Harvest starts early in Santa Ynez Valley

Being lucky enough to be born and raised in the Sonoma wine country, it’s still hard for me to fathom another part of California growing grapes with a little less of the abundance of Sonoma and Napa.  And no I’m not talking about their red-headed step child, Paso Robles. But even further south, where the Pacific waters start to warm and the clad of beach bodies roam the streets.  Most know it as Santa Barbara, “The American Riviera.” To wine snobs, it’s known as the Santa Ynez Valley.

Being the amazing friend I am.  I made the easy decision to help out one of my best friends, Ryan, and drive him down the 101 to start harvest at Jonata Winery. The sister of Screaming Eagle Winery in Napa. Ryan decided to take a hiatus from traveling the globe working harvest in South Africa but mostly sight-seeing and partying anywhere and everywhere.  His connection to Jonata, is from another good friend of mine named Drew.  We’ve been friends since birth and now he’s the Assistant Wine Maker. Departing my house in Sonoma, Google maps told me the trip would take around six hours. Maybe it was the competitiveness in me, but I thought for sure we could make it in five hours driving slightly above the speed limit with limited swerving in and out of traffic.  That idea was instantly shut down when we hit traffic in San Francisco, a car drop in Pacifica and then soon discovering that every highway patrolman in California was patrolling the stretch of 101 from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.  So showing some maturity we opted for the speed limit and Pandora. And sure enough after the slow-paced, boring six-hour mark hit we pulled off on the Avenue of Flags exit and made our way over to the winery to meet up with Drew, Matt the winemaker and Natalie, a Kiwi who’s interning for the harvest.

As Ryan and I pulled up the driveway and wanted to get out to stretch our legs, Drew looks at us and says, “Okay, follow us. We need to sample some Pinot.”  Not even, Hey how’s it going?-How was the drive?-Do you need to use the bathroom? Drew, already in Harvest mode had no time for us to stop. The sun was dropping and samples were needed today. Now, for me being one who plays football for a living, I’m used to people coming to visit and watch me work while they’re on vacation. I was ready to return the experience with plenty of wine drinking and cheering following Drew and Ryan around the winery for a few days.  But instead, when Drew hit me with a voice of action, of course I jumped right into work mode and forgot the whole vacation idea.

With my dash blinking a warning of Low Fuel, I agreed to head out into the hills. I was pretty sure we had enough diesel in the tank to get out there and back. After another fifteen minutes of driving up and down hills, from streetlights to stop signs, two-lane roads to country roads, we finally made it to our vineyard destination where I was able to jump out and stretch my legs yet more importantly I proved myself as being half camel.

Pit stop for Pinot! We finally made it. Time to get samples. Santa Maria valley, the next mountain range west from Santa Ynez is also full of vines.  Mostly chardonnay on the valley floor and some pinot noir tucked away into pockets of the foot hills protected from weather. Several wineries call this place home.  None that we were going to stop at.

The 2012 Jonata gang heads up the hill to take samples. The nets protect the fruit from birds and other animals.

And sometimes from a foraging winemaker and his helpers. This is Matt, the head winemaker at Jonata.  Head down, always working.

My good friend Drew is the Assistant Winemaker of Jonata. After pulling pinot samples from different areas of the vine block it was time to head to the next spot.  Drew is pointing where we must drive.

Down into the valley, crossing several dry creeks, then up the other side of the valley. Next stop, the top of the mountain. Luckily I had my Chevy Duramax itching to get dirty and do some four-wheeling after a grueling long distance journey. I had so much fun off-road, I forgot to take a picture.

I knew the view was going to be amazing once we made it up the other side. But I didn’t think I was going to find a spot of Zen. Notice the vineyards in the distance.  That is where we started. It’s unbelievable to think vines could grow in such an arid place where the soil consists more of diatomaceous earth than actual nutrients.

The views were absolutely amazing from up top. You could also feel a slight ocean breeze rushing over the hills.

After gathering all samples needed, we made our way back down the hill.  Ryan and I became dusted out and blinded of the trail. Of course we then lost the others in their truck.  A calculated decision so we didn’t fall off a cliff, I stopped and waited for the dust to dissipate before traversing in my truck back down to the creek. When we reached the creek, we floored it across spraying rocks and sand everywhere trying to catch back up to the others who seemed to vanish into thin air.  When we made it back to the road the gate was locked, and the others were nowhere to be found.  No cell service, very little fuel, no lock code, not really having an idea where we are, and Ryan’s uncontrollable irritability was setting in. Pretty much a perfect mixture for the beginning of a horror story.

Luckily a text from Drew made it through to my phone and we decided it was best we meet back at the winery since they took the easy way down, staying on the road up top on the hill, a quicker route back to town.  As we set off my first goal was to find a gas station selling diesel.  Not as easy as you think. Next time your on the road check how many stations you pass before you see one offering the unrefined truck blood.  After finding a Shell station and paying almost five dollars a gallon, I wiped my forehead of sweat, we dispersed in search of the winery.

After meeting back up with Drew, he took us through Solvang and gave us a quick tour of his and Kiri’s awesome  house they recently purchased.  Afterwards, we headed to the Jonata Winery Ranch to find our living quarters and prepare dinner.

