As the winemaker behind Jonata, The Hilt and The Paring, Matt Dees’ reputation as a terrific winemaker easily precedes him. Meeting him and getting a glimpse behind Matt Dees, the person, quickly turned into a fascinating discussion that covered everything from vineyards and sedimentary rock, to Rock ‘n Roll and cellist Pablo Casals.
Like his wines, Matt is wonderfully complex. He’s friendly, curious, intelligent, and serious…without being too serious.
He greeted us at the Hilt’s newly built winery at Rancho Salsipuedes, a 3600-acre property in the southwest corner of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA within Santa Barbara County. A welcome change to the industrial park in Buellton he was previously working from.
The very spacious, modern winery features a design that both accentuates the natural light while also being highly functional.
“The design is driven by a couple of factors.
Our other facility was tight to the point of being constrictive so we brought certain parts of the winemaking outside and then put in these roll up doors so we actually bring fruit from the outside in and we have a chute so we can fill from the outside.” The 2019 harvest was made in the new winery, but just barely—they got electricity in the nick of time and water was available only intermittently.
Inside the barrel room, everything is separate, they do Sur Lie aging without oxidation, and for the second time ever we saw oak barrels on rollers. The first was at Grgich Hills in Napa where they use them to stir the lees without opening the bung.
Matt uses them purely for efficiency as it allows them to move the wine, along with wash and steam the barrels all in one place. He continued to show us around, almost downplaying the new equipment inside these stunning new walls. “Our fermentations are very simple; we don’t do anything too exciting. Fermenting is fun and wonderful and mysterious, but eggs and concrete and stainless versus wood tanks don’t excite me all that much. For me, I’m just more about the vineyards.” And while we’ve heard many a winemaker tell us the same thing, with Matt you feel it on an emotional level when he says it. It’s plants and dirt that brought him into winemaking and it’s in the vineyards where he’s truly in his element.
As a child growing up in Kansas City, it’s highly unlikely anyone would have guessed he’d end up making wine in California. But as he tells it, he always liked plants and he was destined to be doing something with soil. “I was the kid during our baseball games, that the ball would sail over my head in the outfield because I was busy digging for worms.” As a young adult, he headed to the University of Vermont intending to get into forestry. He soon realized that to make a living in forestry meant dealing with forest management and chopping down trees which wasn’t what he had originally envisioned.
In his Freshman year, an engineer working for IBM reached out to Matt’s advisor because he was interested in planting a vineyard and was looking for a good student with a strong back. Matt put his hand up and ended up planting a vineyard with him at the age of 18. That was Shelburne Vineyard and to this day, despite working in different wine regions around the world, Matt says it is the most beautiful vineyard he’s ever seen.
So why leave? “I made wine there for a long time and I realized there must be a less cold, miserable place to farm!”. Cue the move to California which was prompted by Matt’s resourcefulness and sheer determination while sharing a bottle of Staglin Family wine with his brother in New York. “I was really impressed with Staglin’s wine and they had put their number on the back of the bottle. I called the number and said ‘I love your wine and I want to come work for you’. They laughed, saying not only did they not have their own cellar, they had no positions. I told them I would be there tomorrow and I just showed up. Andy Erickson had just taken over as winemaker—he put me in the vineyard with David Abreu’s guy and that was it.”
In 2004, Billionaire Stan Kroenke hired him as his winemaker for Jonata, The Hilt and The Paring wines. Kroenke also happens to own California cult winery Screaming Eagle and a vineyard in Corton-Charlemagne. Outside of wine, he’s the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets and Arsenal Football club among several other sports teams.
It’s thanks to this kind of financial backing that Matt has access to some of the very best vineyards in Santa Barbara County.
“We own all of our vineyards which is rare in this area but that for us is really the story of what we do.” Just as fortunate, Matt describes Kroenke as the type of owner that lets him farm them how he wants, which knowing Matt’s love for the land, is to the highest level. The name “The Hilt” is a fitting one as it is a nod to their focus on farming and the fruit. “We farm exceptional vineyards, exceptionally well.” It’s also a term used for doing something with maximum effort.
As Matt takes us down to the Cellar underneath the winery, he proceeds to pull out an extensive tasting of The Hilt across all 3 of their vineyards: Bentrock, Radian and Puerto del Mar.
