by Karl H. Kazaks
Ehren Jordan is a man of many worlds.
He’s at home piloting his plane, shuttling throughout California, inspecting vineyards.
He’s a welcome member of a gang of international food and wine luminaries, treated to caviar tastings and invited to top restaurants and events.
He’s a dual-hemisphere winemaker, having accepted Pernod Ricard’s offer to work with them on a new label, Jacob Creek’s Two Lands.
When it’s time to go home, Jordan finds himself back with his family on a farm in the heart of the Russian River Valley. The spread includes (presently) 15 acres of vineyard and assorted gardens and groves — the domain of numerous songbirds. His daughters pick fresh fruit and produce, sharing their harvest their father.
“There’s something about having a strawberry patch right outside your door,” he said.
Near a set of beehives is a chair where Jordan likes to sit and watch the bees move in and out.
An appreciation for the seemingly simple things in life underlies Jordan’s success and lofty attainments.
In the context of wine growing and wine making, Jordan is known for making wines of purity, balance and individuality, wines which clearly showcase the distinctive factors at play in their composition; variety, site, vintage, vineyard management and cellar techniques.
As he put it, winemaking is “like painting a picture. How you differentiate the colors? How do you tease out the differences and make a more complicated and compelling wine?”
Complex Jordan’s wines are, but they all share a common characteristic: in each wine, the expression of the vineyard and the vintage is always front and center.
Today Jordan makes wines at Failla, the winery he and his wife Anne-Marie Failla started in 1998. Known primarily for making coastally influenced Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs (there is also some Syrah and Zinfandel), Failla makes about 16,000 cases per year.
There is a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir as well as over a dozen single vineyard Pinot Noirs and five single vineyard Chardonnays. Production for some of those wines is less than 400 cases, levels that show Jordan’s commitment to making wines that showcase the place and time of their origin.
Failla’s estate vineyard is in Cazadero, in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, in the Sonoma Coast AVA. Jordan came across it while working for Helen Turley and her Marcassin Vineyards in the mid-1990s. Located very near the San Andreas Fault, it has a radically diverse soil profile, thanks to the uplift provided by the fault.
On top of a ridge at about 1,200 feet elevation, the vineyard, even though it’s close to the Pacific Ocean, is often warmer in the summer than the Russian River Valley further to the east. That’s because it lies above the fog line. But the growing season is shorter than that of the Russian River Valley, with a lot of ripening happening later in the season.
The result is that wines made in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, generally speaking, aren’t as fat or plush as the wines from the Russian River Valley, but they do have the structure and character that better lend themselves to longer aging and greater development.
Jordan acquired the Russian River Valley vineyard and land where he calls home more recently, in late 2011. Located near Olivet Lane, it has 9.5 acres of Chardonnay (Robert Young Clone) and 5.5 acres of Pinot Noir, planted in 1990. The alluvial soil is a gravelly clay loam.
Though Jordan doesn’t certify his vineyards, he does farm them all organically. In his experience, he’s seen that after “three solid years of organic farming you start to see some differences.” Now that he’s had this vineyard for that length of time, he’s looking forward to seeing what it produces.
“We’ve really liked the wines we’ve made here so far so the thought that they might get more interesting in quite exciting.” This year there will be wine from the vineyard designated as Olivet Lane; until now, they’ve been blended into Failla’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bottlings.
Failla’s winery is located in Napa, on Silverado Trail. It was built while Jordan was starting up Failla and contemporaneously working as winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. (While at Turley, Jordan made a string of widely appreciated wines, particularly Zinfandels, which wowed for their power and also impressed for being distinctive and refined.)
Even though the winery and tasting room is located away from most of the vineyards that provide Failla’s fruit, the winery is able to provide to wine tourists a different type of experience – a lineup of cool-climate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs – than those typically found in Napa.
Failla does have a Chardonnay from Haynes Vineyard in the Coombsville AVA. This area, due to its location close to the San Pablo Bay, is one of the coolest in Napa.
“I harvest here a month after the Hudson Vineyard, and they’re just five miles apart,” Jordan said.
The vines in the Haynes Vineyard were planted in 1964, relatively old Chardonnay plantings for California. The wine Jordan makes from the vineyard has a pronounced minerality, a textural intensity that speaks to the vine age.
