Local wine shop East Beach Wine held a tasting of The Paring and Jonata, a Santa Ynez producer owned by the same people behind ultra cult wine Screaming Eagle. I was definitely a bit skeptical given the prices--up to $125 per bottle--and the Parker hype--90 to 96 points depending on the cuvee. But the second label, The Paring, is more sensibly priced for a new producer in the $20 to $25 range. Moreover, their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are sourced from such vineyards as Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills, while their estate vineyard sits in Ballard Canyon. Ballard Canyon is not all that well known at this point, but there are some serious producers like Stolpman and Rusack sharing the canyon and there's good reason to think this location has the right soils and micro-climate to produce high quality Bordeaux varietals.
As for the tasting, I'm not 100% sold, but there are a few caveats I'll mention below.
The Paring 2007 White Wine - $20. Mostly Sauvignon Blanc with about 20% Semillon. Honeysuckle, orange blossom, toast, citrus and herbaceous aromas. Acidic, but full bodied. Hot finish that's not very pleasant.
The Paring 2008 Chardonnay "The Hilt" - $24. Cream, toasted nuts, citrus. Crisp and acidic, full body, fresh. Good finish. 1/3 new oak used.
The Paring 2008 Pinot Noir - $25. Smoke dominates nose. Earth and chocolate on palate. Good weight in mouth, medium-low acid.
The Paring 2006 Red Wine - $24. Intense borderline jammy cherry-berry aromas typical of region with mild herbs. Full body, dry finish with earthy/herby flavors. 52% Cab S, 42% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot.
Jonata 2007 La Poesia Pinot Noir - $85. Bottle just opened. Very tight, no nose other than hint of caramel. Good weight and flavor, medium acidity. Fine, but not showing much.
Jonata 2006 La Alma Cabernet Franc - $125. Tight, bottle just opened. More accessible than previous wine. Shows almost jammy cherry and berry with great jalapeno accent. Fine tannins show on mid-palate. Dark chocolate and herbs on long finish. Structured and needs time or air.
I was a bit disappointed to catch the last two wines on freshly opened bottles. Robert Parker rated the Cab Franc a 95 and called it the best Cab Franc in California. Is it the Screaming Eagle of Cabernet Franc? Perhaps. It wasn't showing great today, but the ripeness and structure seem spot on as it's a bit green and a bit jammy yet neither herbaceous or flabby. I'd probably buy 3 or 4 bottles of Longoria Blues Cuvee or Evidence, which are also Cab Franc based with similar flavor and structural profiles, for about the same cost. On the flip side, The Paring Red Wine was a solid value that competes on both price and quality with its peers in Santa Barbara.
An interesting side note is that the 'heavy hitters' in the tasting lineup weren't as expressive as the less expensive wines. While part of this is the structure of the wines (Jonata is built to last, The Paring is built to drink now), I can't help but think much of this has to do with the wines be treated on equal footing. All were popped and poured. There was no special glassware, decanting or ceremony for the more expensive wines. If you take away the ceremony (and, even better, the labels), the perceived differences between wines in different price ranges tends to vanish. That said, I'd still like to see what the Jonata wines would do with a proper decanting as that's how I'd drink any wine costing more than $15!
Winemaker Matt Dees made sure to point out The Paring wines are designed as food wines, while the Jonata wines are "California style," which I take to mean big, ripe and structured. Dees seems like the quintessential nerdy sort of winemaker. I mean this in a good way. He's not full of hot air, and seems like he's more of a technical sort of winemaker. There may be plenty of bluster behind the brand, but it looks like there's the right sort of guy handling the nuts and bolts of it.
Bottom line, I didn't really care for the whites on both stylistic and quality grounds. The reds were good top to bottom, though the Paring Pinot seemed pretty monolithic in its toasty, smokey aromas and flavors. The Cab Franc in particular has plenty of substance and is both true to its region and varietal, though the structure was too imposing to say much more than it's well-made with plenty of potential.