A Natural Progression

“Viognier is great with turkey,” says Jason McConnell, winemaker and co-owner with his wife Suzanne Jahnke-McConnell of RIVINO, one of Mendocino County’s newest wineries. Grown at Schrader Ranch Vineyard between Highway 101 and the Russian River “Our just released Rivino Viognier has an earthiness and body that goes with the traditional Thanksgiving flavors,” adds Jahnke-McConnell.

The McConnells started making RIVINO wines in 2007. As they show me around their winery and we sit at a thoughtfully set table, which doubles as the tasting room, under the covered crush pad. I learn that theirs is a love story as much as a wine story. It began when a serendipitous meeting brought these former residents of Vancouver, British Columbia, together in Mendocino County.

Jahnke-McConnell’s father Gordon Jahnke bought the 200-acre Schrader Ranch in the early 1990’s and she has been involved with the vineyards for the past ten years. Born in London, she grew up in Vancouver, moved to Houston, Texas, and then went into the family property management business.

In 2003 she and McConnell were at the Mendocino Wine Affair at Fetzer Valley Oaks in Hopland. They were standing in line to attend the John Ash cooking class and started talking. “We discovered we were both from Canada and had both graduated from the University of British Columbia,” says Jahnke-McConnell, who has an attractive vivaciousness. “I invited him to sit at our table for dinner during the auction,” she smiles. “And that was that.”

“Jason and I started talking about making wine as soon as we met,” she adds. They were married December 23, 2005 in Whistler, Canada in a family cabin. “Vacations are easy since both of us have family in the Vancouver area,” says McConnell. Jahnke-McConnell, whose dad is a pilot, also spent time as a bush pilot in northern Canada. “The Ukiah airport is very convenient,” says McConnell, who now has his pilot’s license.

McConnell has a mechanical engineering degree and grew up “building houses.” After university he worked in construction management in Vancouver and transferred to Ukiah when Parnum was sold to Granite Construction. “For a year I lived at the Hampton Inn,” he tells.

In Canada, he made wine as a hobby at a cooperative in Vancouver. Jahnke-McConnell was also drawn to winemaking. “When I came here in 1998, we sold all our grapes. I was curious to find out what the grapes could do and had a couple of local winemakers make some wine,” she says. In 2003 we made some Chardonnay and Merlot under the barn ourselves and “it turned out quite nice.”

They both work the harvest. While he does the bulk of the winemaking chores from crush to bottling, together they work on the final tasting, blends and sales. “It’s very hands on here,” she says.

“We are a small operation,” says McConnell, “the tractor pulls up with the bins and within a couple of hours of being picked we are working on the grapes.”

They love having the luxury of choosing the blocks of vines they will use to make into RIVINO wines. McConnell points across the vineyard to their favorite Cabernet Franc block on top of a knoll. “We like the middle section of the Merlot vines between a giant oak tree and the River,” he says, adding that “the Chardonnay on the river is great. It grows these tall vines which we can actually walk underneath.”

Inside the winery, the aroma is thick with the ripe sweet aroma of fermenting grapes. The Cabernet Franc was just pressed and all the wine is in either stainless steel tanks or French oak barrels. He uses no oak and no malolactic fermentation in RIVINO’s white wines. He talks about how happy he was when they bought the chiller to keep the fermenting grapes at a low temperature. “Bringing in blocks of ice was really getting old.”

The Russian River inspired RIVINO’s name. “It’s our combination of Russian River and vino,” explains Jahnke-McConnell. It also means “river” in Italian adds McConnell. The oil painting of the river on the label was done by the artist Cameron Bird.

“I don’t know if it’s the proximity to the Russian River or what but the nutrients here make our grapes prize winners,” says McConnell, who is slim, energetic and studious looking with wire rim glasses. RIVINO’s first Viognier and Chardonnay won gold medals and the Cabernet Franc won a bronze at the 2009 Mendocino Wine Grape and Wine Commission competition.

They make around 1300 cases right now and each label has the number of cases produced and the bottle number on it. The two of them do all the selling as well as the winemaking. “I haven’t had a day off in over three months,” McConnell sighs. When something in the cellar doesn’t need attention he and his bride go on sales trips to the Coast or the Bay Area. Their first wine club event was in New Mexico. RIVINO wine is available locally at Sip! Mendocino in Hopland, Patrona restaurant and the Bottle Shop in Ukiah, on their website or by calling the winery.

Open by appointment, winery tours are individualized. “Visitors will get a tour to the depth of their hearts’ desires,” says McConnell. He will explain what grows here on the estate and “as much of the nitty-gritty about the wine making process as they want.” And visitors will be served a little cheese and crackers with the tasting.

If you are lucky, McConnell will serve you his “wine snaps,” paper thin cracker like wafers made with raisins, pecans, flax, pumpkin seed and a hint of rosemary. When the Sangiovese grapes ripen to the point of raisins he uses them instead of commercial raisins.

“We both like food and wine and cooking, says Jahnke-McConnell, adding that they love to cook Asian and California style. They have a big garden each year with as many as 19 kinds of tomatoes. The previous night they had eaten the last of the season’s tomatoes with ground lamb burgers seasoned with oregano, parsley, thyme and sage from the garden. They poured their Sedulous, an easy drinking red blend that is 69 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Franc and one percent Viognier. They also make food friendly Chianti-style Sangiovese and a pure varietal and flavorful Cab Franc.

The two already celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving last month with RIVINO Viognier, a natural with traditional Thanksgiving fare. It also goes well with paella and seafood, says Jahnke-McConnell, and with melon and prosciutto. They recommend the Chardonnay with roast chicken or as an aperitif before dinner. A tasting at the winery may include the perfect accompaniment of sliced Italian Fontina cheese.

“We are having a lot of fun and meeting incredible people along the way,” echo Suzanne Jahnke- and Jason McConnell at RIVINO just south of Ukiah.

Tasting Notes: Roasted turkey thighs, rubbed with achiote paste and garlic, and baked sweet potatoes went predictably well with the complex and fruity herbaceous RIVINO 2008 Viognier (Bottle number 1124 of 164 cases) I brought a bottle of RIVINO 2006 Sedulous (Bottle number 205 of 177 cases) to a dinner party where its all-around easy drinking quality complemented steak and tomatillo enchiladas.

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