
“It’s been so refreshing partnering with J Vineyards, which has given me the space and platform to freely create dishes and play with interesting win pairings in partnership with Nicole Hitchcock, who is such a force in the winemaking industry. I’ve always thought that Vietnamese flavors can be paired beyond typical Rieslings,” Chef Tu David Phu tells EDITION. “Meeting Nicole further reasserted the versatility of wine and its ability to pair with ANY culture of flavors. My most memorable times in the kitchen are when I can tap into the 'memory of taste,' where I get to dig back into my roots and tap into the practices, ingredients, techniques, and flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. Most consumers see Vietnamese cuisine and don’t think to pair it with fine wines, and J’s Shifting the Lens program is giving consumers a new perspective and impetus.”
Chef Tu David Phu. Photo by Nikkie Ritchie; courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery
On the weekend of May 12, J Winery invited me (EDITION editor-in-chief Bianca Gracie) for the ultimate J Vineyards & Winery experience. It included a wine and cheese tasting at the Legacy Lounge, where I got a chance to dive into all of the interesting nuances of the sparkling and still wines (the 2012 Vintage Brut and 2016 Eastside Knoll Vineyard Pinot Noir were my favorites) alongside J’s Mary Colleen. What initially drew me to the company was its approachable factor. As a newbie to the spirits industry, I’m still learning the many terms to describe wine and its notes. But the most fun I had was during the tasting, as I described one Pinot Noir variety as Batman’s go-to choice after a long day of fighting in Gotham and another where I could taste the creaky floorboards from its apparently haunted grounds.
“We’re in the pocket of the Russian River Valley, which is the coolest segment of the county and we’re at the northern part. So there’s a lot of diversity throughout Sonoma County, which makes it so wonderful for wine growing because you get to produce a lot of different wine styles,” Hitchcock shares about Healdsburg’s special factor. “So Russian River Valley is famous for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, specifically. But even within those two varietals, tasting a Chardonnay grown further south closer to the Pacific, where you get all the fog intrusion is going to taste remarkably different than one grown at our Bow Tie vineyard.
She continues: “Of course, there’s a lot of wine grapes planted, but the Sonoma County residents are pretty passionate about their food and fresh produce. You’ll see that throughout going to the farmer’s markets around here, you’ve got a lot of really artisanal food producers and farmers. So that makes it a really cool place to live.”
Following the Legacy Lounge tasting, after soaking up Healdsburg’s small-town charm (which included shopping at Mr. Moon’s and Jam Jar Goods, moseying through the Paul Mahder Gallery, and enjoying locally sourced seafood at Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar), it was time for me to enjoy Chef Tu David Phu’s residency. The VIP dinner was not only a celebration of the chef’s Vietnamese heritage, but of his mother as well.
Chef Tu David Phu and E. & J. Gallo Winery estate Chef Forest Kellog. Photo by Nikkie Ritchie; courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery
“Cooking is the main way that I not only stay connected to my family and roots but also share my past experiences with others. By tapping into ‘the memory of taste’, I return to my first foray into cooking—through my mother’s own creative recipes,” Chef Tu David Phu explains “where she put her own spin on dishes that have been passed down through generations. I’m honored to use my platform through ‘Shifting the Lens’ to be able to carry on this form of oral tradition to give my consumers a taste of my home, even if they cannot travel to Vietnam themselves.”
The evening’s dishes took us on a delicious culinary journey, featuring Campuchia-style BBQ duck paired with a bold 2020 Strata Pinot Noir, summer truffle and garlic Sapporo noodles paired with a creamy 2021 Strata Chardonnay and Hoanh Thanh Dac Biet-style dumplings with a roasted duck broth paired with a bright 2015 Blanc De Blancs.
When asked if there was a particularly challenging dish to nail, Chef Tu David Phu shared: “For the second course, I’m preparing Summer Truffle & Garlic Sapporo Noodles with black and white sesame and oyster sauce. It was a challenge to find the connection between the fermented flavors, which came from the hoisin and oyster sauce, and to find the appropriate pairing with the wine. Nevertheless, Nicole and I found a nice complement in the J Vineyards 2021 Russian River Valley Strata Chardonnay.”
The dinner was a reflection of the chef’s passionate approach to cuisine that also shook up the tightly buttoned-up, European approach to food and wine pairings.
“One of the things that we haven’t seen being done is really how do we shift the conversation here in wine country because I’m sure if you walked around you’ll see it’s very much European-based,” Shaw explains. “I love the line: ‘They always say, when we think of wine country, we think of short ribs and polenta.’ And the reality is we want to make sure that we are having conversations about how we’re just beginning this journey about how we can be more inclusive in the wine industry. But also how we talk about fine wine with culturally relevant foods.”
“I remember pinnacle moments in my career when I went to a restaurant, and I tasted these two things together that I had never tasted together before. I didn’t necessarily try to recreate that dish, but it changed my perspective about how I cook,” Chef Preeti Mistry says of her experience with challenging food and wine pairings. “So I feel we do a disservice when we just stay in this one lane and don’t reach out farther and find other things within the palette. I think J specifically has such a broad portfolio. It has something for everyone, which also means it has something that goes with many different cuisines. You get so many opportunities and then nuances within them. Chefs especially we think, ‘Sparkling? Put it with some oysters and fried chicken.’ But to think deeply about all of these and understand the nuance between those the same way we do with a Pinot Noir or Chardonnay is a great challenge for us.”
As J Vineyard’s “Shifting The Lens” residency continues this September and with a pop-up later this fall, I hope it motivates other wineries across the nation to place representation (with both their wine options and culinary collaborations) at the forefront. It’s important to spotlight established chefs who are breaking barriers with their culinary mission, but it’s also essential to give rising chefs inspiration knowing there is space for them in this community as well.
Chef Tu David Phu. Photo by Nikkie Ritchie; courtesy of J Vineyards & Winery
“This is not an opportunity that a lot of chefs who look like me get to do. Even if you do get an opportunity to be the chef of a winery as a person of color, the expectation is still that 80% of what you cook is gonna have to be European-based,” Chef Preeti Mistry says. “So to be able to do something like this on this stage and with these wines with your own food is really powerful. Hetal Vasavada, the founder of Milk & Cardamom was at one of the dinners for my residency. She’s Gujrati, which is where I’m from. She was just emotional about seeing our food presented in this environment with the wines and these beautiful plates.
“I deeply appreciate how ‘Shifting the Lens’ is themed around diversity, a theme that is of the utmost importance for chefs in today’s culinary landscape. Embracing diversity allows chefs to tap into a wide range of cultural, regional, and ethnic culinary traditions, resulting in a more inclusive and enriching dining experience,” Chef Tu David Phu echoes. “By exploring diverse ingredients, techniques, and flavors, chefs can create innovative and unique dishes that reflect the multicultural nature of our society. Diversity in the kitchen fosters creativity, pushing boundaries and challenging conventional norms. It encourages chefs to step out of their comfort zones, learn from different culinary practices, and broaden their culinary repertoire. Moreover, diversity among chefs promotes cross-cultural understanding and appreciation, breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of unity.”