Matt Dees’ path to becoming winemaker at Jonata, one of California’s top wineries, took him across the country and back again. He left Kansas for college in Vermont, where he majored in plant and soil studies. During his sophomore year, he was approached by a man who wanted help planting a new vineyard that later became Shelburne Vineyards.
“Making wine in sub-zero temperatures and witnessing frost in the vineyards in September taught me that this industry was absolutely a labor of love,” says Dees.
A wonderful experience with the Staglin Family 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon persuaded him to head west for Napa Valley. He arrived at the Staglins’ door the same day the new winemaker, Andy Erickson, arrived. Erickson is now one of the most sought-after consultants in California, and he took Dees under his wing. Dees and Erickson made brilliant cabernet, and in the off-season Dees would fly to New Zealand, where he worked at Craggy Range with Doug Wilson.
In 2004, Dees decided that it was time to leave Napa.
“During my final days of the harvest in New Zealand that year, I received a call from Andy Erickson,” Dees says. “He told me that he had found a head winemaking position that he thought I should apply for.”
Jonata was a cost-no-object project in Santa Ynez owned by Stan Kroenke. Dees almost passed on it but reconsidered and headed south for Santa Barbara County. He joined legendary French wine consultant Michel Rolland, and they quickly began producing highly regarded wines. While some winemakers might have been intimidated by such a famous figure, Dees saw an opportunity to learn from the best.
“(Rolland) is a brilliant winemaking mind and has truly taught me so much of what I know about blending,” Dees says. “Every time I sit down at the table with him to work on the blends, it is like going to school.”
Jonata’s Santa Ynez terroir proved that the Central Coast could produce amazing examples of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, along with the more popular syrah and sangiovese. Not content to rest on their considerable laurels, Dees and the Jonata team took on pinot noir and chardonnay from the cooler Santa Rita Hills. Wines released under the “Paring” label are less expensive than the Jonata Estate bottlings, and include pinot noir, chardonnay, a red blend and a white blend.
More recently, Dees and team acquired the farming rights to 30 acres of older-vine pinot noir and chardonnay. The resulting wines will be labeled as The Hilt “Vanguard” and “Old Guard.”
“The Old Guard bottlings display a more earth-driven style for the pinot noir and a focus on acidity and minerality without the touch of new oak for the chardonnay,” says Dees.
“The Vanguard pinot noir is based on a clone that is defined by dark fruit and can stand up to more new oak, while the chardonnay balances ripe fruit, a hint of malolactic richness, electric acidity and subtle French oak notes.”
Recommended wines from Jonata and the Paring
The Paring 2009 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir
For the price (around $25), it’s hard to imagine a much better example of California pinot noir. This is a denser style, on pinot, with considerable complexity and length.
The Paring 2008 California Red Blend
Killer bang for the buck again. Throw this in as a ringer for your next “Meritage” tasting, and I suspect it will more than hold its own with wines twice the price.
Jonata 2009 Todos Santa Ynez Red Blend
This $50 red blend is the best introduction to Jonata. Crafted from syrah, sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the Todos blend is more approachable and almost as delicious and complex as the top Jonata wines.
Jonata 2009 Tierra Santa Ynez Sangiovese
This classic Tuscan grape struggles in American soil. Santa Ynez terroir has crafted a remarkable exception to the rule and a wine that marries Brunello’s aromatics and structure with richer California fruit.
Jonata 2009 Sangre Santa Ynez Syrah
In my humble opinion, one of California’s best examples of the grape. This wine is big, bold and grippy, and will only improve in the cellar. Sangre is packed with blackberry, spice and smoke flavors. Cellar well for a special occasion.