Winemaker Spotlight: Rob Davis

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Rob Davis did not set out to be a winemaker. In fact, he had always planned to study pre-med at the University of California at Davis. This past fall, Rob celebrated his 40th harvest at the Jordan Winery in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley and I couldn’t help but wonder when and why he traded in the stethoscope for his refractometer.

I came back [to my dorm room] from studying for my Calculus test and I walked in to find my roommate with this little glass of wine sitting on his bedside table,” Rob tells me. “I said, ‘Buddy, you can’t be drinking wine while you’re studying!’ He said, ‘This is what I’m studying.’ I had no idea there was a program. I had never even heard of enology. I was literally amazed.

Rob’s curiosity about winemaking as a freshman immediately led him to take enology courses on top of his pre-med studies, and he soon found out what an undertaking his newfound interest would be.

These were not easy classes. I just thought, ‘You’re drinking wine, what’s so complicated about that?’ To give you an idea, there were 300 students in the freshman class and by the time we graduated, there were only 16 of us. They really whittled us down. For the most part, a lot of my classmates couldn’t handle the science.

Much of the curriculum came as a surprise to Rob, who remembers learning more about how to identify and avoid making bad wine rather than drinking and discussing the most famed wines of the world.

The academic aspect focuses more on wine as a medium to analyze,” Rob says. “Thinking back, I can’t remember one time where I saw a professor looking at wine from a hedonistic point of view. What they’d say was, ‘Okay we’ve got a problem here. Do you guys all smell it? What are we going to do about it?’ And that’s what you studied. You’d never really get asked what was right with the wine. It was always about the fault.

Yet when Rob wasn’t examining the faults of a given glass of wine, he was still rigorously working towards a career as a doctor. This meant the sudden approach of the MCATs, which prompted him to make perhaps the important career decision of his life. Would he continue on the pre-med path, which was practically the only one he had known since birth, or pave a completely different one that would lead to the profession of winemaking? Ultimately, this dilemma came down to answering a single question, which resonates with Rob to this day.

Who do I want to hang out with? That is literally the very question that decided my career,” Rob says. “I spent four years being around the pre-meds and four years working with these guys in the wine business who were studying to be winemakers and grape growers and I said, ‘I love those people.’ It’s not that I hate the pre-meds, but I identified much more with [those] in the wine business. It just came down to lifestyle. The best part about this business is the people. I mean, I love the intellectual aspects. I love being out in the vineyard. But you take the people away from it and it wouldn’t be what it is.

After graduating from UC Davis in 1976 with a fermentation science degree proudly in hand, Rob was hired by respected winemaker André Tchelistcheff (often regarded as “America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker” and the “dean of American winemakers”) to help make the inaugural vintage of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon.

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The early days at Jordan Winery: Rob with his mentor, Tchelistcheff. Photo by Jordan Winery.

Land that was once covered in prune trees became the vineyard vision of Sally and Tom Jordan, a young couple from Colorado interested in creating a Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon in the northern California wine country. Little did intern Rob know that this land would be his home for the next forty harvests and counting.

Within just three short years of its release, Jordan’s Estate Bottled 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded the “Best Cabernet in America” by the Beverage Tasting Institute in New York. This was just the beginning for Rob’s winemaking career, who worked with Tchelistcheff for about eighteen years until his retirement. With Rob as a leading force in both the vineyards and cellars at Jordan, the label continues to climb to the tops of wine lists and still honors many of the best French winemaking philosophies.

As mentioned, Rob celebrated his 40th harvest at Jordan just last year – a notably rare distinction in California – and it’s easy to see why this winery has remained his home for so many years. A breathtaking estate to say the least, the iconic, ivy-covered chateau that is featured on each bottle of Jordan’s wines is just as gorgeous up close. The winery been described by some critics as a “French-style Downton Abbey experience” and after spending the afternoon at Jordan, I can definitely see why. There is a hospitality and timelessness that is uniquely Jordan.

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Bacchus, the god of winemaking and the grape harvest, fittingly stands in the courtyard near the winery’s entrance.

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Upon arrival, the inviting foyer greets its guests with fresh-cut flowers and spa water. Step further in and you can peruse Jordan’s impressive wine library. Just around the corner, the intimate, formal dining room is a space that cannot be forgotten; it features a grand fireplace, lavish decor, and exquisite floral arrangements. While there is not a restaurant on the premises, special luncheons and dinners are held here for rewards members and invited guests. Down the hall is the chef’s kitchen, which can easily be found by following the wafts of savory aromas. The kitchen is lovely to say the least, adorned with blue and white Provencal tile and shiny copper pots and pans hanging above the workspace. Executive Chef Todd Knoll is absent, but I imagine he has stepped outside to the garden to draw culinary inspiration from the abundance of fresh produce. Upstairs, I get a peek at Rob’s office and the laboratory where his assistant enologists perfect each vintage with care.

