A group of us from Hawaii were in Paso Robles attending the 4 day, SOMM Camp, put on by The SOMM Journal. This truly was some kind of event.
On our way south, eventually headed to Los Angeles to catch a plane back to Hawaii, we made a one day stop down in the Santa Barbara appellation, so I could show the visiting Hawaii based younger wine turks some of what I consider to be standout vineyards. For at least a couple of them, it was their first trip to both Paso Robles & now Santa Barbara. Because I believe the old adage a picture is worth a 1,000 words, I am hoping each will remember these vineyard sites, the differing climate & their soils well into the future. It was a start.
We actually left Paso Robles the night before after having a wonderful dinner with Karl Wittstrom, Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, Stewart Cameron (all from Ancient Peaks winery) & visiting Neyers/Camino winemaker Tadeo Borchardt at The Range, a very well known restaurant down in the town of Santa Margarita. (FYI–We had asked this chef, Cheyne Jackson, to do a “Taste of Paso Robles” luncheon at the January 2019 Wine Speak event along with noted wine journalist/long time, highly respected wine professional Randy Caparoso & legendary Master Sommelier Fred Dame. We were therefore somewhat familiar with his style of cooking which peaked our interest plus we just wanted to stop by to say hello). It was a wonderful evening with some really cool wines, which Tadeo & Amanda had brought along, PLUS some steaks Karl had brought from his own ranch. Amazing!
We travel at night to our next destination like this so we don’t have to fight any traffic or encounter any unforeseen circumstances, which might make us late. So, we spent the night in Buellton, right in the core of the Santa Barbara appellation. When we got there, it was like 65 to 68 degrees. And this is still August! It had been a long 4 days, so we planned to get a really good night’s sleep, as the next day would also be long & arduous.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, which included a young man pouring his hamburger gravy into the waffle maker–I didn’t know what that was about–but it sure created some fervor, we headed out to the Ballard Canyon, to meet up with winemaking phenom Matt Dees (Jonata/The Hilt/The Paring). Even though they were already harvesting some grapes & at the same time building a new winery, he graciously still made the time for us. I asked Matt because he has the knowledge/insights of the Jonata, Sanford & Benedict, Radian, Bentrock & Puerta del Mar vineyards. PLUS, he is undoubtedly one of the top winemakers out of California.
Ballard Canyon is generally warmer than either the Santa Rita Hills to the west AND the Santa Maria Valley to the north (& slightly west). To date, it has been very hospitable to grape varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet (both Franc & Sauvignon) & surprisingly Sangiovese. Sadly, it has inexplicably been surprisingly slow to gain the full media attention & notoriety it so deserves.
While touring the area back in perhaps the late 90’s, I remember seeing them clearing the land which was to be Jonata. What I found intriguing was in contrast to the limestone one sees at the neighboring Stolpman, Jonata is really inundated with sand. Lots of sand.
With the interest perked, I started contacting everyone I knew in the Santa Barbara region, to see if they could open the door to this project. I just wanted to see who was behind it & what the vision was. NO answers. I soon found out, Jonata was the sister project of Screaming Eagle of the Napa Valley up north. So, I started blindly writing to Screaming Eagle. NO luck. Dead silence.
Then one year when I was a speaker at the Hospice de Rhone festival in Paso Robles, the person helping the event with their PR, Dan Friedman, stopped by our table at the pre-event shindig for media & winemakers with some bottles in hand. They were all from Jonata. I was shell shocked. After all of the efforts on trying to contact someone on these wines, they were now serendipitously sitting in front of me. I asked Dan how he got them. He said Robert Parker had been there earlier in the morning to taste them. OMG. After tasting through them, I knew they would receive favorable, high scores. I then thought now that Parker had tasted them, I had a 6 to 8 week window to try & get them before he published his reviews.
As it turned out, I recall, Parker actually wrote about them & published his review in only a 3 or 4 week turn around. While I had had a little bit of success with someone connected with Screaming Eagle in the Napa Valley (sister project to Jonata), once the reviews & high praise was published, I thought there was no way, we would get some of the miniscule amounts of wines they produced in 2004.
Well, as it turned out we in fact were able to a couple of cases of this & a couple more cases of that & were so thankful.
After, we were also able to get some 2006 wines too, albeit miniscule amounts. It was years in between before we were able to get any more to the islands. Because of the awards & accolades just kept rolling in, I figured the demand far exceeded the supply.
Interestingly, along the way, they also started producing Pinot Noir (& I believe some Chardonnay), from grapes they purchased from the Fiddlestix vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, located just below the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyard, closer to the river. I thought the wines were good, BUT not on the same level of quality as those from Jonata.
