La Jota Vineyard Co is an old ghost winery built in 1898 from a white ash rock quarried from the property. This is one of the more historical parts of the Napa Valley (the first Euro-American permanent settler in the Napa Valley was George C Yount (namesake for Yountville) who moved to the valley in 1836. Mr. Yount was given a 4,454-acre Mexican land grant called Rancho La Jota from the then governor of California at the time – in 1843. Mr. Yount intended to build a sawmill here making use of the heavily forested landscape (still plenty of forest surrounding the patches of vineyards here). The winery was built 55 years later.
George Yount sold his property here in the 1880’s to a San Francisco newspaper owner. The original claim to fame from the wines of the property was a bronze medal won from their entry in the 1900 Paris Exposition. After prohibition the winery sat vacant until Bill Smith & his wife Joan (whose family operates W.H. Smith Winery today) purchased the winery and property. Bill moved to Bakersfield California from Illinois when he was 2 years of age. Later in life he became involved in oil and gas exploration – taking a job at Buttes Gas and Oil (based in Oakland), he soon moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. He then founded Montara Petroleum with several partners – looking for additional land investments while exploring the Napa Valley he located the old stone La Jota Winery high in the hills of Howell Mountain.
Bill & Joan purchased the old stone winery (dating from 1898) and property (40 acres) in 1974, and oversaw the planting by hand (with help from his family), 2 acres of vines. His first commercial vintage from this property under the La Jota Winery label was in 1982. Bill credits, one of his neighbors, prominent winemaker Randy Dunn as being an initial early influence during his formative winemaking years. Bill was the winemaker for La Jota until he sold the winery to Markham in 2001 which was then purchased by Jackson Family Wines (Kendall Jackson); they are the current owner.
This winery is surrounded by trees and sits high in the hills east of Angwin in the Howell Mountain area. It was completely renovated in 2003 and today is one of the nicer of the old stone hillside ghost wineries in the Napa area. This is an area known for intense Cabernet and perhaps somewhat surprising is Merlot (one of the prime sites in the valley for growing this varietal). They focus on these two varietals. Most of the fruit is sourced from three vineyards that are in close proximity to the winery. The elevation is typically over 1500 feet which is above the fog of the valley floor.
Due to the slightly cooler climate, hang time is long, with grapes usually harvested well after the valley floor fruit. The very rocky soil is volcanic in nature and has great drainage. Howell mountain is known for its reddish volcanic soil. La Jota also makes a Cabernet Franc.
All wines we initially tried were 2002 which was their current vintage at the time of this our initial review – somewhat older than most wineries’ current vintages. We really enjoyed the 2002 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Franc which is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. In our opinion, this is how a Cabernet Franc based wine should taste with plenty of fruit mid palate and good structure on the finish. The nose is complex with hints of cranberries and vanilla – with a generous amount of fruit on the palate along with a ‘kiss’ of oak and subtle notes of cedar.
We also tried a special 21st Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon. The “juice” for this wine was taken from only their top vineyard selections and is very representative of Howell Mountain teroir, earthy yet at the same time showing a refined elegance. The chocolate notes that you often find in Howell Mountain based Cabernet wines are hinted at on the palate. What really drives this wine however, is its’ superior balance.
The 2008 La Jota Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is a beautiful wine. Shows blackberry, chocolate, an earthy quality and as it breathes a floral note is revealed (rose petals). There is a balance that probably has been helped by time in the bottle between a richness of flavor and power of structure. Lingering sweetness of fruit , long lasting tannins and very good acidity. Reasonably price to quality ratio.
The 2012 La Jota Vineyard Howell Mountain Merlot initially shows sweet dessert spice aromatics including notes of browned sugar and burnt toffee. Given time, beautiful fruit aromatics start showing including plum along with lesser aromas of toasted cedar plank. A tartness of fruit lingers along with tannins on the finish. The vines that produce the grapes for this wine are over 40 years old.
The 2013 La Jota W.S. Keys Vineyard Merlot is 76% Merlot with the balance being Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark ruby red in the glass. Shows plenty of black fruit aromatics including black licorice complemented with an herbal note – perhaps green tea leaf. Shows a bit of dustiness as it opens. A very aromatic wine. Soft mid palate with flavors of blackberry – the dustiness from the bouquet continues onto the palate. Noticeable, big but still balanced tannins persist on a finish that lasts for quite some time.
The La Jota W.S. Keyes Merlot can be tasted by making a reservation at Cardinale Winery (in Oakville) or other La Jota wines can be enjoyed by making a reservation at the Spire Collection located north of Calistoga.