La Jota Vineyard Co. Merlot 2017, Napa Valley
There is something special about mountain wines. Struggling at high elevations in rocky soils pushes vines to produce grapes with more depth and complexity.
Wines from mountain vineyards usually have a little extra flavor. The grapes get a lot of sun, but because they are at a higher altitude with cooler temperatures, it takes the grapes longer to ripen.
All of that gives them more intense, complex flavors. The mountain soils also usually impart a mineral flavor that I particularly like.
The La Jota Merlot is a great example of a mountain Merlot. La Jota also gives the grapes a lot more attention than most wines, showing what a premium wine is all about.
The wine is a gorgeous deep garnet in the glass, with dark fruit aromas. On the palate I picked up flavors of black cherry, ripe raspberries and blackberries. It has a nice, smooth mouthfeel with some minerality on the long, velvety finish.
I decanted the wine about an hour before we drank it, and that made the wine much more approachable and well-rounded. With big wines like this, decanting is important.
The blend is 89 percent Merlot and 11 percent Petit Verdot, all estate fruit from the La Jota Vineyard and W.S. Keyes Vineyard. The grapes were hand picked into 30-pound boxes to prevent crushing and then hand-sorted at the winery. After de-stemming and light crushing the grapes were cold soaked for 20 days for color, flavor and tannin extraction.
Native yeast is used to ferment the wine in a combination of open and closed-top stainless steel tanks. After a gentle basket press the wine experienced malolactic fermentation in the barrel. The wine spent 20 months in 91 percent new French oak barrels.
All that extra attention pays off because the La Jota Merlot is a voluptuous wine, perfect for special occasions.
The La Jota vineyard is high on a volcanic plateau on Howell Mountain, in the Vaca Mountains. The grapes from this vineyard usually are more approachable early in a wine’s life. The grapes from the decomposed granite soils of the W.S. Keyes vineyard bring bright fruit character and broader tannins.
Merlot is grown throughout California, but some of the best is grown in Napa Valley. I particularly like the mountain-grown Merlots, although many great ones come from the valley floor vineyards.
You might remember 2017 as one of the years with disastrous fires. Fortunately, La Jota had harvested all of its fruit before smoke could ruin the grapes.
I also tasted the 2015 La Jota Merlot that I pulled out of my cellar, and it was fantastic, even better than the 2017. That illustrates one of the nice points about Merlot: a good Merlot will improve with a few years of bottle aging. Many people think about aging Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, but they don’t think about Merlot.
Merlot is a great wine for aging, as shown by the great Merlot-based Bordeaux wines.
The wine is made by a first-tier winemaker, Chris Carpenter. He graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Illinois, and after some life experience and a business degree, he visited California.
He decided he could combine his experience and his creativity to become a winemaker. So he earned a Master’s degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis. In 1998 he began as the assistant winemaker at Cardinale. In 2005 he became the winemaker for La Jota. Both wineries are owned by Jackson Family Wines.
Winery: Frederick Hess founded La Jota Vineyard Co. in 1898, ten years after the first grape vines were planted on Howell Mountain by winemaking pioneer W.S. Keyes.
An immigrant from Switzerland, Hess established a German-language newspaper in San Francisco before heading to the Napa Valley with many other European immigrants who helped start Napa’s wine industry.
Hess purchased 327 acres of a Mexican land grant—Rancho La Jota—on Howell Mountain to plant vineyards. He built the stone winery from volcanic ash rock quarried on the property. His first fermentation tanks also came from the estate, from a stand of nearby coastal redwoods.
The rocky, shallow soils, the abundance of wind and fog, and the remoteness of Howell Mountain terroir were reminiscent of Europe where some of the best wines in the world were being produced. Hess, along with other early pioneers, believed that Napa Valley could achieve the same distinction – and they were right.
At the 1900 Paris Exposition, only two years after the winery’s construction, La Jota won international recognition when Hess won a bronze medal for his “Blanco.” Keyes also won a medal for his wines at the same exposition.
Prohibition effectively ended wine production in the United States and the market for Howell Mountain’s superior wines collapsed. Many wineries were abandoned and became ghost wineries.
Former oilman Bill Smith acquired the “ghost” La Jota Vineyard Co. in 1974 and planted vines on the estate. Eight years later the revived La Jota winery was officially bonded. In 2005, California wine pioneer Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke purchased La Jota.
Today, the winery proudly carries on the century-old La Jota Vineyard Co. winemaking tradition, producing small lots of mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay.
I love this quote from La Jota’s website:
“The isolated, bucolic setting of La Jota’s vineyards and winery seems timeless, not a lot different than in the late 1800s. The people who have passed through here tell its history: the mountain was settled ages ago by the Wappo tribe; a Mexican general granted the land to a pioneer settler from North Carolina; a Swiss immigrant founded the winery; an Italian mason likely designed the stone winery built by Chinese laborers, and the land was planted with French grape varieties. That is the story of America.”–Chris Carpenter, winemaker.
I met Carpenter at a wine dinner in Atlanta a few years ago and liked him immediately, in part because he is a fellow Illini.
He’s a former football player from the University of Illinois who decided growing grapes in California was more fun than fighting Chicago winters. He’s a smart man.
He also makes great wine.
Carpenter joined the Jackson family team in 1998 via an unusual route. He grew up outside of Chicago and played defensive back for the Illini football team, during an era when the team was good. He earned an MBA and sold medical products, but he also tended bar once a week at one of my favorite bars, Butch McGuire’s in Chicago.
As he and his friends explored the lively food and wine culture of Chicago, he found himself drawn to it. Finally, when his company wanted him to leave Chicago and move to Indianapolis Carpenter decided it was time for a change.
He had enjoyed a visit to Napa Valley and when he read an article about the wine program at the University of California at Davis he thought that might be something to check out.
He took that as a sign and luckily his fiancee agreed with him. After getting a master’s degree in viticulture and enology he worked in Italy and Napa before landing at Cardinale and the other Jackson family properties.
Through it all he has remained true to these two philosophies:
“Winemaking should be about place,” he said. “And wine is best made in the vineyard, not in the winery. These two things drive everything I do.”
Goes with: We had the 2017 Merlot with Greek food from the pared-down Greek festival in Augusta. You could drive through and order the delicious food you usually find at the festival, but you couldn’t sit there and eat it while listening to Greek music.
So we improvised. We brought our Greek food home and listened to music from my Pandora Greek station. It was almost as good as the live festival, and we had better wine to drink with the food.
The La Jota Merlot was perfect with my gyro. It has enough weight to stand up to the herbs in the gyro and plenty of juicy fruit flavors to make the whole meal a feast.
We had the 2015 vintage with hamburgers on my grill. I liked this combination even better than the 2017 with gyros. The deep, rich flavors of the wine combined with the savory burgers and onion rings to make this a special meal.
Other than seafood and spicy Asian food, I can’t think of any food that wouldn’t pair well with this versatile wine.
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