Subsequently, they created 2 other labels–The Hilt for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir AND The Paring (a more value oriented label, whose core was essentially declassified juice from Jonata & later The Hilt & their top notch vineyard sources). I was so interested in BOTH. The quality of The Hilt wines was so much more interesting & intriguing than what I had tasted before. AND, the inaugural vintage of The Paring Red offered exceptional quality (all 200 cases worth) given the price. I knew I had to check out this project on my next visit to California.
As it turned out, after 7 to 9 days touring vineyards & tasting wines up & down California, we stopped by Jonata on the tail end of a trip, specifically to learn more about The Hilt project. In short, they were some of the most compelling, memorable wines we had encountered on the entire trip. Amazing!!!!!
A great part of their success I would say starts in the vineyards. And, what a line up of sources they had–old vine Bien Nacido, Dijon clones from Solomon Hills AND, they leased the front 30 acres on the right side of Sanford & Benedict (planted in 1971/1973, still own rooted), which they now organically farm. To that bevy of iconic, top notch grape sources, they also had purchased the Salsipuedes parcel out on the extreme western Santa Rita Hills appellation. Of this large holding, there are currently 3 planted parcels–Radian (roughly 96 acres, planted in 2007); Bentrock (roughly 100 acres, planted in 2007) & Puerta del Mar (roughly 5 1/2 acres, planted in 2007). I must say, Radian & Bentrock were as extreme of a vineyard site as I can recall seeing–remote, powdery marine soils & desolate, semi arid surrounding countryside with a relentless pounding ocean wind. (Whether that translates into noteworthy wine is yet to be seen).
In any regards, I walked away from visiting BOTH Jonata (Ballard Canyon) AND their Santa Rita Hills plantings of Chardonnay & Pinot Noir in awe, especially after tasting through their line up of respective wines. Wow! I was jazzed.
So that being the background, we now headed to meet Matt Dees at the entrance to Ballard Canyon. We were elated to see Matt once again & most thankful that he made the time, given the new winery construction & them already starting to harvest grapes.
We started off at Jonata. The gang included–from HAWAII–Ivy Nagayama (DK Restaurants); Micah Suderman (Royal Hawaiian Hotel); Justin Sugita (Lucky Belly/Livestock Tavern/ Tchin Tchin), Michael Winterbottom (SENIA) & my wife Cheryle. Also joining us were Amanda Wittstrom Higgins & Stewart Cameron (Ancient Peaks) & Tadeo Borchardt (Neyers/Camino).
The first thing I would say is their animal populations has greatly increased over the years–the goats, chickens, pigs, sheep,–OMG. Can’t talk about that too much though, as they are part of the working team that farm & keep the vineyard in shape.
The Jonata estate is roughly 600 acres in size, of which the vineyards actually are only a small part. Located 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, it is so remarkable that the vineyard is really all about sand. This is one of the obvious & discerning differences that separates it from the neighboring Stolpman & Beckman estates. The vineyard was planted in 2000 & their first release was the 2004.
While showing us the soils, Matt popped open a few bottles for us to try–2013 Flor (70% Sauvignon Blanc & 30% Semillon–1 year in 1/3 old oak, 1/3 new, 1/3 stainless steel). It was definitely noteworthy with lots of mojo & structure without gaudiness or any ostentatious attitude. He then served his 2006 Sangre (100% Syrah)–done with NO stems & 22 months in oak, 30% new. I was really taken by how this wine has greatly opened up & was strutting its grandeur in comparison to the last time I had tasted it. It was really starting to resolve its “baby fat” & show its peacock tail of gloriousness. VERY impressive. WOWZA!
We then head off to the Santa Rita Hills. First stop–Sanford & Benedict vineyard. Not to sound repetitive, but from my point of view over the years this is the consistently finest single vineyard for Chardonnay & Pinot Noir out of California. It has something extra to its mojo. AND, it has quite a long history (first planted in 1971 or 1973, depends on who you speak to) at being at the top.
Our next stop was the Radian Vineyard out on the western border of the Santa Rita Hills appellation. It truly is breathtaking in its remote, semi arid,
rugged terrain & location, as is their Bentrock Vineyard right next door. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for these two extreme sites. Tasting a couple of soon to be releases shows there is tremendous potential starting to surface, that’s for sure. The 2017’s tasted spot on & excitingly good!
Finally, I was really taken back by seeing Puerta del Mar again, having sampled some of the Ojai bottlings from this vineyard over the past 5 or so years. I wonder if it is the vineyard and/or the intuitive winemaking genius of Ojai’s Adam Tolmach which makes it so interesting.
The BIG news is, The Hilt team is right in the midst of building an incredibly well thought out, state of the art winery there for their wines. Should be interesting.
Thank you Matt Dees for a wonderful visit, vineyard tours & tasting some wine.