I tweeted earlier in the week that Kayla, Marris and I had a dreadful wine tasting at J Vineyards in Healdsburg. J Vineyards responded on Twitter requesting I direct message them my story so they could make it right. I told them I’d put it together here and so I have. A direct message, while definitely tidier for J, would never allow me to fully explain my disappointment. Here goes:
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you probably know about the never-ending renovation I’ve been doing on my house in wine country. I find myself going up north to meet with a contractor or furniture delivery person at least once a month. While this might be annoying to some, and it is to me, the best part of these trips is getting to see Kayla.
It’s a rare event that Kayla and I are in the same zip code and don’t do some sort of wine tasting. So on this trip to Sonoma County, she and I decided to hit up J Vineyards for a quick tasting and pick up my wine club shipment. Marris was in town and joined in on the adventure. But before we go there, let’s learn a bit about the winery and my history visiting them.
Founded by Judy Jordan in 1986, J Vineyards & Winery began as a producer of critically-acclaimed sparkling wines like our J Vintage Brut, J Late-Disgorged Vintage Brut, Brut Rosé, and Cuvée 20 Brut… J is renowned for its hospitality and we encourage you to visit our acclaimed wine tasting room… In fact, Sunset Magazine named J the Best Tasting Room in the West.
You now have a little bit of a backgrounder on J, let’s revisit my first J experience. It was the summer my parents were set to move to Saudi Arabia. Kayla put together a list of fun wineries we should hit up while they were visiting from Texas with my brother and sister-in-law. J was to be the last stop on our whirlwind tour of Sonoma County.
The five of us walk up to J and are promptly greeted in the foyer of their tasting room. Unfortunately the greeting included “You do know tastings are $20 per person right?” Of the six or so wineries we’d hit up on that day alone, not a single one felt the need to warn us about the cost of a tasting and in such a tone to imply we might be unable or unwilling to afford the tasting fee. This certainly was not the case.
We turned on our heels and left dismayed at their assumptions and attitude.
I gave J another try with Kayla a few years later and was won over by their tasting room staff, enough so that I purchased a few bottles of wine to offset the tasting fee and bring a little crisp J flavor home.
The next trip to J was with friends visiting from the midwest. We had a great time tasting and talking it up with the tasting room workers. I was convinced to join their J Club by a somewhat pushy but nice J employee. As memory serves, the shipment included a magnum of one of J Vintage Brut and a few bottles of other wines. In total, five bottles including one magnum for $165. As it was described to me “this is an amazing deal!”
So here we are, at my latest J experience.
Kayla, Marris and I walk to the tasting room and I’m checked in as a J Club member. I had no idea there was going to be any big tasting event, this surprise was exciting. We took our tasting glasses and headed in.
At the first tasting station we were told we’d taste two of their white wines, then head upstairs for some pinot before ending at the main tasting area for sparkling wine. The wines at this station were their Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Of course the only way we knew this was by reading the sign on the table.
The pourer seemed reluctant to share any information on the wines, sometimes giving misinformation. For instance, he told one couple that the salmon mousse was to be paired with the Chardonnay, while he told another it was made to be paired with the Pinot Gris. The other amuse-bouche was some sort of Thai wrap. Being vegetarian I made sure to ask what was in it. A woman from J who presented a new tray of wraps said it was a secret. When I pointed out I was a vegetarian and with food allergies she responded with “I think it has peanuts and some other stuff but no meat.”
Never guess that something has one of the most dangerous food allergens. Seriously? Had you not tasted the very food you were putting out? Kayla took a brave bite of it, nonplussed, she offered me the rest. I found it unremarkable.
In our first tasting station we go from ecstatic to disappointed. We climb the stairs to the Pinot tasting station. It’s cold, quiet and uncomfortable. Kayla find relief in our tasting presenter, a guy we’ve had before that was great. Unfortunately this tasting proves to be no better than the previous. In fact, it was worse.
Once again we had to ask what we were tasting, where it was grown, the story behind it, etc etc. It was a disaster. At once point, our guy leaves us only to appear about five minutes later with no explanation. At this station we see only one sign for the wines and we presumed there was just the one to taste.
We hang in the area, soaking in the disappointment when our guy starts pouring something into our glasses. No warning, no explanation of the wine, just starts pouring. He doesn’t even tell us this is a different wine until we asked after we tasting it and noticing it was different. When pressed about the story behind this wine we are given nothing at all.
Oh and hey, where is the Pinotage they are so proud of (and insist has nothing to do with South Africa despite reality saying otherwise)?
Absolutely bewildered, we slowly, and with much disappointment, descend the stairs to the final tasting area. Surely the sparkling tasting will prove better right? This is what they are known for!
Our still wine glasses are taken from us (guess we won’t revisit anything huh?) and in their place are three flutes of sparkling wine. Then our girl leaves us to talk to another group of tasters. Once again nothing is shared about the wine we are drinking, the platter of food for this pairing is pushed all to the far left of the bar, half-hazardly. It’s so unappealing that we don’t even bother giving it a taste.
She returns and I volunteer that I’d like to pick up my wine shipment. She gets my name and walks off to get it. Upon her return she says, “It’s just four bottles of our Brut Rosé.” Way to sell your product…
The total? $115, add tax and we’re at $124. Now you might be asking yourself, is that too much, too little or just right? Don’t you join wine clubs to get a discount and access to specialty wines? Yes and yes, that is too much money for four bottles of Brut Rosé and you do join wine clubs for alleged discounts and access to limited edition wines.
Yes I joined the “Sparkling” version of the wine club but J sells ten vintages of four different sparkling wines. A little variety is expected! Now to the cost. They claim I save 10% by being a member of their wine club. However, had I picked up the same wine at Safeway or Wicked Wines in town I would have spent around $22 a bottle. 22 x 4 = 88. 115 – 88 = $27 premium to purchase the wine from J. Not to mention the cost of driving to Healdsburg to pick it up in person or the shipping fees I would have otherwise incurred. (The cost of Brut Rosé ranges from $22-24 on any given day at my Safeway)
This is no deal. At Safeway I can to get five bottles ($110), add a sixth to save 10% and walk away with two more bottles of wine for only three dollars more. Plus I could do this at the Safeway three blocks from my house saving transportation or shipping fees.
Yes I know, comparing the costs of a wine at a grocery store to the price as a winery isn’t necessarily fair. We can have a long discussion on wine distribution, costs and inflation. I know when I go to a restaurant, that glass of wine paid for the bottle, just as I know big box stores buy wine in bulk in exchange for deep discounts. Nevertheless, this sort of markup, this sort of experience and treatment is beyond the pale.
I felt punished by J. By joining their exclusive club, I was allowed to pay more for less. I was given a tasting I would rather have not experienced. My friends and I were treated like poorly attended cattle. We walked up to J with great expectations and left with a bitter taste in our mouths.
It’s enough that I plan to cancel my wine club membership and never recommend J to another acquaintance. I have personally sent at least a dozen people to J for a tasting and I’m sure Kayla has sent hundreds in her time working in the wine industry. Never again. Not unless some serious changes are made.
And so I leave J Vineyards with the same disenchantment I experienced on my first visit.