Dedicated to expressing a range of red—and a handful of white—wines from its estate in the central coast of California’s Ballard Canyon (Santa Ynez Appellation), Jonata is one of a new breed of producers throughout the world who are thriving with a non-traditional amalgam of varieties and blends. With a commitment in particular to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, and informed by cutting edge viticulture, winemaking and a polyface approach to their estate, the Jonata wines are on the vanguard of an emerging quality movement in California winegrowing.
Jonata is dedicated to sustainability from the inside out; a principled approach to farming. With its use of polyface farming—as first introduced to America by Michael Pollan in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”—Jonata integrates and revolves livestock (chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs and sheep) in their farming model, which naturally enhances the soil and health of their land (not to mention that of the critters themselves and the Jonata community!). Farmworkers are given a large garden plot to grow food for themselves and their families. Water is used judiciously and with precision. Herbicides and pesticides don’t even enter the conversation.
The name Jonata pays homage to the 1845 Spanish land grant, Rancho San Carlos de Jonata. At the time the land grant covered a large part of the Santa Ynez Valley. Today’s Jonata is at the heart of the former land grant. The Jonata name was borrowed by the first pioneers from the local Chumash Indian and means “tall oak”.
Out of the 586 acres acquired by Stan Kroenke, only 84 bear vines today. The highly sandy soil made the vineyard development intricate and the task was successfully done by Central Coast Vineyard Care Associates—the preeminent viticultural management company on the Central Coast. Forgoing conventional wisdom from the outset the estate was planted with a host of varieties that are rarely cultivated side-by-side, an audacious decision at the time that created a stir in the winegrowing community.
From the first harvest in 2004 and under the guidance of Matt Dees, Jonata’s winemaker, it became clear that—despite widespread skepticism—not only had the right decision been made to plant Syrah, Sangiovese and Bordeaux varieties but the meticulously farmed 84-acre vineyard could also produce extraordinary results. Encouraged by Stan Kroenke’s dedication to excellence, the estate has turned out a series of wines that have garnered substantial critical acclaim from Robert M. Parker Jr., Jeb Dunnuck, Antonio Galloni and Stephen Tanzer.
The Ballard Canyon in California’s Central Coast Santa Ynez Appellation is one of California’s most notable emerging locations for superlative Rhône variety wines; while few have succeeded with Cabernet varieties here, Jonata’s sandy site and its team’s winegrowing know-how have produced results that are widely recognized as the best ever seen from this region.
According to the USGS maps, the entire Jonata property is comprised of sand—namely a soil found in the area called the Careaga Sandstone. Yet there are a number of blocks that show different iterations of this sand such as the mini-blocks that possess a degree of a Paso Robles soil type to others that have loamy soils yet both possess higher percentages of clay than the other blocks on the estate.
And now for a word on sand…
Soils have at least three different particle sizes: sand (0.05 to 2.0 mm diameter), silt (0.002 to 0.05 mm) and clay (less than 0.002 mm). Most soils are comprised of an amalgam of all three—although there are certainly exceptions.
Sandy soils generally have low fertility, high aerative properties (consider the particle size!) and low water holding capacity. The latter two are certainly related…the higher the aeration potential, the better the drainage. Consider too that sand doesn’t compact easily, like a loamy soil will. One thing to be noted: the sand particles here on the Jonata estate are rectangular shaped, an aspect that provides for better drainage than one might find in other sand-based vineyards.
In the hands of a neophyte, the combination of these elements in a vineyard would be disastrous; for an experienced vineyard manager and a true vigneron, these qualities provide the opportunity for near-perfect control. And yet, in some way, the mystery of its effect remains unclear, which is something we don’t want to answer entirely. What does sand impart that other soils don’t? We know that it has an effect on the texture of our wines and that it creates a different tannin profile than it would elsewhere. This is the beauty of getting to know a piece of land over time, sometimes it takes generations. We are dialing it in, as it were.
