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A Family of Luscious Wines: Jonata, The Hilt, The Paring

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While football fans might know Stan Kroenke as the St. Louis Rams owner eager to bring NFL football -- and his team -- to a new stadium in Inglewood, vinophiles hear his name and get an especially tingly feeling. That's because he also invests in some fine wineries, like cult Napa cabernet producer Screaming Eagle and Jonata (hoe-NA-ta: it's Chumash for "live oak"), in the newly-minted Ballard Canyon AVA near Los Olivos.

Jonata caused a bit of a stir when it first planted grapes 15 years ago, thanks to a different batch of rich folks -- Charles Banks, who still is putting his money into wine, but elsewhere (Sandhi, etc.), film producer Arnon Milchan, who has worked on titles like 12 Years a Slave and Fight Club, and media mogul Gerald Levin, who brokered the merger between Time Warner and AOL. These high-powered folks all built a winery in their image, far from cheap but worth its price.

That's mostly due to the brilliant hire of Matt Dees, with his soil science degree from the University of Vermont, as their winemaker, who Kroenke has kept on since he took over in 2009. When Jonata first tipped the $100 price point for Santa Barbara wines, many assumed it was foolhardy. Then they tasted the wine. Soon Robert Parker was gushing that Jonata "was one of California's most exciting new wineries." With such cachet demand for the wines grew.

Luckily, Dees and crew also started making some non-estate wines at lower prices that have as much skill and taste in the bottle. At a recent event at the ever-buzzing Wine + Beer at the Santa Barbara Public Market, he poured two Jonata bottles plus three from the sister label The Paring and one from The Hilt.

The Paring is the chance to taste Dees' work at under $25 a bottle. Getting any Santa Barbara pinot noir for under $35 is a deal, so the Paring 2012 pinot is a steal at $22.99. Think of it as a Santa Barbara pinot starter kit: plenty of fruit, cherry and strawberry, but then just enough earth and spice to give it a bit of mystery leading to that next sip. Is that mushroom? The best mushrooms?

Then there's the instructive twosome of the Paring Chardonnay 2012 vs. the 2011 Hilt "Old Guard" Chardonnay. It's easy to think of the first as a pleaser, the latter the better wine. The Paring, at a mere $20.99, is a wine in which a luscious, soft mouth feel wrestles plenty of bright acid to a delicious draw. The Hilt, from old vines and already with a year of bottle age, could probably use even more time to age -- it's got bones to hold its complexity and minerality. It costs $54.99, and like many valuable things, it will be better if you can wait.

So while hunting for Paring wines is the bargain play, if you've got some money to throw around, toss it in the direction of Jonata. At the Wine + Beer tasting Dees poured two stunners from the 2005 vintage, 10-year-old wines that have got at least that long to go. Dees said they tried to hold back the big wines (in tannins and flavors), and wished they saved even more. The "La Tiera de Jonata" Sangiovese ($69.99) proves California can work with the famous Italian grape exquisitely; Dees asserted "the wine has soul, " and that's not just a winemaker selling his line.

The showstopper was the "El Corazon de Jonata" Red Blend ($79.99) that Dees described as "one third syrah, one-third cabernet sauvignon, and one-third chaos" because it's a mix of grapes (the wine is now sold as "Todos," meaning "all," as it does include every varietal on the Jonata property). That could lead to Frankenstein's monster, an undefined mishmash, but not in Dees' hands. It got hit with 50% new French oak, so that helps tame all the beasties (as does ten years time). But it's a true carnivorous wine, and not just because you want a sweet t-bone steak and béarnaise with it. It's wine you can practically chew, and one you'll ruminate over long after.

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