It takes two: in conversation with Nicolas-Jay
Author: Hannah Crosbie
Over a glass of wine, Jay Boberg and Jean-Nicolas Méo of Nicolas-Jay discuss their latest vintage, making wine in Oregon, and the parallels between winemaking and music.
An American music executive and the heir to a Burgundian domaine may seem an unlikely duo, but Jay Boberg and Jean-Nicolas Méo have been producing hit after hit at Nicolas-Jay, their Oregon winery.
So how did the pair come to work together as winemakers? As the next in line at Méo-Camuzet, Jean-Nicolas was perhaps a more obvious candidate; but it wasn’t until his father proposed he take the reins that he ever gave it any thought. When the call came, he was in his twenties, studying business in Paris. “There was a big question on whether or not I should say yes,” Jean-Nicolas admits. “But I decided to embrace it.”
Elsewhere, Jay Boberg was having a far more traditional student experience. “I was drinking a lot of beer and Jack Daniel’s back then,” he laughs. “It wasn’t until I went up to Napa Valley with a roommate that the penny finally dropped.” Pretty soon, his drinking habits changed, and a love of wine took shape.
Their paths finally crossed in the late 1980s. They immediately hit it off, but did they suspect they’d go into business together 25 years later?
“They say that it’s dangerous to go into business with your friends,” Jay laughs, “but I had to ask Jean-Nicolas to start the project for two reasons,” Jay tells me. “Firstly, he just so happens to be one of the best makers of Pinot Noir in the world.”
What was the second reason?
“I’d been working in business for 30 years, and I wanted to start this next phase of my life with someone that I actually wanted to spend it with. That’s when my ‘no assholes’ rule came into effect – we went down the path of only working with the people we wanted to work with. To this day, that kind of authenticity is so important to our business.”
A shared fondness for Burgundy – especially Pinot Noir – between Jay and Jean-Nicolas is apparent. Jean-Nicolas tells me that this is why they decided on Willamette Valley – it was the perfect place to make a wine that both he and Jay wanted to drink.
“Pinot Noir is naturally very sensitive to terroir, as well as the winemaker’s method. It takes a whole region to establish a style,” he says. “And, for me, the two best places for Pinot Noir are Burgundy and Oregon. Oregon just made sense in that respect.”
A desire to make wine in Oregon went beyond the terroir; it was about the people, too.
“For me, it was important that the Oregon winemaking community was so open to outsiders,” Jay adds. “They must’ve been thinking: why is this rockstar winemaker from Burgundy and this music guy coming to Oregon to make wine? But from day one, they saw us as a benefit not a threat – we were embraced with open arms.”
‘EVERY VINTAGE IS LIKE MAKING AN ALBUM’
Recent years have seen a rush of musical winemakers: we discuss how their involvement rarely extends beyond a name on a label. It’s clear that’s not the case with Nicolas-Jay.
“Both Jean-Nicolas and I are extremely hands on – there’s dirt underneath our fingernails. Because we started from scratch, we were doing everything, but that was what allowed us to learn. We’re still in the cellar doing pump overs and getting hands-on in every aspect of the winemaking. But at the beginning, we were doing even more; we’re talking accounting, tastings, label design, the list goes on.”
Why does he think that wine world attracts so many musicians – hands-on or otherwise?
“I think it’s the artistic expression that wine offers,” Jay says. “Every vintage is like making a new album. There are a million decisions to be made when you’re making a wine, all of which have an impact on the final product. It’s just like that when you’re making a record – there’s a magical nature to these creative processes.”
When it comes to actual music in the winery, what do they listen to?
“We have a Sonos speaker system throughout the winery, it goes all the way out to the crush pad.” Jay smiles. “I can assure you that it’s the finest audio system in any winery in North America.”
A NEW VINTAGE
Our interview at No.3 St James’s Street coincides with the release of Nicolas-Jay’s 2019 vintage. According to Jean-Nicolas, there’s a lot be excited about.
“There’s still this conception that American wine is something that’s sweet and heavy,” he laughs and shakes his head. “This is certainly not the case with ‘19. One of the things that continues to surprise me about Oregon is this tremendous vintage variation.”
“‘Savoury’ is the word that comes to mind,” Jay adds, “the ‘19 has a real earthiness to it. I think it has a lot of character. There’s the perfume that you’d expect, but it has this real concentration of flavour. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that evolves over time. I think it’ll be fantastic with food.”
A NEW HOME
Following the trickiest year in memory for West Coast winemakers – a vintage marked by smoke taint and wildfires – what’s in the future for Nicolas-Jay? The pair are markedly excited about their latest developments.
“We’ve just bought a building which has been entirely refurbished,” Jean-Nicolas reveals. “Now we have a space that’s been specifically designed to make wine the way we want to. There’s also a big tasting room where people can come and taste our wines. Before this, we were doing tastings at our house in Dundee on our dining room table.”
“We weren’t on the maps,” Jay remembers with a smile. “I’d have to text them a time and an address, it was like we were inviting our visitors to an illegal rave. Nicolas-Jay was a bit orphaned for a long time: we rented out spaces until we had our own vineyards at Bishop Creek, but now it’s different. Now Nicolas-Jay has a winery – now we have a home.”
Browse our selection of Nicolas-Jay wines here.