La Jota Vineyard Co. was founded in 1898 by Frederick Hess, an immigrant from Switzerland, who founded a German-language newspaper in San Francisco. No doubt influenced by other European immigrants involved in California's burgeoning wine industry, Hess purchased 327 acres from a Mexican land grant – Rancho La Jota – on Howell Mountain to plant vineyards. He built the stone winery from volcanic ash rock quarried on the property; his first fermentation tanks also came from the estate, from nearby redwoods.
The rocky, shallow soils, abundance of wind and fog, and remoteness of Howell Mountain terroir were reminiscent of Europe where some of the best wines in the world were produced. Hess, along with other early pioneers, believed that Napa Valley could make the same distinction – and they were right. At the Paris Exposition of 1900, just two years after the winery was built, La Jota gained international recognition after Hess won a bronze medal for his 'Blanco'.
Prohibition effectively ended wine production in the United States and the market for Howell Mountain's superior wines collapsed. Although Prohibition ended in 1933, the damage had already been done. A few Howell Mountain wineries tried to restart, but none succeeded. Eventually the wineries were left empty and the region became home to numerous "ghost wineries". Half a century passed and in 1974 former oilman Bill Smith acquired the "ghost" La Jota Vineyard Co. and planted vines on the estate. Eight years later, in 1982, the revived La Jota winery was officially connected. In 2005, California wine pioneer Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke purchased La Jota.
Today, the winery proudly continues the centuries-old winemaking tradition of La Jota Vineyard Co. and produces small batches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay from the mountains. All these wines are among the top from Napa Valley and are highly sought after.
There are 28 hectares planted across three estate vineyards, each with its own distinctive personality. The Hill vineyard is the highest, sunny and steep. The Meadow vineyard is the largest and the Winery Block vineyard is located next to the original 19th century stone winery. The Winery Block is planted with St. George rootstock and consists of unique, phylloxera-resistant Cabernet Franc vines that are over 40 years old.
“The isolated, bucolic setting of La Jota’s vineyards and winery seems timeless, not a lot different than in the late 1800s. The people who have passed through here tell its history: the mountain was settled ages ago by the Wappo tribe; a Mexican general granted the land to a pioneer settler from North Carolina; a Swiss immigrant founded the winery; an Italian mason likely designed the stone winery built by Chinese laborers, and the land was planted with French grape varieties. That is the story of America.”
CHRIS CARPENTER, WINEMAKER