Meet Jason and Janu Goelz, Two Winemakers in California’s ‘second-least-known AVA’

Last summer, I was invited to judge for my first time at the Central Coast Wine Competition 2018. When it came time to the final round, we were voting for the Best White Wine and ended up selecting a Grenache Blanc. After the competition was over, we all went into the back to see what the wine was that won. It was the Alara Cellars 2017 Grenache Blanc that won “Best in Show” for white wines. The label was quite eye-catching but none of us had ever heard of the winery that was owned by Janu Goelz. That was because it was the first vintage of Alara Cellars. Fast forward more than six months and I met Janu and Jason Goelz for lunch when they visited Los Angeles and they shared their story of how they met and about their two individual wine labels which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and am sharing here.

When you think of wine production in Northern California, you likely think of Napa or Sonoma. Of course, there are other wine regions in Northern California, such as Mendocino and Lake counties.

But I am here to talk about the Santa Clara AVA. You might ask me which AVA is that? That was my question when I sat down with winemakers Jason and Janu Goelz. Well, according to Jason, “Santa Clara Valley AVA is the second least known AVA, but I don’t know what the first one is.”

Santa Clara Valley AVA is located 30 minutes south of San Jose. The Santa Clara AVA is based in the towns of Morgan Hill, Saratoga, San Martin and Gilroy. You may know these towns for other important products, as Morgan Hill is the mushroom capital and Gilroy is the garlic capital. And this area is also better known as the technology hub of Silicon Valley. But grapes have been planted in Santa Clara dating to the 1800s.

By the 1850s Santa Clara had more acres of vineyards than any other county in California and at the time, when California only had 400 wineries in the state, 100 of them were located in Santa Clara.

Unfortunately, phylloxera, followed by Prohibition, resulted in many of the vineyards disappearing and being replaced by prune and apricot trees. The AVA boundary was defined in 1989 and in recent years there has been a gradual resurgence in the area. Today, there are 30 to 35 wineries in the Santa Clara Valley, and two of those wineries are Jason-Stephens, owned by Jason Goelz, and Alara Cellars, owned by Janu Goelz.

Jason Goelz never expected to end up in the Santa Clara Valley. Originally from the Midwest, Jason attended Cal Poly where he was introduced to wine. It started with Wine Wednesday tastings, followed by wine appreciation classes and then winemaker and wine law classes.

Jason was one of the first people to graduate with a minor degree in the viticulture minor program in 1999. He began working in the business world in the Bay Area and became a home winemaker through a friend of his father. He was buying grapes from a 45-acre property in Gilroy. He thought making wine was more fun and had the dream to go to Paso Robles. But, the property in Gilroy needed a winemaker, so Jason began working there in 2008 and built a winery on the property.

In 2012, Janu first met Jason when she visited his winery for her father’s birthday. Originally from Morgan Hill, Janu studied at the University of San Francisco and stayed in the city where she acted in two Indian movies, started a clothing line and then worked as a weather forecaster at KRON for five years.

She would visit Jason and taste wines and then would go with him on sales trips. She started working in the tasting room at Jason-Stephens, and in 2014 Janu worked harvest. Janu had a hands-on approach to learning to make wine and loved it.

She decided that she wanted to try it on her own so she began making wine in 2015 and opened Alara Cellars in October 2017.

Janu named her winery Alara Cellars. Alara means the “ruler of all” in German, and in Turkish it means “she who brings color and power to your soul.” With a background in fashion, she has translated it to her wine bottles. Each winery has a fashion-themed label inspired by the aromas and flavors of the wine, and the image of the dress changes with each vintage.

For example, her 2016 Sangiovese is described as having “aromas of bubblegum, strawberry, campfire and sandalwood that fill the glass. On the palate, there are notes of espresso with a triple berry blast including blackberry, raspberry and blueberry.” As a result, the label is the image of a woman in a large big bubble gown.

The 2016 Negrette, a big, bold wine, has the image of a woman in a big black gown with sexy red lips. Her Provence-style 2017 Grenache rosé has the image of classy summery dress with polka dots.

As a married couple with two separate wineries, Jason and Janu have a playful competition between the two of them, especially when Janu’s 2017 Grenache Blanc, her first vintage, won “Best in Show” for white wines at the 2018 Central Coast Wine Competition.

But, in reality, they are the best of friends and completely support each other. Janu said she learned how to make wine from Jason but they both agreed that they are learning and growing together. They produce different varieties, their wine styles vary, and their prices differ.

Jason-Stephens, which produces 12,000 cases of wine per year, is a mix of Old World and New World, focusing on Bordeaux varieties and producing wines with high acidity. Alara Cellars, which makes 1,200 cases a year, produces a more “California” style, using more oak and a fruit forward, yet balanced approach. Janu works with a variety of grapes, including Grenache, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, as well as Negrette and Trousseau; she sources fruit from San Benito just south of Santa Clara Valley.

Today, Jason-Stephens and Alara Cellars can be found at The Stomping Ground, an old roof-tile factory in Gilroy that has been converted into a winery. Sitting on seven-and-a-half acres, Jason has created a custom crush facility with four micro-tasting rooms located in the former kilns. And, there are plans to add a brewery, distillery and restaurant to create an adult playground. Perhaps this will give you a reason to check out Santa Clara Valley, the second least known AVA.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.