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Tasting the New Jonata Wines From Santa Barbara

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 24, 2007 3:32pm ET

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.

John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  October 24, 2007 4:06pm ET
James, for a beginner his wines are not cheap, or even reasonably priced! In fact, they are outright expensive.
Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  October 24, 2007 5:14pm ET
Is that a $75 Sauvignon Blanc? Probably one of the world's best expensive SB's and from a new producer no less. Hmmmm $95 CA sangiovese or less than $95 Brunello. No brainer.

These prices are the perfect example of what is wrong with CA wine today - especially considering its the 1st release. I'm not saying they won't sell or aren't good but give me a break.
Anthony Clapcich
October 24, 2007 6:29pm ET
I agree with Jason. $75 for a SB is a joke. Besides the insanely rich troglodytes that want to brag about how much they just spent on an experimental bottle of wine, who in their right "wine-educated" mind would buy it? James, I know that you are supposed to stay objective and report only what's out there in the WS, but, in private, have you ever told one of these investment freaks on the side about the down sides of this kind of practice?
Michael Goldberg
Boca Raton, FL —  October 24, 2007 6:39pm ET
What about $95 California Petit Verdot, lol? There are many wines I can, and do, buy that are $95, most of which have pretty impressive track records. His LEAST expensive wine is a $75 Sauv Blanc.
Thomas Smith
Antioch CA. —  October 24, 2007 7:02pm ET
This is getting crazy,the wine makers up the price 20-30 percent every year. Guess they think $50 to $75 is the going rate for a good bottle of wine.Lewis wants $225 for the Cuvee L have to wonder what it tastes like, never know.
Chris Haag
October 24, 2007 8:31pm ET
Hey theses wines are a bargain compared to the $500.00 a bottle he charges for Screaming Eagle......:)But then it is only money and I guess the crowd Mr. Banks runs in can afford to drop $75.00 USD on a bottle of SB....
Kirk Wilken
October 24, 2007 10:05pm ET
good luck selling those at those prices, even with the SE pedigree. I agree with jason, This is what is wrong with CA wines...I for one am looking to the north in WA and OR for wines that are every bit as good and prices that are more sane. Give me a break already.
Wes Sircable
Fullerton, CA  —  October 25, 2007 12:29am ET
In the last days of the Nasdaq bubble, there were many happy campers willing to fork out $ 1,300 for a share of JDS Uniphase (adjusted for an ignoble reverse one for five split), and those "investors" can now fetch $15 for that share. Jonata sauvignon blanc '06 looks a lot like JDSU '99.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  October 25, 2007 1:03am ET
Even if I were rich I wouldn't buy any of his wine. Mr. Banks' pricing purely reeks of haughtiness and vanity...none for me, thank you. $75 for a Sauv. Blanc is basically tantamount to giving wine consumers the finger. Mr. Banks, you may want to reconsider your pricing strategy, unless your goal is to alienate what I'd imagine to be the vast majority of your (potential) clientele.

