Jaxon Keys

Jaxon Keys: Winery and Distillery

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Jaxon Keys may be one of Mendocino County’s newest wineries but its new winemaker Fred Nickel brings a wealth of local experience. Although Nickel has been at Jaxon Keys for just three months his tenure in the wine industry spans the last three decades of Mendocino’s winery growth and development.

Nestled against the western hills, along Highway 101 north of Hopland, Jaxon Keys Winery and Distillery was bonded in 1983 and known for the last twenty years as Jepson Vineyards. It is home to Hopland’s newest tasting room in the picturesque farmhouse perched on a knoll alongside Highway 101. Jaxon Keys’ story includes the evolution of vineyards where at first only white and then also red grapes are grown. Some are transformed from wine into brandy in the only winery in the United States with an alembic still.

Catching up with Nickel during crush means following him around the winery. He and cellar master Fernando Chavez are moving hoses, transferring wine and cleaning tanks to refill with the new vintage. In the background, the beat of pumping hoses keeps time with blaring rock and roll music amidst an intoxicating aroma of fermenting grapes.

Two days before the first storm of the season all the grapes at Jaxon Keys aren’t yet in. “I’m praying it doesn’t start raining until five pm on Monday,” says Nickel taking a breather to sit down while keeping watch on a timer. “We are 380 tons into a 450 ton harvest and I’d be able to get in what won’t get hurt by the forecasted deluge--like the last of the Syrah and Zinfandel,” he says. Nickel has a devilish twinkle enhanced by a youthful playfulness that belies his 52 years. His upbeat attitude has served him well through all the juggling that goes with winemaking from vintage to vintage.

“Where did he grow up?” “I haven’t,” he laughs. He was born in Brunswick, Georgia. The son of a Lt. Commander aviator in the Navy, he lived in Coronado, California, until he was 11 when his dad retired and moved the family to Fresno.

After high school Nickel followed his sister to UC Davis and started off majoring in viticulture. When he had the opportunity to take a class on winemaking that was offered for non-ag majors, “I took it and decided winemaking was a lot more fun,” he says. Then he took a year off and through a roommate’s connections discovered Mendocino County. In 1979 he worked the harvest at Fetzer with the late Barney Fetzer, Paul Dolan and the rest of the Fetzer clan which was making wine in Redwood Valley. He went back to school and then returned to Mendocino County.

Through the 1980s, when wineries were sprouting up in Mendocino and Lake Counties, Nickel worked with some of the best. In addition to the Fetzers, he had a stint with Mendocino’s wine patriarch John Parducci. He become Jess Jackson’s first winemaker and oversaw the construction of the original Kendall-Jackson winery in Lake County. He worked with the late Jess Tidwell, founder of Parsons Creek. “We made really nice sparkling wine,” he recalls fondly. “I was a champagne maker,” he says, adding that he never understood why it was called a luxury beverage when “it was a staple in my life and it was fun to make.”

After a fire decimated Parsons Creek in the early 1985, Nickel worked at Tijsseling Winery in McNab Valley, which is now McNab Ridge winery. In 1997 Nickel “stumbled into the Brutocaos” and became the winemaker at their winery in Hopland until 2008. “That was a brutal year for the business,” he says, adding that even his positive energy was challenged by the relentless frost that killed so much of the crop. Then came the weeks of smoke from the Lightning fires. “The whole year was freaky,” says Nickel. He decided it was time for him to move on. He spent time at home with his wife Gina who works in the Mendocino County Public Defender’s office and teenage daughters Samantha and Nicole.

His eight month sabbatical ended when he was hired as winemaker at Jaxon Keys in mid August just as the grapes were ready for harvest. “I didn’t even know how to turn off the alarm system the first day I used my new key to get in,” he laughs. Two months later the pace is hectic but he says, “I was made for this place.”

The owners of the beautiful 1200-acre ranch that crosses Highway 101 are Ken and Diane Wilson. The Wilsons started out as vineyard owners in Sonoma County and realized their dream of producing estate grown wines when they started Wilson Winery in 1993. They have subsequently purchased other high end artisan wineries with estate vineyards, which now include Mazzocco, Matrix, and deLormier/Mosaic. In addition they also are remodeling the old Soda Rock winery in Alexander Valley.

The Wilsons named Jaxon Keys after their respective grandparents, Jack Wilson and Cecil Keys. The ranch is part of the old Mexican land grant awarded to John McGlashen, a Scottish immigrant who named the estate “Burnee Hill Ranch” meaning “house on a hill.”

The eye-catching house on the hill originally built in the 1850s has been remodeled and transformed into Jaxon Keys tasting room. A handicapped parking space or two are located at the house level. Everyone else will have the pleasure of climbing 40 beautiful wide stone steps to the grand porch wrapped around the farmhouse tasting room.

Inside the tasting room the walls are painted a contemporary pale green and an old looking handcrafted bar lines one wall. Easy chairs and a fireplace make the setting as inviting for winter tasters as the Adirondack chairs and iron tables on the outside porch and south facing deck seduce warm weather visitors. On the weekends you’re as often as not to find the affable Dave Johnson pouring tastes. He has worked in the tasting room on this location for 17 years.

In addition to Sauvignon Blanc, which has an affinity for this ranch’s terroir and has always been a local favorite, Jaxon Keys makes Chardonnay, Zinfandel from different vineyard blocks, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. And Jaxon Key’s aged brandy made in the copper still next to the winery wins competitions against France’s prized cognac. “It’s made from our 45-year-old Colombard vineyard on the east side of the highway,” says Nickel.

“During harvest I’m cognizant of what each varietal is doing in my young relationship with every block of vines,” says Nickel. He already sees changes ahead such as spreading compost on the Zinfandel, Syrah and Grenache. The objective is sustainability, planting new riparian corridors and moving the vineyard in an organic direction. “Mostly I want to bring the vines up to their true potential,” says Nickel, “then step back and let the wine do its thing.”

Speaking of which, he announces, “the Syrah is calling my name.” We head back to the winery. Out on the crush pad a cellar worker sings Mexican ballads and rakes out the conveyors. The leftover stems and seeds drop into tubs loaded on a forklift. We peek under the covers of small fermentation bins filled with aromatic Syrah. The “cap” of skins that rises to the top will soon get a “punch down” to impart their flavor and tannins to the grape juice.

As Nickel returns to his winemaking we pass an open door and glimpse the distinctive copper still, in which some of the wine he makes this harvest will be distilled into brandy in the winter. Nickel in wine-stained shirt and shorts and still immersed in long days getting grapes from harvest through fermentation is already looking forward to the winter months. “That’s when you make brandy,” he chortles. He’s clearly in his element at Jaxon Keys.

TASTING NOTES: Jaxon Keys 2007 Petite Sirah is full of ripe prune and chocolate-y aromas with a round mouthful of flavor. It was lovely with lamb stew in rich reduced sauce with tender potatoes and chunky carrots from the garden.

For more information on Jaxon Keys contact the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.truemendocinowine.com or www.jaxonkeys.com.

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

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