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Thursday, July 16, 2009

California Dreaming, 2nd Installment

Jonata, Great Expectations

While I’d never tasted a wine from Jonata before Friday morning, I’d already compiled a stack of bias as high as the mass of dollar bills it took to buy one of their bottles. The wines are expensive, almost outlandishly so in a region known for its value and overall rusticity. That being said, I had to admit that Jonata’s Screaming Eagle clout brought an interesting dynamic to the region. That dynamic could be looked at in two ways, one being of validation. The up and coming viticultural promise has officially arrived, and top enological dogs like Michel Rolland have finally taken notice. The other interpretation is a bit more dramatic, seeing the Jonata flag as a signal of invasion. The big money investments of the north were going to take over. Imagine how the cattle ranchers must feel about it. It’s one thing to be pushed out by passionate farmers, but it has to be decidedly incising when it’s a money manager that uprooted your land to plant vinfera. I, the urban outsider, really didn’t entertain much of an opinion either way. I imagined that some found the prices arrogant, yet could equally see the view that they were still relative bargains by Napa standards. I was just there to pack that bias away and taste some wine.

When I turned off the main drag in Buelton towards the winery’s address, I was surprised to see Jonata had no formal tasting room. The building was large, with no formal labeling from door to door and I wandered about, resembling just the type of tourist I despised. Around the bend I noticed a crack in the door and pushed it in just enough to take a peek. There was a group of middle aged men and women standing around the stacks of sweet smelling French oak barrels w/ empty glasses. I was thirsty and glad to see I wasn’t too late.

I saw Mat Dees, Jonata’s winemaker, walking up and down the aisles of oak barrels w/ his wine thief, calculating which casks to draw from. Matt is a young man, even younger than myself, but has learned his craft quickly. Part of his training was spent in Napa Valley w/ Garren Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards. The Staglin’s also work w/ Rolland, and if I were a wealthy man I’d happily own a great deal of their Cabernet in my cellar. Matt is very bright, easy going and obviously passionate about what he does. It felt good to finally interact w/ someone as young as me in the industry. You only feel crazier in an asylum by yourself.

Matt would explain that Jonata’s plots (which are all young vine, estate fruit) were unique in that they were composed mainly of sandy soils. Jonata’s line-up has a dizzying amount of variety between its Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Verdot, Grenache, Syrah and even a smattering of Semillon. The ‘kitchen sink’ approach was implemented initially to see what thrived in the area and what didn’t. Well, years later, just about every grape has done pretty well, with no blaring inadequacies. So as of now, the jack of all trades approach will be continued until they are not pleased with the results. While I’d imagine working w/ such a vast variety of grapes is a daunting enough task independently, Matt was given only one other directive by his superiors. Make the best wine in the Santa Ynez Valley. At least they put their money where their mouths are.

We sampled the ’07 vintage from barrel to barrel. While Jonata has a unique name for each blend, our tasting was of the components alone, so I made my comments from varietal to varietal.

We began w/ the only backward wine of the bunch, the Sangiovese. The scents picked up an overtly toasty note, and while the hearty, spicy character of the wine was attractive, I could tell we did not taste it at its best moment. The Cabernet Sauvignon immediately got my attention. Appellations surrounding the Santa Ynez Valley have produced notoriously green, weedy Cabernet (thankfully most has been up-rooted for more fashionable, cool climate varieties), but this one bucked the trend. The bouquet was effusive, revealing a true perfume of mint, rose, freshly picked herbs and warm black currants. The flavors were chewy and layered, striking me as honest and charming. That said the father grape, Cabernet Franc, really stole the show. The sample smelled of blueberries and violets and could only be described as highly desirable. The rugged sinew of Cabernet Franc appeared in the mouth, w/ notes of dusty cocoa and peppery spices filling out the palate. A wine of finesse and character, and only rivaled by Foxen’s dry farmed version for the best in the valley.

Once we got to the Syrah, I could feel the pedal pushing further and further downward. An absolutely explosive, almost savage Syrah stormed from the barrel like a young Alban. The flavors of raw beef, roast nuts and warm chocolate sauce enveloped the palate, yet tip-toed to the finish w/ a subtle kiss of gravel and pepper. In spite of its size, the wine has a genuine mineral character and remains well balanced. After the Syrah we tasted the final heavyweight in Jonata’s stable, the Petite Verdot. While I do enjoy an occasional California Petite Verdot for its effusive blueberry flavors, they tend to be either too simple or too clunky for me to really wrap my head around. That said, Jonata’s, which Matt prefaced ‘wasn’t for everyone,’ is a unique take on the varietal. While typical in its monstrous size and force, this was not a surly wine. It was structured and broad, yet possessed a sense of suaveness that made it immediately approachable, and the Zinfandel like fruit of raspberry gananche and melted licorice were delicious. The finish really took off, reminding me of that smoky bite you’re left w/ after having a strong, rich espresso.

While Matt and I got to talking about Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux Blanc in particular, I noticed that we seemed to share the same favorites. Locally, he loved Araujo’s Eisle Vineyard and Peter Michael’s just as much as I, and when I found out that Jonata made a Sauvignon blanc as well, I told him I wouldn’t leave until he dug some up for us. Well…I actually asked him where I could buy a bottle locally, and he was nice enough to pop a bottle of the ’06 Flor de Jonata. I did not spit. To say this was outrageously good is mere foreplay. A very Pessac-like nose of honeysuckle, chive, lilac, citrus peel and chalk dust notes burst from the glass. The mouth-feel seemed like a Pouilly Fume on steroids, yet w/ impeccable poise for a wine of such intensity. Candied grapefruit and liquid stone notes wove in and out through the long, succulent finish. This was a wine of sheer presence and easily the white of the trip, 95 points.

I was glad to have met Matt and taste Jonata’s wines for the first time. In terms of quality, I can honestly say they are about as good as one could imagine. They’ve exploited a unique, sandy plot of land w/ some top notch enological talent. To achieve this level of quality w/ such a myriad of varieties is astounding, yet I imagine a sharper focus on a few signature blends is in store down the road. Unfortunately, the wines are out of my price range and while I may splurge on a bottle or two of that fabulous Sauvignon Blanc, they are obviously going after a different demographic. Jonata may be most successful in attracting Napa Cab-centric consumers w/ their pedigree, or perhaps this label will come to be recognized a reference point of the valley in due time. More broadly, Jonata’s early success w/ Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are very promising for Santa Ynez, where these varietals have struggled to find their footing.

The tasting demonstrated that the product is indeed a high quality one, but I still found the overall focus to be a bit diffuse. Other than being very good, I guess I still don’t know what Jonata is all about. I suppose the question I have for the owners at Jonata would be, is being ‘the best’ good enough?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brad this blog is fantastic! I'm planning a wine tasting for a group in late October and need some advice for novice wine drinkers. Please give me a call (if you still have my number or send me an email I lost all of my contacts so I don't have yours. Hugs,

Thursday, July 16, 2009  
Anonymous Mark said...

Thanks for the update on a smaller California winery. These typically make the best trips! Keep up the good work!

Monday, July 27, 2009  
Blogger Brad Coelho said...

Absolutely Mark...if only their prices were as small as the winery :)

Monday, August 03, 2009  

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