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Jon Nathaniel and the Fabulist: A father and son's new winery in St. Helena

From the Sasha Paulsen's favorite Napa Valley Register stories from 2020 series

‘I’ll tell you a story,” John Komes said. He was standing in front of a colorful painting that depicts Flora Springs Winery, which he and his family launched in 1978 in a pre-Prohibition ghost winery in St. Helena.

“We decided we wanted a painting,” he said, recounting how the family invited Cynthia Fitting, an artist living in Sacramento, to come to Flora Springs to talk about a project.

“When she was leaving, her car wouldn’t start.” Fitting flagged down an employee, just leaving the winery, to ask for a jump. Too busy, the man replied, and he hurried off to a sales meeting.

Fitting got the commission and produced the vivid, charming painting, which portrays the winery and its people — John’s parents, Jerry and Flora (who was the inspiration for the winery’s name); John’s wife, Carrie; his sister, Julie Garvey, and her husband, Pat; and the respective children and winery employees, all looking happy, except for one lone man up on a hillside. Standing among horses, he’s shoveling manure. It’s the guy who couldn’t be bothered to help an artist with a stalled car.

“She was an artist,” John Komes chuckled. “She got the last word.”

The painting now hangs in the entrance to the new Jon Nathaniel Winery, which John and his son, Nat, launched this year, after the sale of the Flora Springs winery — but not the brand — to Daniel and Florence Cathiard of Chateau Smith-Haute-Lafitte in France.

The sale was part of an estate planning move, said John, who turned 80 on Oct. 2, but it hardly signaled his retirement from wine.

He and Nat set about transforming the barn of their adjacent property into a smaller-scale winery where they could experiment with wine-making techniques. This is Jon Nathaniel Winery.

Jon is an acronym for “John Otto Nat.” Otto, John and Carrie’s second son, died of cancer in 2010 but remains alive in memory and inspiration for his parents and brother.

On a late September afternoon, we were at Jon Nathaniel to taste new wines released under the Jon Nathaniel label and to talk about the father and son projects they are undertaking, which include a new restaurant and lounge in downtown Napa.

“We have a full basket of eggs,” John said.

But first, the wines.

With John Komes, wines come paired with stories.

The father and son poured three Jon Nathaniel wines, beginning with the 2018 Lavender Hill Chardonnay.

“Flora Springs got its first recognition for its chardonnay back in 1979,” John said. He had made the winery’s first Chardonnay, in 1978.

“I was the winemaker at the time,” said John, a contractor whose interest in wine was first piqued when his wife gave him a wine-making kit. “I was not very good. We put the wine to the best use we could and gave it to all of our friends and relatives. They’ve never called asking for wine since.”

In 1979. John enlisted help from Mary Ann Graf, a pioneering consultant for winemakers in California. “She got upset with me because I was so ignorant,” he said. “She told me she wasn’t going to help me again unless I promised to hire a winemaker. So I promised her and she helped me make wine and we won a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair.”

Back in those days, he added, winning recognition at a fair opened doors for distributors who then felt they could sell the wines. Flora Springs was on its way.

The ‘79 wine was made from grapes they got from a vineyard they had just purchased on Zinfandel Lane. “It was unbelievable, and we’d never been able to recapture it,” John said. “But this new wine is getting to be more along those lines.”

The new wine comes from the Lavender Hill vineyards in Carneros, 10 acres he purchased 42 years ago and planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

“Chardonnay is a much richer wine than most whites so it leaves a bigger impression,” John said. “It can be a bigger good impression or a bigger bad impression.”

In this case, it is definitely the bigger good impression, the result, he explained, of “old fruit accents” and barrel aging, yielding “a good acidity with a softness to it.” It’s a beautiful balance.

Next, they poured the 2018 Lavender Hill Pinot Noir.

This was a variety John and Nat stopped producing after the death of Otto, who had been working with it on the Carneros property in the early 2000s. Otto was experimenting with clones trying to vanquish the “tomato leaf” aspect that plagued Carneros Pinot.

It wasn’t until 2015, that John and Nat found the heart to take up the Pinot again. They planted three promising clones, Clone 38 from Dijon and Clone 90 from Chambertin, plus the “suitcase” Clone 828. The latter, John said, had been smuggled into the U.S. from Dijon years earlier by an enterprising grower who attached cuttings to his legs beneath his trousers. It’s a feat probably not possible today, he noted.

The clones produce low yields of small clusters and berries with intense aromatics and flavors, a balance of delicacy and vibrancy, wonderfully true to the variety.

Nat, exhibiting the family talent for storytelling, noted that he has been told that Pinot Noir exacerbates gout, although, he pointed out, this was a tale told to him in Cab-loving Bordeaux. This Pinot, we all agreed, would be worth an attack of gout.

