Grape Collective: Jay Somers of J. Christopher
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Jay Christopher Somers wanted to be a rock star. As the 4-year-old Jay listened over and over to John Fogarty’s wailing guitar solo in “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” he knew that’s what he wanted to do. And yet, rooted somewhere in that song, another message planted itself in his subconscious, something about grape vines.
Jay eventually did get a guitar — today he has quite a collection — and learned to play with great skill. In terms of careers, however, he did what any college grad with a degree in philosophy would do: he made beer. After several years as a brewer for McMenamins, he met a beautiful woman named Ronda. Ronda liked Jay, but didn’t care for beer. Making two of the best decisions of his life, Jay married Ronda and got out of the beer business, deciding to focus, instead, on his latest passion: wine.
In the years leading up to the launch of his own winery, Jay had the great fortune to work with Don Kautzner at Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon, Neil McCallum at Dry Creek Vineyard in New Zealand, and John Paul at Cameron Winery in Oregon. From Don, he learned that it was possible to make Burgundian-style Pinots in Oregon. Through Neil, he gained a passion for white wines. And in John, he found a lifelong friend and mentor. Jay bottled his first J. Christopher vintage in 1996, using the Cameron facility and fruit purchased from the neighboring Charlie’s vineyard. (Side note: Jay is the first and only winemaker ever to make wine from this excellent vineyard.)
In 2010, Jay Somers cemented his bond with the Old World by forming a partnership with famed German winemaker Ernst Loosen. Ernie and Jay’s friendship formed over a strong passion for Pinot Noir. Working together to produce Pinot Noirs that combined Old World and New World ideas seemed natural. Together, they purchased a beautiful 40-acre property on Chehalem Mountain in Newberg, Oregon. The property is now home to the J. Christopher winery, and the Appassionata vineyard, their first estate vineyard.
In addition to producing Oregon Pinot Noir using the traditional methods of Burgundy, J. Christopher is also one of the few wineries in Oregon to produce Sauvignon Blanc, modeled after the great wines of Sancerre. The philosophy at J. Christopher is to produce wines in an Old World style that emphasizes focus, length and balance. As Jay puts it, “We do not make fruit bombs. We want wines that have a fine balance of fruit, acidity and texture. We want wines that give you more than just a big mid-palate blast —wines that are complete.” The key to this, Jay firmly believes, is patient winemaking — it is vital not to rush things and allow the wines to develop naturally. One important example: Jay would never heat up the cellar to induce malolactic fermentation in his Pinot Noir. This is a New World technique done to facilitate earlier bottling, but Jay feels it is damaging to the wine’s texture and balance. He wants the wines to evolve at their own pace, with minimum intervention.
Jay is also a member of The Deep Roots Coalition (DRC), which is an advocacy group for the production of wine sourced exclusively from non-irrigated vineyards. The wineries in this group share a vision regarding viticulture, winemaking and long-term viability of Oregon wine. They feel that vineyards must be dry farmed, and that it is the non-irrigated vines that work hardest to produce fruit that maximizes the true terroir. With fruit sources and skill that rival the best of Oregon, Jay Somers is a winemaker to watch.
Top 100 American Wineries of the Year by Wine & Spirits
2019, 2017, 2013
Wine Advocate 2012
"Following international internships and five years with John Paul at Cameron, reflective and experimental-minded Jay Somers founded J. Christopher wines in 1996 with conviction in the principles of biodynamic farming and what he calls “Old World” stylistic sensibility. Meeting a deep-pocketed, multi-talented soul mate and commercial partner in Ernst Loosen of the eponymous Mosel estate, Somers now finds himself in the enviable position of presiding over a newly-constructed and superbly-equipped winery surrounded by a newly-planted former pasture dubbed Appassionata Vineyard (mixed volcanic and sedimentary) whose aspect and proximity to some of Newberg’s best sites (including David Adelsheim’s founding vineyard, not to mention the cluster a mile west on Calkins Lane) can’t help but fire even a jaded wine lover’s imagination; and the wines – given their vibrant style and on the whole extremely reasonable prices – can’t help but stimulate an appetite of more than one sort. Among many unique aspects of J. Christopher is a passion and ambition for Sauvignon Blanc, which Somers and Loosen have backed-up by planting three acres of their home vineyard’s 20 acres with that cepage, the rest being Pinot Noir including – unsurprisingly, given Loosen’s international experience and Somers’ at Cameron – highly, dare I say “colorfully,” diverse vine material including heirloom selections of both Californian and Oregonian origin. Pinot is destemmed – though future deviations from that norm are envisioned – and ferments spontaneously 'which at our ambient temperatures,' notes Somers, 'can take anywhere from 5-10 days.' Extraction is solely via punch-downs and the wine is pressed within a couple of days of reaching dryness; then minimally settled before going to barrel, 25% new. In the newly-dug and exceedingly cold caves, malo is taking place on a Burgundian schedule; in fact, had only recently started when I visited in early June."