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Then, we head to the historic oak tank room on the ground floor (below), which houses Jordan’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon, along with other rooms filled with the best barrels and tanks. The winery focuses its energy on two classic varietals made in an elegant, food-friendly style: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Most people who are familiar with Jordan know they are renowned for their consistency of quality, vintage after vintage. Their newest, non-vintage release adds to the winery’s repertoire: the AR Lenoble Jordan Cuvée Brut NV (above).

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After touring the interior of the chateau, we are led onto the terrace that overlooks the manicured garden grounds. Down one of the paths are Jordan’s cottages, which house overnight rewards member guests; the photos of a roaring fireplace, breakfast in bed, and views of wine country really do bring to mind the Downton Abbey royal treatment.

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While formal tours would include a seat on one of Jordan’s white shuttles, my sister and I hop into Rob’s truck to cruise the 112 acres of grapevines. I wouldn’t have it any other way! He drives us up to the property’s vista point, which boasts views of Healdsburg and the surrounding estate, and features a contemporary glass pavilion where “harvest lunches” are hosted throughout the fall months. An avid runner who enjoys competing in several triathlons a year, Rob tells me he runs from the chateau to the vista point every day; it’s quite an impressive distance and perhaps the most amazing place to train.

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This sign sits atop the property’s vista point (a view below) and features some of the Jordan family’s favorite destinations, as well as nearby towns like Healdsburg and Napa.

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One thing is apparent from touring the impressive grounds: much of Jordan’s acreage is dedicated to the natural habitat and sustainability. The winery relies heavily on the solar panels that lay across one of their hillsides to power the electricity. Down the hill, eighteen acres of Tuscan olive trees grow around one of the property’s lakes and they, too, are harvested to make oil. The estate’s lakes are the perfect oasis for the migratory geese and ducks, and several grazing pastures also allow Jordan’s cattle residents to take in the gorgeous northern California land. As of last fall, the estate now makes honey and it will also be used in Knoll’s culinary creations.

Another thing that is quite clear from spending the afternoon by Rob’s side is that no two days are ever really the same when you’re a winemaker. He explains how each season calls for a new set of tasks at the winery while change happens out in the vineyards. During the wintertime, pruning occurs to prepare the dormant vines for their spring awakening. Inside the winery, Rob and his crew hand-stir the Chardonnay, an old world winemaking technique called batonnage; this practice helps give Jordan wines that desirable silky and balanced mouthfeel. Springtime is a lively, transformative time of year, especially out in the vineyards. Bud break has begun, signaling the start of an exciting, new vintage, and purple lupine and yellow mustard flowers paint the perfect pastoral setting. As summer approaches, Rob and his crew comb through the vineyards to get glimpse at the berry development; their ultimate goal is an even maturation amongst the berries.

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But Rob’s favorite time at the winery is, of course, the fall harvest. For the five or so weeks, the hours are long and sleep is often an afterthought. Rob notes he’ll sometimes get an hour or two-long nap before heading back to work in the wee hours of the morning. Yet at the winery, he and the crew are fueled by the excitement of processing the freshly-picked crops. If you’ve seen any of Jordan Winery’s YouTube song covers or parodies (“Grape Thrills” and “Cab Wars: The Force of Harvest Awakens” are my personal favorites), you’ll see there really is an energy that cannot be contained. Despite everyone’s lack of sleep, the winery is actually a very lively workplace. “We don’t have to pick straws,” Rob explains. “There’s not a lack of desire of people who don’t want to show up. They all want to be there.”

As Rob fondly remember his past harvests, he cannot help but light up. Forty harvests later and it’s apparent he is still so enamored by the career that unexpectedly found him as a college freshman.

The sensory overload as the grapes hit the tanks reminds me of this Ancient Greek expression,” he says. “’The soul of man is the exercise of the senses.’ If you take away the senses, you’d be dead. But if you’re constantly exercising them, it’s the reverse. You’re very much alive.

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For more about winemaker Rob Davis, check out his biography, video, and gallery here.

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5 thoughts on “Winemaker Spotlight: Rob Davis

  1. Very interesting! What first got me enamored with wine was hearing about Richard Betts on Tim Ferriss podcast, who passed the Master Sommeliers Masters Exam on his first attempt. I found it really informative. Then i discovered Ice Wine this past Christmas. I’m finding my interest in wine is continuing to grow! Very cool community

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      1. I’m just cracking into the wine scene, like literally no nothing🤷‍♂️, but, I have your blog, so Im good 😎. I usually drink Pinot Noir when out to dinner, sometimes Sauvignon Blanc but don’t dabble in white wine much (mostly because I don’t know what I’d like), and Inniskillin Ice Wine is my favorite after dinner ice wine. Do you have any recommendations for a cheap red $15-20 to try?

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      2. Red blends are always a great place to start. I love a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc! I would also highly recommend getting a Winc wine membership! They ship you three exclusive bottles they think you would like based on your answers to their Palate Profile questions. I’ll be doing a review of my shipment on the blog soon, so you can see what I mean.

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