The final wine was the 2018 Fabulist, a wine Nat introduced as a tribute to his dad, whose stories, he said, have kept family, friends and fans enthralled for years.

The Fabulist is a Bordeaux blend, 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec and 3% Cabernet Franc.

“This is the flagship of Jon Nathaniel, what we’re really going to concentrate on here,” Nat said.

His dad added, “This is the reason we wanted to start something new. We had been doing Trilogy (the Flora Springs flagship wine) for years. It has a pattern that we love and other people love. We make 2,500-3,000 cases of the wine, a good lot for us.

“We wanted to do some fermentation techniques that really are better adapted to smaller batches. We wanted to barrel ferment the Cabernet, and so that now is the heart of this wine. This wine is so married to the oak that you can’t tell there’s oak in it. The fruit survives the oak and the oak is just a balancing act of putting it across the palate — the flavors are just married in there really deeply.”

It’s a labor-intensive wine, he added, “so we wouldn’t want to do it with something like Trilogy. We added a couple of blending varietals and made 100-150 cases of it. It’s so smooth. I always used to describe Trilogy as kind of a velvet carpet on your palate. This is silk.”

Here is my own thought: Mary Ann Graf would reassess her estimates of John Komes’ winemaking skills, if she tasted this wine.

Since it is called the Fabulist, it merits a story. When I left the winery, the Komes sent along the three bottles of wine they’d opened. That evening I was going to a small dinner party, the first since COVID-19, just five people, from two bubbles, sitting outside in a garden. I brought the wines.

While the two white wine fans basked in the glory of the Chardonnay, one guest tasted the Fabulist and took possession of the bottle, blissfully drinking nearly all of it until the others required him to share. Even the two white wine drinkers, red wine skeptics, wanted to try it, and they both said: “Silk.”

The Fabulist fan happily turned to the Pinot; and then he began telling quite memorable stories.

That’s how good these wines are.

“I had thought of starting Jon Nathaniel because the family wanted to sell the winery,” John said. “Flora Springs is still our day job. The new Jon Nathaniel Winery is small and simple. I’m very happy and proud of it.”

Wilfred’s Lounge

John and Carrie Komes divide their time between Napa and Scottsdale, Arizona, where, he noted, “I’m the only winemaker in town.” This is part of the reason he turned over the Napa restaurant project to Nat. “He needed a night job,” John quipped.

The former BurgerFi building on First Street by the Napa River had been vacant for three years when John and Nat Komes bought it.

“We explored doing a tasting room,” John said. “I decided there’s too many of them. I told Nat, ‘You take over.’ Next thing I know, he said he got with a friend of his who had been chief wine steward at Disneyland’s Club 33.” The friend had left Disneyland and opened a Tiki lounge in Solvang, California. A hit, it provided the inspiration for the Napa building.

Nat is naming it Wilfred’s Lounge, after his great-uncle, the brother of his grandmother, Flora. Wilfred had worked as a bartender in their native Hawaii.

“We’re going to tie it back to Flora Springs and the Hawaiian heritage,” Nat said. “ It’s going to cater more to the locals. It’s also a reason why my dad decided — does Napa First Street need another tasting room? My dad and I want to capture what’s going on in Napa and to contribute to it.”

Nat is talking to a Hawaiian chef for the restaurant which he anticipates will open next spring. “After COVID, people will want some fun.”

Summing up 2020

We were sipping and chatting a week before the Sept. 27 wildfires would explode across the valley. As of deadline, the Glass Fire had come close but not damaged Jon Nathaniel or the residence where John and Carrie live.

On Sept. 21, the 2020 harvest was the topic on every one’s minds.

“It’s a lean year,” John said. “We’ve been short on everything. We expected seven to eight tons of Merlot and got three. With Chardonnay, we were expecting eight to 10 tons and we got five or six. Same with Pinot Noir.

“It’s going to be a lean year and maybe that’s for the best because of the hot summer. This is a strange year, an unbelievable summer. This could make a believer out of you for climate change.”

“But no smoke taint,” Nat added. “We’ve tested everything. We pulled aside some grapes and we fermented a small batch to test them ourselves ourselves because the laboratories are overwhelmed. We can’t wait. We have to know about smoke taint before we take it to the next step. Rico (winemaker Enrico Bertoz) can get it done in five days.”

John Komes summed up 2020 thus: “We ought to just everyone go out and buy a Christmas tree and call it a year.”

Still, he added, “I’m always optimistic. There’s always something to be optimistic about.”

So speaks the Fabulist of Napa Valley.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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