Karen and I were planning to revisit Santa Rosa / Sonoma County just a little over a year removed from our last ill-fated visit.
While working on scheduling appointments, I started thinking that maybe last time turned out the way it did because we were somehow being punished for not visiting our good friend and extremely talented winemaker Antoine Favero. I jest, of course, but I wasn’t going to take any chances either. Besides, we hadn’t seen Antoine in a couple of years so meeting up with him seemed like a great idea regardless.
We’d visited with Antoine a couple of times at Mazzocco in the Dry Creek Valley where the focus is on Zinfandel – and incredible Zins they are. But knowing that Antoine makes the wine for some of the other wineries in the Wilson Artisan Wines family, we asked him where else we might meet. Antoine suggested either Jaxon Keys for Rhone varietals or Soda Rock for Bordeaux varietals.
As Rhone varietals are right up there with Zins as my favorite grapes, I naturally said: “Jaxon Keys, please.”
Jaxon Keys Winery is at the southern end of Mendocino County. Lest you think that is far, the drive took less than an hour from our home base for this trip in Santa Rosa. Driving north on Highway 101, we passed Healdsburg and the northern edge of Sonoma County and found ourselves in the foothills of Mendocino County, then passing a few other wineries before arriving at our destination.
We met with Antoine in the private tasting lounge in the winery itself, separate from the tasting room. The lounge also houses the distillery but more on this later.
As Antoine knew that we were interested in focusing on the Rhone varietals that he makes at Jaxon Keys he set up a great sampling of what he does there with those.
We started with the 2017 Viognier, which we felt was a delicious take on this varietal, free from the mistake [in my opinion] that winemakers often make with Viognier – residual sugar. None here and we got to experience a clean, dry wine with plenty of fruit.
Then we moved on to the red Rhones.
We started with the 2016 Grenache, a tasty lighter style of this grape and perfect way to segue to the…
2016 Syrah – Antoine said that it’s the best Syrah he’s every worked with and that sure showed in the glass. My note just says “wow”.
We finished with a very interesting wine: the 2016 GPS is a blend of Grenache, Primitivo and Syrah. I’ve never tasted this particular blend anywhere else and I doubt if you have either. It turns out they work really well together.
While we tasted, Karen and I had the opportunity to chat with Antoine about the winery. The Wilsons acquired the property in 2009. Before that it had a long history, most recently as Jepson Winery, which you may have heard of. The Wilsons renamed it Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery, after Ken Wilson’s grandfathers. Total acreage is about 1200, with about 100 acres planted. Production is entirely Estate at about 2500 cases. Antoine said that like many small wineries that own vineyards, much of the grape crop is sold to other wineries. Antoine took over winemaking and vineyard management duties at Jaxon Keys fairly recently and has found an ongoing challenge as the wines become popular to balance the needs of other wineries that purchase the grapes with making sure that there is enough wine for retail customers and club members.
Since we were sitting next to the historic still, it seemed proper to finish our tasting with some brandy. Renowned [and now primarily retired] distiller Hubert Germain-Robin consults on this side of the business and the brandy is made in a historic Alambic Pot still from Cognac, France using primarily the French Columbard grapes grown on the property. We tasted through three levels of brandy [5-7 years old, 7-10 years old, and 15 years and older]. I enjoy brandy but admittedly have little expertise in it. But this stuff was smooth and tasty. They also make some very high-end bottlings as well.
Our visit with Antoine was coming to a close; it was harvest and he needed to get back to his real work. He introduced us to Jessie in the tasting room because I really wanted to taste the Jaxon Keys Zinfandels. Admittedly, we had come for the Rhones but I am the Zinfan after all. Besides, I already knew that Antoine’s Zins are legendary regardless of the label on the bottle.
Of course, I wasn’t disappointed. Especially delicious were the 2016 Mae’s Block Zinfandel and the 2016 Brandy Barrel Aged Zinfandel. We bought some of each as well as that Viognier we had tasted earlier. We wanted to buy the other wines that we had tasted with Antoine, but he had apparently shared with us what were pretty much the last bottles available of these wines. That’s what happens with great small-production wines. We can’t wait to try the next vintage.
A comment about pricing, which I rarely discuss. I believe a wine should stand on its own, regardless of what it costs. I don’t feel it is up to me to opine on the business model of a winery. That being said, I need to say that these wines are remarkably underpriced for wines of this quality. When I expressed that opinion to Jessie in the tasting room, she said “Welcome to Mendocino County.” Indeed.
Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery
10400 South Hwy 101
Hopland, CA 95449
Michael Perlis has been pursuing his passion for wine for more than 25 years. He has had the good fortune of having numerous mentors to show him the way, as well as a wonderful wife who encourages him and shares his interest. After a couple of decades of learning about wine, attending events, visiting wineries and vineyards, and tasting as much wine as he possibly could, he had the amazing luck to meet Eve Bushman. Now, as Contributing Editor for Eve’s Wine 101, he does his best to bring as much information as possible about wine to Eve’s Wine 101 faithful readers. Michael is also Vice President of Eve Bushman Consulting (fka Eve’s Wine 101 Consulting) http://evebushmanconsulting.com/ and President of MCP Financial. Michael can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.