Other winemakers, when tasting the wine and noticing the intensity of flavors and depth of expression, have asked him, he said, “‘Whoa, what did you do?’”
His answer: “I got out of the way,” letting the fruit speak for itself, expressing its site-specific story.
Jordan also makes Chardonnay from an older planting in Sonoma – the Chuy Vineyard, which was also planted in the mid-60s. It was the source of fruit for the first editions of the Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay. Planted to Wente clones, it makes wines that are more lush and tropical fruit-inflected than those from the Haynes Vineyard, but similarly deeply textured and complex.
Failla’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is a blend of the younger vines from the winery’s various parcels. Like all of Failla’s Chardonnays, it undergoes ML fermentation and is bottled unfiltered.
Unlike the single vineyard Chardonnay bottlings, about one-quarter of the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is aged in stainless steel, with another quarter in concrete and half in oak, with just 10 percent coming from new oak. The single vineyard Chardonnays are raised in one-quarter concrete and three-quarters oak, with 20 to 30 percent being new oak.
All of Failla’s wines are fermented with wild yeasts. None of them have added sulphur, and none are acidulated.
Failla does make a Viognier from the Alban Vineyard in Edna Valley. Aside from that, all of his wines are from the North Coast.
For his red wines, Jordan uses open-top fermenters and does not use pumps. Whether to crush or not is, he said, “A game-time decision based on what happens.”
“Basically what tends to happen is some of the cooler areas where you get physiological ripeness and sugar ripeness intersecting more – i.e., more lignified stems – we do more whole cluster.”
Some of the Syrah is fermented 100 percent whole cluster, and some of the Pinot Noir lots are also fermented 100 percent whole cluster, but the finished blend for any Pinot Noir typically won’t be higher than 40 percent whole cluster.
Too much whole cluster fruit in Pinot Noir, Jordan said, gets “too far into the herbal stemmy notes. I like what they do as notes to a larger musical composition, but not as a one-note thing.”
As with Failla’s Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is partly aged in stainless steel. Made with fruit from younger vines, the Sonoma Coast tends to more fruit-driven, Jordan said, “so my philosophy is: capture the fruit.”
Jordan usually bottles his Sonoma Coast wines in June. The single vineyards are bottled sometime between August and November.
“I don’t leave them in barrel too long to dry out,” he said.
If harvest is happening when he wants to bottle a single vineyard wine, he’ll rack the wine to stainless and hold it there until after harvest.
Jordan studied winemaking, among other places, in Cornas with Jean-Luc Colombo. His experience in the Northern Rhône with its decomposed granitic soils has inspired him to dream of making wine in a place with such soils again – such as in Beaujolais.
“It’s certainly an intriguing spot,” he said of Beaujolais. But the issue of contemporaneous harvest is a thorny one.
He doesn’t have that problem in Australia.
Jordan has made three vintages of Jacob’s Creek Two Lands. There are four wines, made for export to North America: Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Shiraz, and Cabernet.
Pernod Ricard sought out Jordan as winemaker because they like his artisanal approach. Jordan jumped at the opportunity because, he said, “I’ve never had the ability to make wine on that volume,” Jordan said.
Jordan has at his resources a beverage behemoth with over 4,000ha of vineyards, multiple wineries, and access to capital. He uses fruit from across South Australia, including from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, Wrattonbully, Padthaway and Coonawarra. He is given wide latitude in winemaking.
When the partnership first began, Jordan thought he would adjust the harvest schedule to pick earlier. But Jacob’s Creek wines aren’t jammy like the Australian archetype. “They’re actually lean and European,” Jodan said. So he actually decided to pick later.
“It was totally the opposite of what I thought was going to happen.”
The Australian winemaking experience, Jordan said, has been “a total gas. I love it down there. The Barossa looks like Sonoma County to me – unless you see a kangaroo hop by, which my kids think is the greatest thing since sliced bread. They’re like deer. They’re everywhere, hopping through the vineyards.”
Back home, Jordan is making plans for his ranch. He might add another five acres of vines, and build a low-key production facility. By making Failla wines in the Russian River Valley, he would free up production space at his Napa facility.
Which would allow him to develop a new label, maybe one dedicated to Napa Valley fruit.
It’s something he thinks about sometimes, after a spell in his meditation chair by the beehives.
At Failla, Ehren Jordan focuses his expertise on coastally influenced Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs
by Karl H. Kazaks