It consisted of the full Pinot Noir lineup and all but one of the Chardonnays. As we tasted each, the differences were distinct and the quality in each was undeniable (see tasting notes below). The focus Matt has on structure in his wines is evident and it’s established purposefully right at the beginning. For the Pinots Matt explains that he’s aiming for what he defines as the “hint of corruption”, the hook that stretches you from sweet, suave and pretty, but then leaves you asking questions.
Interestingly, Matt was initially skeptical about single-vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays because the vineyards he’s working with are still quite young. He was convinced to do single-vineyard wines and is now a firm believer. “To do single vineyards, I think people forget that wine is about pleasure and I think having an interesting story is really important, but it has to be delicious and it has to be complete.”
Matt was also skeptical about working with Chardonnay earlier in his winemaking career, “When I moved down here in 2004, I had been making wine in Napa and New Zealand and if you were to have asked me then the top 100 grapes I wanted to work with for the rest of my life, Chardonnay might have been around 97 on the list, if it was even on the list. It was the whole “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) thing at that time. But now, Chardonnay is near the top for me because it can get a balance like no other.”
And for all the attention that Pinot Noir gets in Santa Barbara County, Matt predicts that Chardonnay will soon be talked about with as much regularity. “The Pinots here are astonishingly beautiful but I think it’s Chardonnay’s time. Pound for pound, Chardonnay is just as good as the Pinot and there are sights where it’s even more impressive—more consistent, more singular, more identifiable.
Throughout our tasting in the cellar, Matt has been playing music off his phone into the surround system, pairing it with the wines in a subtle, yet perfect way. “Music like wine is all about balance. It doesn’t matter what you’re listening to, if you’re listening to Beethoven and the 1st violin is out of tune, it isn’t enjoyable.”
His love for music is obvious by his range of eclectic selections and the energy that vibrates from him when describing what we’re listening to. We start with The Grateful Dead (once he hears Chris is as big a ‘Deadhead’ as he is), but as we start delving into the dark side of the Pinots and their “hint of corruption” it prompts him to put on classical cellist Pablo Casals. Very quickly you see the convergence of Matt’s intellect with his passion, “If you were to compare Pablo Casals with Yo-Yo Ma, listening to Yo-Yo Ma is like a dance. It’s smooth and effortless. Then you listen to Casals play the same thing 50-60 years earlier and it’s a fight—short, choppy, but in some ways it’s better. Whenever I taste these wines, I get a similar thing. Either they’re harmonious and lovely or they’re almost painfully, but deliciously, raw.”
Matt Dees is so innately in tune with his wines, tasting with him is an education in itself. It’s not only immensely enjoyable, it’s music to our ears.
2017 Estate Chardonnay
A blend of fruit from Radian, Sandford and Benedict and Bentrock vineyards. The maritime nature of these sites really shows through in the Estate Chardonnay. Flavours of green apple get definition from the brisk streak of acidity. There is a note of salinity which provides a good counterpoint to the fruit. Freshness is the main theme but stays away from the “lean and mean” that some winemakers go for these days. Nice texture shows the balance of this wine.
2018 Radian Chardonnay
Radian is their wild out post vineyard that sits at 700 feet and is fully exposed to the Pacific Ocean which sends howling winds through the vineyard. This site is definitely at the extreme of viticulture which gives intensity of flavour to the wines. This wine gave us pleasure and intellectual challenge as we noticed the wine change and shift from sip to sip. Stone fruit-driven, there is a good streak of acidity and a long and mineral-infused finish. After a bit of swirling we detected marzipan on the nose. Pear notes came to the fore after the wine had a chance to open. Very complex.
2017 Estate Pinot Noir
Black cherry flavours get support from hints of earth and slight mineral note. Medium body with medium+ tannins, this wine is likely to develop for several more years. The black pepper notes nicely punctuate the finish. Tasters looking for a lighter finesse-driven still will find plenty to enjoy abut this wine.
2017 Bentrock Pinot Noir
Notes of sour cherry and cranberry dominate the flavour profile of this wine. The red fruit flavours get added complexity from subtle hints of wet stones and spice notes. Great complexity. Give it a few more years to show at its best.
2017 Radian Pinot Noir
This is a wine that is full of character. There is something almost incorrect about it, something that you would not expect, that catches you by surprise but makes it all the more attractive. This wine is definitely not playing it safe, it is going out on a limb to make a very individual statement. And for us, that statement works. Terrific complexity and flavour intensity.