Before he bought Screaming Eagle (along with business partner Stanley Kroenke), which placed him at the apex of the Napa Valley wine world, Charles Banks staked a claim in Santa Barbara County. Planting what amounted to be an experimental vineyard there in 2000 was, he said, “a total crapshoot.”
But it looks like he is on the path to success.
His venture is called Jonata (pronounced Ho-notta), after a Spanish land grant from the 1840s, and he’s just released his first wave of wines, which I tasted recently in one of my regular blind tastings. It’s an impressive lineup and considering these are his first wines, from young vines, the potential is there for greatness.
Jonata is a 600-acre property, with 83 acres planted to vines, on Ballard Canyon Road near Buellton, where, says Banks, French viticulturists suggested he grow asparagus.
Of course Banks didn’t. “I got lots of advice,” Banks said in a phone interview last week. “Frankly, it got to be a lot of noise.” Some suggested he commit to Syrah. Others warned against Bordeaux varieties. Ultimately he decided to hedge his bets and mix it up. It is easier to measure Santa Barbara’s progress with wines such as Pinot Noir and Syrah. But Banks doesn’t believe the area has been tested for grapes such as Cabernet, and he is giving it a try.
The Jonata Vineyard includes Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Syrah and, more recently, Grenache and Viognier.
“Across the board, everything [grows] pretty well,” Banks said, except Merlot. “It struggles and will be less involved [in future wines].”
The Pinot Noir comes from grapes purchased from Fiddlestix Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills leaving Banks actively looking for his own SRH site. “It’s fairly easy to grow pretty good Pinot (in Santa Rita Hills),” Banks said, “but it’s harder to grow great Pinot every year.”
Banks’ winemaking team is headed by Matt Dees, who worked at Staglin in Napa Valley, and includes renowned enologist Michel Rolland.
The stylist thread I found in the red wines is that are all darkly hued, intense, focused, balanced, concentrated, structured and very, very young.
Here are my general impressions.
Jonata Syrah Santa Ynez Valley La Sangre de Jonata 2005 ($125, 700 cases): Concentrated, tight earthy berry flavors, sage and mineral. Fine structure.
Jonata El Corazón de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley 2005 ($85, 870 cases): This Syrah-based blend is dense and earthy, with vivid blueberry and wild berry flavors.
Jonata El Desafio de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley 2005 ($125, 700 cases): A Bordeaux blend anchored by Cabernet with Merlot and Petit Verdot, it is generous, with plum, cherry and sage notes that are rich and supple.
Jonata Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Valley La Flor de Jonata 2006 ($75, 180 cases): Intense and complex, with, spicy herb, lime, citrus and green apple flavors.
Jonata Petit Verdot Santa Ynez Valley La Fuerza de Jonata 2005 ($95, 72 cases): Dark and extracted, with tight, hard, dry tobacco and currant flavors.
Jonata Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills La Poesía de Jonata 2006 ($85, 83 cases): Ripe and floral, with lively plum and raspberry flavors, and an orange peel.
Jonata Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills La Poesía de Jonata 2005 ($85, 174 cases): Ripe and zesty, with vibrant black cherry and wild berry fruit that's elegant.
Jonata El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley 2005 ($125, 315 cases): Hard and tannic Cabernet blend, showing a strong charry oak character.
Jonata Sangiovese Santa Ynez Valley La Tierra de Jonata 2005 ($95, 417 cases): Sturdy if rustic, with dry, chewy tannins and bright cherry and berry flavors that slowly unfold.