Grilled chicken, chorizo and steak. Hot peppers, rice, and tomatillos.  A mighty feast mixed with great vino was absolutely perfect for the first night at the cottage.

With our bellies full, it was time to relax by the fire and drink some more Jonata wine. I definitely fell in love with their Pinot Noir. Which at this point made no better way to stare up at the Milky Way than by a fire pit with wine in hand.

The dining table outside was picture perfect.  The fire pit above is just out of the frame to the right.  The hanging lights kept the mood light yet still the stars to shine bright. If I lived in this cottage, you would see me out here every night. This is a setting I’m going to miss and someday emulate when I build my dream home.

The next morning I went down to meet the two Great Pyrenees guarding the goats and sheep. The best watch dogs any animal could ask for. A little later I found out that they don’t even have names. Therefore, I take this time to name them Walter of Solvang and Barnstable the Great. (Now those are dog names.)

Not soon after we left the cottage and headed to the winery.  With everyone doing tasks and staying busy, I decided this was a perfect time to snap a couple of photos. This one is of the first harvest of Sauvignon Blanc.

My good friends Drew and Ryan are discussing different tasks for the day.  The list was long but when we completed it we were able to go home for the night. Maybe even drink some more wine.

Even though the winery itself seems very small in working space compared to larger wineries. Matt and Drew have put every square inch of space to use and have kept the whole place working efficient yet sometimes it might look like a disaster waiting to happen. I’m sure its just the way they like it.

Not only that day were we cleaning and preparing tanks, bringing in grapes to press, and re-racking barrels.  We also had the bottling line running The Hilt chardonnay, a second label to Jonata Winery.

The might of this small bladder press reminds me of the Little Engine That Could.  This press is slow, ran all day and never stopped. Needless to say it does its job well and gets the juice out of the grapes. A hefty task lifting bins all day. A perfect fit for Natalie.

A good vantage point to see the tanks is from the catwalk surrounding other tanks. Ryan was lucky enough to be given the task to sanitize the tanks and get them ready to fill.  The small hoses are for sanitizing.  The larger hoses are for freshly pressed grape juice.

Back at the ranch, I wanted to capture all the different life. This is Tyson the dog.  He runs the ranch and keeps everyone and everything in order. Without him, I’m pretty sure the whole ranch would be lost.

The pig pen is huge with rocks and wooden structures to climb and move.  The pigs seem pretty content here especially when they receive their daily muck of vegetables from the garden and the skins left over after the press.

Above the olive orchard is where you could find the ranch turkeys.  Big and ugly as ever, they’ll still responded to my horrible attempt at making a turkey call.

By mid day it can get a little toasty.  It’s nice to see the two guard dogs, Walter and Barnstable are now more worried about themselves than their livestock.

The chicken coop is massive with several different coops next to each other. There might be plenty of hens laying eggs every day and night.  But there is only one strutting Big Red.

The Cottage lies near the beginning of the property.  Most of the vineyards are in the hills behind and the farm part of the ranch surrounds the cottage. Lucky me, this is where I stayed during the visit.

The garden is amazing and massive.  Everything you see was grown from seed.  There are many crazy varietals of your normal vegetables.  Most things they let keep growing since it will feed the pigs. But the heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillos, corn, peppers, and others goods are for the workers and whoever is living in the cottage since its only steps away.

After a late night excursion into the garden with the use of headlamps and grocery bags.  We came out with lots of amazing veggies.  Only if I could get my own garden to start producing like this one.

Just off the cottage is the olive orchard.  Several hundred trees are harvested each year to make olive oil which is bottled in-house as well. I can only wish that someday my olive trees will look this amazing. Catching a pattern?

Beyond the olive orchard is the beginning of the vines.  25 separate blocks with 13 different varietals being grown.  Endless opportunities to make amazing blends. I hope someday my vineyard….. just kidding.

By the time I made it up to this part of the ranch, the fog was starting to disperse but lingered just enough to make it feel as if I were all alone.  Very quiet and surreal, only to be broken by the distant calls of a red tailed hawk.

The view from the top of the ranch and by no means the end of the property. Look closely and you will find plenty of vines down the valley to the left. The house in view is known as “The Big House.” Much larger than the cottage but also a place to stay when you come and visit.

Down to the right from the big house brings you to the man-made reservoir. It is a perfect place to sleep under the stars or soak up the sun during a day off.

There are several cabins for over-nighters and an exceptionally large barbecue and fire pit as well. The reservoir is set up for only one reason; To have a good time.

The dock is perfect for jumping off of or casting a fishing line far out into the water.  Smallmouth bass and bluegills roam these waters.

The flowers along the water’s edge are very beautiful and do a great job enhancing the beauty of the Jonata ranch

On my way back to the cottage I had to stop where Drew and his better half, Kiri, married last year.  Such a perfect setting in the vineyards.  Very beautiful.

All in all, I’m very happy I was able to make this journey.  Not only to lend a hand to a few good friends, but come witness a little slice of Wine Country Heaven.  Thanks, Matt and Drew!