J Vineyards’ “Shifting the Lens” Series: Wine as an Agent for Change

By Gabe Saglie   |   September 13, 2022
MJ wine writer Gabe Saglie with Chef Preeti Mistry at August’s Shifting the Lens dinner at J Vineyards in Sonoma County. The rotating culinary series aims to broaden traditional perceptions around food and wine pairing.

On a recent afternoon, on the rolling grounds of Eastside Knoll Vineyard in Sonoma, falcons are on alert. With the 2022 harvest finally underway, and with the pinot noir grapes here quickly maturing toward optimum ripeness, the birds of prey have been employed as an eco-friendly alternative to netting to keep hungry starlings away. “It’s less labor intensive,” explains Kenley Christensen, of KC Falconing, who’s raised and trained more than a dozen of these swift raptors from the time they were babies. “It’s also about a third of the cost.” 

Propane cannons – their loud booms can scare birds away but can be a nuisance to neighbors – and certain pesticides are avoided, too.

Scattered throughout this vineyard, set above the Russian River, I also notice dozens of owl boxes. More than 80 in all. When the falcons have completed their daytime duties, it’s these nocturnal birds who then scour the night-time floor for rodents – pests, too, that are lured by these grapes’ juicy sweetness. Mother Nature, in various ways, providing an eco-inspired alternative to traditional viticultural methods.

My visit to J Vineyards last month, along with a small group of wine journalists, was inspired by Shifting the Lens, a rotating culinary program launched this summer with lofty goals around wine and food. Ultimately, though, and more importantly, it’s aimed at exploring how wine can be used as a conversation catalyst around bigger-picture concepts, like inclusivity, and to explore the wine industry’s capacity to become an agent for change around things like equity and empathy. “The landscape has definitely changed today,” says J winemaker Nicole Hitchcock as we walk the vineyard, after admitting that their early tenure in the industry did include moments driven by labels and stereotypes. “Now, we do see a lot more female and ethnic representation.”

Shifting the Lens dovetails from this type of idea: that seeing the industry with wider perspective – through a different lens – can propagate new opportunity within and, for consumers, present new ways of appreciating and enjoying the wines they love.

Shifting the Lens tapped three buzzy chefs and invited them to month-long residences with J’s own culinary team and to take over the cuisine options inside the Bubble Room, ground zero on the J Vineyards visitor complex in Healdsburg for daily food-and-wine offerings. The goal? To inspire food and wine exploration. The series launched in July with L.A.-based chef Jenny Dorsey, recently profiled by Food & Wine Magazine as a “Game Changer” for their own efforts around social change. My own experience in August starred cookbook author and chef Preeti Mistry, a two-time James Beard Foundation “Best Chef in the West” nominee, a contestant on Top Chef Season 6 and the former owner of the popular Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen in Oakland. An open critic of the lack of diversity in the world of fine dining, and a champion of fringe members of the
culinary industry, from immigrant to brown to queer, they currently live with their wife in Sonoma.

J Vineyards’ new culinary series inspired an exclusive sparkling wine, the Shifting Lens Brut Rosé. Each of the series’ three guest chefs helped design a gift box.
J Vineyards in Sonoma County has six estate vineyards, including Eastside Knoll, its first vineyard, planted in 1997

On the pleasure scale, Chef Preeti’s creative menu pushed aside recognizable, Mediterranean- and European-inspired food pairings for wine and, instead, embraced the vibrant, aromatic, intense flavors of the Indian fare with which they grew up. A deep-fried Nardello pepper, served with fenugreek chutney and a corn-and-curry leaf relish, paired beautifully with J’s 2015 Russian River Valley Blanc de Blancs ($80); an earthy tomato “rasam” soup, with coconut chutney and pickled green tomato, was heavenly with J Vineyards’ rich and vibrant 2020 Strata Chardonnay ($40); and eggplant biryani, doled out with okra and turmeric rice, was a lovely match for J’s layered and refined 2019 Foggy Bend Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70).

The main course in August’s Shifting the Lens dinner featured Chef Preeti’s Burnt Masala Quail with a tamarind sauce and pickled melon relish. It was paired with J Vineyards’ limited-edition Shifting Lens Brut Rosé.

A Masala quail course, served with tamarind and a pickled melon relish, was paired by the exclusive Shifted Lens Brut Rosé, made expressly for this series and with the input of all chef invitees. This delicious sparkler features pinot noir as its dosage base and includes fruit from each of J’s six estate vineyards, including the aforementioned Eastside Knoll, which was the company’s first, planted in 1997. Lively and fruit-forward, this limited-edition bubbly comes in three different gift boxes, each thoughtfully designed in collaboration with each of the three guest chefs. Chef Preeti’s Shifted Lens Brut Rosé ($85) is presented in raucous pink packaging, tiger heads, and justice scales throughout, with myriad quotes that represent their passion for inclusion and equity.

I loved our dessert of shrikhand, a traditional Indian strained yogurt, flavored with saffron and served with puri bread and poached pears. It played beautifully with the 2012 Late Disgorged Vintage Brut ($110), with its own flavors of tangerine zest, honey and green apple.

Throughout dinner and afterwards, and through thoughtful conversation with Chef Preeti and several members of the J team, our group shared thoughts around bucking traditional culinary perceptions, embracing less customary flavors and textures and pairing them with more conventional still and sparkling wines and, ultimately, around the bigger topics near and dear to Chef Preeti’s heart.

Shifting the Lens rounds out with New York-based chef Shenarri Freeman, known for their holistic approach to eating and for specializing in cruelty-free and vegan Southern cooking. The public will have a chance to experience the way they pushes the boundaries of wine pairing inside J’s Bubble Room from September 29 through October 2 and October 6 through 9, with a special VIP dinner slated for October 1. Guests should sign up for specific time slots at exploretock.com/jvineyardswinery. Find out more at jwine.com

Coming Soon: Santa Barbara Wine Auction 

Conversations around equality in the wine world are ramping up quickly across the industry, including right here in Santa Barbara, led in major part by the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation. The charitable group, founded in 1986, strongly supports local programs, like People Helping People and the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, that benefit underrepresented residents of the area who are, also, critical members of the regional viticultural workforce. The Foundation’s biennial Santa Barbara Wine Auction, which has raised millions of dollars for Direct Relief over the years, is happening again on November 12 at Ritz-Carlton Bacara, and I’ll have an in-depth preview of this not-to-miss event for MJ readers soon. 



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