Sincerely, Brian Grafstrom (young wine lover who will never bother with your wines, even when I'm able to afford them)
Jack Bulkin
October 25, 2007 1:37am ET
These are obviously not wines made for everyone's palate or purse. Mr. Banks is committed to growing and bottling classic wines from numerous varietals. I give him credit for his pioneering efforts in Santa Barbara County. They are not priced for most wine consumers. I am certain that those who can afford these luxury brand wines will be pleased with these very limited availability wines..
R M Kriete
October 25, 2007 9:36am ET
Sorry.....with that pricing strategy, I hope he goes belly up!
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  October 25, 2007 10:09am ET
After reading this article and the recent article in the wine spectator, it is time to look elsewhere for cabs, will look primarily at australia and washington. Hard to believe prices continue to rise. Several years ago they talked of a wine glut, doesn't appear to be that way.
David A Zajac
October 25, 2007 10:21am ET
I never thought I would defend ridiculous pricing, but to some extent I have to agree with Jack, he is not aiming to sell these to the ordinary wine drinker that looks to buy $15 bottles of wine and drink them with dinner. The cost of doing what he is trying to do is high, his market is small and he knows all of that, rest assured. Are they for me, no, but what about those willing to spend $600 for one bottle of 2006 first growth Bordeaux? What about a bottle of 2005 Vogue Musigny for $2,000? Does the pricing really seem so far fetched now?
James Scoptur
WI —  October 25, 2007 10:40am ET
Off the current topic, I recently bought Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills Mt. Carmel 2005. One review i read gave it a 94 and said it could last 12-15yrs. I also read your review which rated it 89 and said drink now through 2010. How do i know how long it could age for without letting it peak and without drinking it too early. based on your review i have 3yrs and based on another i could have 12yrs if i felt like it. Could you help a little to clear up this discrepancy? Thanks.
John Meluzio
New Jersey —  October 25, 2007 11:09am ET
I'm sorry Jack but Santa Barbara was pioneered over 30 years ago. There are other vineyards in the same geographic area as Mr. Banks that produce very good wines at a fraction of the prices he is charging. He is not pioneering, he is selling to a select group of people that think if it's expensive, it must be good. I agree with the general concensus that this behavior is bad for California wine.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  October 25, 2007 11:12am ET
imagine if this winemaker was french! and from Bordeaux!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 25, 2007 11:18am ET
James, those drink windows are merely estimates based on one's experience. I'm sure that wine will age 12 years, especially if it's perfectly stored. But I think it will be at it's best earlier, which is why I recommend drinking it within the next few years. Here are a couple of items addressing the subject.http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Blogs/Blog_Detail/0,4211,644,00.htmlhttp://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,5077,00.html
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  October 25, 2007 11:34am ET
Wow . . . Interesting to read the comments thus far. First off, Mr. Banks is committed to making the Jonata property top notch - from the use of numerous types of trellising and block sizing to take advantage of different soil tyeps / aspects of the land, to cropping very minutely. I have had a chance to try two of the wines and they were very good. Worth the money? I stopped trying to figure THAT one out a long time ago - someone's bargain is someone else's overpriced fluff.What I can say about the vineyard is that it is in very good company - next door to Purisima Mtn Vyd (owned by Beckmen) and within a stone's throw of Stolpman, Larner, Harrison Clarke, and Tierra Alta Vineyards - all sites that have produced stellar wines from many different varietals . . .Can Mr. Banks succeed in producing great bordeaux varietals down here? He will not be the first - some of Sauv Blancs from Purisima have scored very well. Happy Canyon Vineyards, on the eastern side of the Santa Ynez Valley, where the climate is much warmer, has succeeded in producing some very good cabs and cab blends. And Babcock Winery has produced some great cabs from vineyards in Santa Ynez . . .All I can say is let's wait and see how things progress . . . And before writing the wines off, perhaps they should be tasted first . . .
Glenn S Lucash
October 25, 2007 1:43pm ET
Why bother Larry? I have tasted some excellent sauv blancs from New Zealand at a fraction of the price. I could purchase 5 bottles of those instead of one of Mr Banks'. His wine could not possibly be that much better. 5 times? If two Mercedes dealers were offering basically the same product and one says that since he is new he has to charge more, where would most normal people go? Sorry, but there are too many alternatives out there from around the world with plenty of access. The French are lucky that there are Russian and far east buyers out there who will buy whatever at any price for the prestige alone.
Richard Horvath
October 25, 2007 1:48pm ET
To expand on the complaints about the SB at $75 -- if it makes the top Bordeaux whites in terms of longevity, I wouldn't complain too much (and would even view it as a bargain). But, this is an unproven venture and strikes me as (once again) the irrational exuberance in the wine market (yes, I'm looking forward to when that bubble bursts).And honestly, I'm surprised that no one has focused on the Jonata El Alma de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley. At $125 a bottle, with the only descriptors being "[h]ard and tannic . . . showing a strong charry oak character," it hardly seems worth the price. It might even make the SB look reasonable by comparison....
Patrick Cook
San Mateo, CA —  October 25, 2007 2:24pm ET
God help us. Now Banks is going to be instrumental in pushing up Santa Barbara prices to the same insane levels as Napa. Absolutely what we don't need - I don't care how good the wines are.
James Scoptur
WI —  October 25, 2007 3:45pm ET
Thank you for the help, much appreciated.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  October 25, 2007 4:06pm ET
Interesting comments but in the end its all relative. I had a freind over for dinner who was aghast at the $30 bottle of CLiff Lede Claret I served (to quote him, this is good but it is not 15 times better than 2 Buck Chuck Cab). To my taste, its 15,000 times better!! He is obviously making a bold statement and if it tastes good, scores well and sells out this will unfortunately have the likely effect of encouraging the "I can do it too" crowd in SB (where, BTW, some stellar rhones are being made at what I consider to be reasonable pricing). Still, those prices are ballsy even with the SE pedigree. SInce I like SB wines and won't spend that kind of money, I hope he fails miserably---but thats selfish on my part I guess
David A Zajac
October 26, 2007 9:15am ET
Geez, pinning price increases on Mr. Banks seems a little harsh to me, if I remember correctly the SE price was already $300, maybe even $500 when he took over, either way, hardly a "bargain". Also, if these wines were made in Napa, they would be bargains at only $85 - $125/bottle. And as for him increasing the prices of SB wines, I have long loved the wines of Brewer Clifton, but when I started buying them they were all in the $30 - mid $40 price range, now...$50 - $75, seems like EVERYONE who is making quality wine is doing the same thing, and that didn't start with Mr. Banks either. Like it or not, until we stop buying them, prices for wine are only going one direction, and that is up.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 26, 2007 8:52pm ET
I too think prices in this range are prohibitive and loathsome (particularly with some of the blending varietals) because it's a soulless approach to business. But it isn't ill-advised.