There are some people who are educated toward certain positions in life and others who are born to assume them—and Matt Dees is what you’d call a natural winemaker.
Armed with a degree in Soil Science from the University of Vermont and Vintages at Staglin in Napa, California and Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, Matt has an intrinsic feel for wine, from dirt to glass. curious, earthy and experimental by nature, Matt’s approach to winemaking is grounded in the vineyard (pun intentional) first and foremost: attuned to the vines, the weather, the soil, Matt seems almost to be a part of the vineyard itself.
Not being bound by the conventions of the enological world of academia (no degree in winemaking here) has allowed Matt to come to an untethered philosophy of wine. Where Jonata is concerned, this is an important point: Jonata is an unconventional place that requires an unconventional, open mind to bring it to life.
Lastly, Matt has another very concrete talent: a keen feel for the shapes and dimension of tannin. Listening to him discuss the tannin elements found in Jonata wines is like listening to Buckminster Fuller describe the geodesic dome (which he invented), or like listening to the daring polyphonic construction of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Dees is a winemaker who’s emotionally and intellectually connected to structure, texture and tannin and explores these elements deeply in his wines.
Matt is assisted in the winery by Drew Pickering.
A native of Sonoma County, Drew Pickering always knew he would eventually follow his passion of winemaking. After completing his degree in history at San Francisco State University, he decided to pursue harvests at a couple of wineries in St. Helena in the heart of Napa Valley. He then continued his journey across the globe at Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough and Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay to further fine tune his winemaking knowledge eventually settling at Jonata in 2009 as assistant winemaker to Matt Dees.
Drew resides with his wife and two wonderful children in the small town of Solvang.
The youngest of 11 children, Ruben was born in a farming family in Guadalajara, Mexico. While most of his siblings pursued teaching, he knew he wanted to continue his family’s tradition of tending the land. Shortly after moving to Santa Barbara County in the early 80’s, Ruben began working for Coastal Vineyard Care. He is now co-owner and is well known throughout the Central Coast region for his instinctual approach to farming, so much so it has become his trademark.
Early on Coastal Vineyard Care was hired to farm the Careaga sand of Jonata. Sandy vineyards offer two keystone elements to farming exceptional grapes: natural drainage and poor nutrients, resulting in a vineyard that is difficult to establish and farm. Attention to minute details and a constant presence are not just a luxury, they are a necessity. For Ruben, sandy vineyards speak naturally to him. His intuitive approach, his ability to discover the vines needs just by listening to the sound of the leaves in the wind, and his working relationship with Matt are what make Jonata’s wines so unique: Wines with a sense of place, wines that are real and alive.
View our current release and wines from previous years.
Matt Dees of cult California estate Jonata tells Gerrie Lim how he came of age as a soil scientist who enjoys the vagaries of winemaking.
Tucked among the hills of Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley is a 600 acre laboratory where fascinating oenological experiments are carried out by Matt Dees. An alumnus of the University of Vermont and a veteran of the very different growing conditions of New Zealand and Napa Valley, Dees now presides over the complex winemaking at Jonata.Read More
On a warm afternoon in the spring of 2004, Matt Dees was doing something that no professor, no instructor, had taught him. As the winemaker for Jonata, in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, stood in a vineyard, he squinted a bit, and listened. He was attempting to hear how dry the leaves were.Read More
Individuality is the watchword in this still-emerging region, says Katie Kelly Bell. Visit soon for a taste of California’s frontier spirit when the critically acclaimed Jonata winery was exploring initial vineyard sites in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley back in 2000, it invited select experts from across the globe to advise on everything from vineyard placement to density.Read More
About a decade ago, a trio of wealthy men brought one of France’s most renowned wine experts to a sandy patch of land in the middle of the Santa Ynez Valley. With wine grapes on their mind, they asked the man which ones they should grow and where. After scouring the 600-acre property off of Ballard Canyon Road, Château Latour’s Frédéric Engerer located a scant five acres where grapes might work.Read More