24-2 Summer Issue
“I like to put something good on the table, Appetizers get people excited about what’s coming next.” Brian Kirkland with glee. Master this recipe and then you will be the master chef of the house.
Written by Mike Stepanovich
George Bursick loves to talk dirty. The winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County is a student of the many soil types in the Russian River Valley. The dirt in which his vines grow provides both diversity and complexity in his wines.
Not surprisingly, Bursick, who has been making wine for 30 years, is as complex as his wines, and as full of life. I’ve known George for years, and a more cheerful person would be hard to find. He loves life—his wife, his kids, the challenge of making world-class wines, music, laughter—and can’t wait to start each day.
His enthusiasm makes him one of the best winemakers around, and that drives him to thoroughly explore all facets of his profession. One of those facets is the chance to make world-class pinot noir, arguably the most difficult grape to deal with due to its finicky nature. That’s what prompted him 2 1/2 years ago to accept the winemaker’s position at J Vineyards & Winery, which specializes in pinot noir, chardonnay, and sparkling wine.
And one of those facets is soil. “Within the Russian River Valley there are more soil types than all of France,” he said during his seminar at the recent Yosemite Vintners’ Holidays. “We have 25 different soil types. A three-acre vineyard can be very different from another guy just a half mile down the road.”
The “big bang” of the Russian River Valley happened a couple million years ago, he said, when two major volcanic incidents occurred: Mount St. Helena in Napa County and Mount Konocti in Lake County spewed forth, and “west of U.S. 101 was not where you wanted to be.”
As a result, the Russian River had a much more difficult time finding its way to the coast. “The river fought its way there” in a very circuitous way, slicing through a variety of volcanic leftovers. Part of the river’s old bed was left high and dry. The result is that Bursick has vineyards along the river, all with different soils. The winery also has different clones of pinot noir to take advantage of the different qualities the soils provide.
That diversity, he said, is key to the appellation, and why so many good wines are produced in the Russian River Valley, which was established as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, in 1983. The soils of the Russian River Valley are well drained, as a result of the high percentage of degraded sandstone and shale in the soil. Drainage encourages extensive root development and less vigorous vine growth, which gently stresses the vines to concentrate flavor in the grapes.
Bursick makes four pinot noirs at J, three vineyard-designated wines, and a Russian River Valley-appellation one.
Soils and vineyards that produce grapes for the four wines are:
Arbuckle soil. “This is rocky, river-run soil, with small pebbles, like the bottom of a river—which at one point it was—before it was pushed up.”
Alluvial soils. An example is the Robert Thomas Vineyard. “This is an ancient site,” Bursick said. “This alluvial soil was brought from somewhere else and deposited here. This vineyard is the farthest west of our vineyards, and is one of the last to ripen. Because it’s closer to the coast it’s influenced more by coastal fog and cooler temperatures. We must balance the crop load on this vineyard or it won’t ripen.”
Yolo loam. A heavier, richer soil, Yolo loam is not as desirable a soil for growing grapes.
Goldridge and Sebastopol soils. “These are the best soils for pinot noir,” he said. “They’re shallow, decomposed limestone and sandstone. Goldridge is a white, powdery soil, and is going for up to $120,000 an unplanted acre. Yolo makes leaves; Goldridge makes fruit.”
The wines that come from these varied soils are the J Russian River Valley pinot noir, Robert Thomas Vineyard pinot, Nonny’s Vineyard pinot, and Nicole’s Vineyard pinot. J also produces chardonnay, pinot gris, pinotage, a vin gris, a rosé, and of course sparkling wines.
Producing a variety of wines is nothing new for Bursick. He’s made many varietals during his 30-year career, particularly during the 22 years he spent at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery in neighboring Dry Creek Valley.
A native of Santa Rosa, Bursick didn’t go into winemaking right away. He went first to the University of California, Santa Barbara, but when he returned home, his father informed him that he had better “get a job.” So he put together Christmas gift packs at Beringer over in Napa Valley. He moved from the tasting room to the cellar and began learning the wine business. He then returned to school at UC Davis where he completed his bachelor’s in plant physiology, and then earned his master’s in enology.
He began his winemaking career at McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County, which specializes in Rhone varietals. After nine years there, he joined Don and Rhonda Carano as founding winemaker of their new venture, Ferrari-Carano.
While there he made a cornucopia of wines, including cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, chardonnay, and pinot noir.
His work took him to Italy and New Zealand, among other places. “I also continued with Ferrari-Carano as a consultant, and J also became a client.”
J was founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan, whose father, Tom Jordan, founded Jordan Vineyard & Winery in the Alexander Valley. J began as a sparkling wine producer.
One of my memories of J occurred during a wine competition where I was a judge in 1990, the American Wine Competition in Chicago. A know-it-all judge from New York was annoying the rest of us with her carrying on about the sweepstakes winning sparkling wine. She proclaimed herself an expert on Champagne, and how the sweepstakes wine was a superb example of French Champagne. Then competition organizers unveiled the winners; the sparkling wine winner was J.
In 1996 Jordan purchased the old Piper Sonoma winery near Healdsburg, which had produced sparkling wine. Some 300 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay came with it. In 1999 she opened the winery’s tasting room.
But about the time Bursick began consulting with her, “she became disillusioned with bubbly,” he said. “Judy decided to change directions and focus on pinot noir. The winery still makes sparkling wine—about 20,000 cases a year. But now it has a different focus.”
That Jordan wanted her winery to focus on pinot noir didn’t faze Bursick. “My 30th harvest [was in 2008], and I’ve made a bunch of different wines in my career. Now I make pinot noir and chardonnay. I made pinot noir at Ferrari-Carano for 15 years, but eventually it wound up in Sienna (the winery’s proprietary blend).”
Bursick didn’t anticipate that he would sign on with Jordan other than in a consulting capacity. “At first, my motivation to work with J was friendship,” he said. “Judy and I have been close friends for more than two decades, and the timing for me was right. J has always made consistently good wines, but when I discovered Judy’s desire to position J as a world-class producer of Russian River Valley pinot noir and chardonnay, I realized I had the chance to be a part of something special.”
Since joining J, Bursick has moved towards Jordan’s vision for J by cutting back on yields, increasing the number of lots used to blend J’s Russian River Valley pinot noir seven-fold in the first year, and he’s even acquired six rare yeast strains from Burgundy “that have not been used since the 1930s!” They also have several different clones planted in their vineyards, ranging from old clones propagated by UC Davis, to the latest trendy clones from the Dijon research station in France.
While wine is a passion for Bursick as well as a profession, his secret love is playing drums in a band called Private Reserve. Started in 1992, Private Reserve is a blend of wine colleagues that includes Mike Martini of Martini Winery in Napa Valley, Ed Sbragia, formerly winemaker at Beringer and now with his own label, Jess Knubis, Steve Buehl, and John Hawkins. “We usually play gigs mostly at wine and winery-related events. But it’s really just an excuse to get together every few weeks, eat a burrito, drink some wine, and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Article appeared in our 26-1 Issue - April 2009