Matt Dees: The Innovation Interview

Matt Dees, Winemaker of Jonata shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and Jonata wines.

There are some people who are educated toward certain positions in life and others who are born to assume them—and Matt Dees is what you’d call a natural winemaker.

Armed with a degree in soil science from the university of Vermont and vintages at Staglin in Napa, California and Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, Matt has an intrinsic feel for wine, from dirt to glass. Curious, earthy and experimental by nature, Matt’s approach to winemaking is grounded in the vineyard (pun intentional) first and foremost: attuned to the vines, the weather, the soil, Matt seems almost to be a part of the vineyard itself.

Not being bound by the conventions of the enological world of academia (no degree in winemaking here) has allowed Matt to come to an untethered philosophy of wine. Where Jonata is concerned, this is an important point: Jonata is an unconventional place that requires an unconventional, open mind to bring it to life.

Lastly, Matt has another very concrete talent: a keen feel for the shapes and dimension of tannin. Listening to him discuss the tannin elements found in Jonata wines is like listening to Buckminster Fuller describe the geodesic dome (which he invented), or like listening to the daring polyphonic construction of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Dees is a winemaker who’s emotionally and intellectually connected to structure, texture and tannin and explores these elements deeply in his wines.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

For me, innovation is both an acceptance that times/markets/fields are always changing and an insistence that in order to succeed one must change with them or (even better) a few steps ahead. It is an open minded, yet driven approach to finding new solutions to ever changing problems. Innovation in winemaking is a balancing act between embracing the tradition of the past few thousand years of production and finding new ways to push one’s craft to a higher level.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

For a field that is near and dear to my heart, I would like to see restaurants take a more innovative approach to wine lists and wine service. There are certainly many brilliant sommeliers from coast to coast who are finding new ways to simultaneously give their customers what they want, while also acting as a guide to introduce them to new wine grapes, regions and styles.

There are always innovative ways to create more diverse lists, make menu formats more accessible, price wines with consumers in mind and use technology to make the whole process more seamless and suave.

Obviously, wine is made to drink with meals and we need to find ways to make drinking wine at restaurants a more attractive and enticing option.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

Make hay while the sun shines. My father told me that when I was young. It has treated me well. Take care of business, get your work done and be efficient. There are just too many other things to do besides making hay when the sun isn’t shining.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

It would probably be my involvement with the Jonata team over the past ten years and all that we have accomplished together. We’ve come a long way since the days of being advised to grow asparagus or make a golf course on the sandy property instead of growing grapes. We’ve taken an old cattle ranch and transformed it into a world class vineyard. It always feels good to prove the naysayers wrong.

More specifically, the 2007 La Sangre de Jonata and the 2009 El Desafio de Jonata (cabernet sauvignon) are probably the greatest tangible achievements that I’ve been a part of (my two children aside of course).

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Books: Physical. The feel, the smell, all that romantic stuff; I’m a sucker for that. Newspapers: digital. Who needs all that constant shuffling, refolding and smudging? I’m not sure that I’ll miss them.

How has not having a degree in wine given you a competitive advantage?

I suppose in some ways it has allowed me to think outside the box. I’ve got a scholastic background in plant and soil science, but I’ve always approached wine as a craft one learns through experience.

I love embracing the vagaries of nature, the joy of understanding a property as a living thing and the dance of working with wild fermentations. I would never deny that it is important to understand the science behind them, but I’ve always viewed wine as something more driven by passion and creativity.

What are your thoughts on Google Glass and will you use the technology to offer wine enthusiasts a glimpse into the winemaking process?

Great question. I have to admit that I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to new google glass type gadgets. As an aside, Google Glasses are those glasses that help you fly, right?

How do you market your wines without devaluing the brand?

With sincerity, an honest message and with complete conviction because you believe deeply in what you are selling.

In a world where counterfeit wines are ever-present, are you currently experimenting with any technologies to ensure the provenance and authenticity of the Jonata wines?

That is certainly a concern moving forward. As counterfeiting grows more and more rampant, we will likely be forced to consider some of the options out there. Nothing would be more frustrating as a winemaker than putting so much blood, sweat and tears into producing a bottle of wine, to have a completely unrelated product arrive in front of an unsuspecting consumer. I lose sleep over that type of thing.

What new innovations do you feel, for better or worse, will have the greatest impact on your unconventional approach to Jonata in the future?

Google glasses of course. Either that or new methods to farm vineyards without irrigation/improved grapevine plant material such as more drought tolerant rootstocks or completely disease free clonal selections. Not to get too geeky, but anything that would allow us to continue to farm healthy, disease-free vines with less and less water requirements on our sandy vineyard would make a huge impact. This type of innovation from nurseries and plant research centers could greatly help not only our vineyard, but also properties throughout the State of California as we continue to swim uncertainly amongst the increasingly bizarre weather conditions.