Building on Sand: How Jonata is Redefining Santa Barbara Wines

You won’t find a street address on their web site, nor will they show up on google maps, but Jonata (Chumash Native American for Tall Oaks) is a winery that will likely be heard a lot more of in coming years – if only for its ability to defy the odds. Indeed this Santa Ynez Valley-based winery, founded in 2000 by investment banker and wine lover Charles Banks and later purchased by real estate developer Stan Kroenke, didn’t exactly get a thumbs up from the team hired to evaluate its vineyard site, when the owners were looking to plant vines.

Better than asparagus

The viticultural team from famous Pauillac estate Château Latour was contracted to do a survey of the 600 acre property with a mandate to find which sites would support which types of grapes. Latour returned with a preliminary verdict: plant asparagus. The soil was so sandy it was impossible to drive a car over much of it. This Careaga sand, as it is called, ran 800 feet deep. It had negligible water retention and virtually no nutrients. It is a testimony to the accuracy of the adage that grapes thrive in the poorest soils that nine of the ten varieties finally chosen for planting are still in the ground and producing. The Bordeaux varieties are there, plus Syrah, Viognier and Grenache from the Rhône and the Italian grape Sangiovese. The one failure was Grenache, which produced poorly and was grafted over. More recently, Petite Sirah was planted.

Next door neighbors in this AVA (the diminutive Ballard Canyon AVA – approved only as recently as September 2013 and containing only about 550 acres of vines and 20 wineries) are Beckman Vineyards and Stolpman Vineyards. The flagship grape in this area is Syrah (accounting for half of the total vine acreage). Jonata produces a respectable example, La Sangre de Jonata ($120), which is 99% Syrah and 1% Viognier, and scores between 92 and 99 points from the major critics.

The climate profile is considered cool for California and harvest usually takes place in November (very late by California standards). Only 80 acres of the property are under vine and the near-barren sandy soils and extensive fruit drop mean that yields run at a minuscule one ton per acre, and that is from a vineyard with 3600 vines per acre (roughly six times as dense as elsewhere in Santa Barbara). That represents up to three or four grape clusters per vine.

Jonata may be a future business school case in successful hiring. Banks hired Estate manager Armand de Maigret, an expatriate Frenchman who had cut his teeth managing the high-end portfolio for Jess Jackson (Cardinale, Verite and Lokoya). Andy Erickson, Staglin winemaker and a friend of Banks recommended self-trained winemaker Matt Dees from Staglin (who also ‘moonlighted’ off-season at Craggy Range Vineyards in New Zealand). Also early on, veteran Central Coast viticulturalist Ruben Solorzano came on board.

High-end misfits

Perhaps the most surprising about Jonata is its ability to successfully break the Rhône-centric varietal mold of Santa Barbara. The 2009 El Alma de Jonata ($125) is 70% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot. It can stand toe-to-toe with any Cabernet Franc Bordeaux ‘right bank’ wine for complexity and power. The color is opaque purple. The nose is ripe fruit, smoke, and a hint of greenness restrained at levels that accent rather than detract from the enjoyment of the wine. The flavors display ripe, open blueberry and plum fruit. The mouthfeel has grippy tannins and a long enchanting finish. Given how extracted the color and flavors are, it comes as something of a shock to learn that Dees cold soaked the juice on the skins for just 24 hours. Minimal pump overs were done. It is an effort to get an appreciation of this terroir where the colors and flavors must be almost falling out of the skins of these grapes. Winemakers in many parts of the globe would kill for fruit like this.

It can be seen that El Alma is a varietal misfit when one considers that there are only 20 acres of Cabernet Franc and 9 acres of Merlot in the whole Ballard Canyon AVA.

Dees considers wines made in the vineyard. That makes Ruben Solorzano’s viticultural role crucial. He ‘knows each vine’ says Jonata Trade Sales Manager Michael DiGiovanni. Solorzano drops most of the bunches of fruit that appear so that the vine’s energy is concentrated into fewer grapes.

Turning to another contra blend for this AVA, the 2009 El Desafio ($125), which means ‘defiance’ in English, is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. The nose is densely woven with black cherries, blueberries and hints of herbs. The huge mouth repeats the fruits in the nose in an intense mass held together with grippy tannins backed up by a medium acidity. This wine garnered 97 Point scores from critic Robert Parker on release (a ‘classic’ rating).

The heterodox mix of grapes on the estate extends to whites. The cool-climate varietal Sauvignon Blanc makes up 69% of the 2010 Flor ($60) white wine. The remainder is Semillon (29%) and warm-climate Viognier (2%). Flor is a California Sauvignon Blanc with a distinctiveness that restores one’s faith in that state’s ability to make interesting wines with the grape. The nose is herbaceous and also has distinct guava and green apple notes. In the mouth, the acid backbone adds vibrancy to a huge mouthful of fruit and commanding body. It makes one wish more California Sauvignon Blanc makers would add Semillon to their blends. Solorzano’s role in the making of this wine is indicated by the fact that in 2013, no fewer than 13 passes were made in harvesting the grapes, in order to pick only the fully ripe grapes each time. Despite its retail price, it is unlikely the winery will break even on this wine.

All Jonata-labelled wines are estate grown, and output is now at about 3,500 cases. The winery also makes about 11,500 cases mainly from purchased grapes for their second labels: The Hilt, a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir focused label using fruit from Santa Barbara, and The Paring, a restaurant-targeted brand.

The 520 acres not under vine at Jonata are not unproductive. Jonata is essentially a full-blown arable and livestock farm (except for grains). Chickens supply eggs. Sheep and goats supply cheese and meat. Berkshire hogs (cross bred with wild boar) are bred for their meat and Michael DiGiovanni currently has ‘a rabbit breeding project’. There is also a 100+ tree orchard, a bee system, and a lake system. The whole operation supplies the over 50 employees with food.

Banks and Kroenke are perhaps better known for purchasing Napa über cult wine Screaming Eagle in 2006. Banks has now sold his share of both operations to Kroenke in order to focus on other wine-related ventures. However, the winemaking values that pervade Screaming Eagle appear to also guide Jonata. Maybe the winery will appear on google maps in the near future.