To play devil's advocate for just a second, given the zeal with which collectors and fanatics will pursue highly-scoring cult product, all this guy needs is ONE great big score to FILL HIS CLUB MEMBER LIST TO THE BRIM AND BEYOND with people content to pay high prices for EVERYTHING he sells, just to be sure to get that one high-scoring bottling. And for that, we can't blame him, now can we?
Jack Bulkin
October 26, 2007 10:47pm ET
When Fed Banks across the World are continuing to hyperinflate the monetary supplies of their respective Countries, then pricing decisions will reflect the human element of Greed in pricing. When times get tough then fear will restore prices to more sanguine levels. Charlie Banks is an owner of super commodity in this Economic cycle. No reason to loathe him for doing what all others in similar capacities would do in terms of pricing his wines. If the wine is too expensive for you, trust me he doesn't expect or need your dollars anyway.
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  October 28, 2007 5:53am ET
I had the good fortune to taste a few of these wines from the 2004 vintage during a joint tour of Asia by the Screaming Eagle and Harlan teams. Personally I thought the Syrah La Sangre was the best of the lot and really liked it. The El Desafio cab would obviously get a lot of attention. And I was left scratching my head at El Corazon which, though interesting to drink, was pretty funky being a blend of every varietal in the vineyard (meaning both red and white).No doubt there will be people lining up to buy these wines although I find them a bit expensive for wines from young vines. I think I'd take the Harlan Maiden or BOND Matriarch personally...
Richard Horvath
October 28, 2007 3:19pm ET
Jack: Would you care to buy some tulips?
Jack Bulkin
October 28, 2007 8:27pm ET
Richard, I am not buying tulips or the Jonata Wines. I also, ended purchasing my Harlan Allocation this fall after many years. Just because you or I don't see spending that much for wine, does not mean that others in Hong Kong, Korea and other Asian nations, Russia or here in the States will be disuaded with the Dollar at all time lows and markets at all time highs.
David Cable
Santa Barbara —  April 12, 2010 6:56pm ET
Thanks for your comments on tasting the Jonata Wines. We just had them here for a hosted wine tasting and the Jonata wines were very well received. We poured the Jonata Cab Franc and the Jonata Pinot Noir. Both are excellent and well worth their prices. If you have not tasted them, it is not worth stating your opinion of their merits. When you tasted the Jonatas, did you also taste The Paring wines? If so, I would be curious to read your reviews.

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