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Article: Jonesing to Succeed

Veteran winemaker Tom Jones takes on latest project, Iron Hub
By Ed Crane for The National Business Post

Interior of tasting room at Iron Hub

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NOVEMBER 30, 2019 – Grape prices are tumbling. Wine loving Baby Boomers are cutting consumption. Millennials are downing shots and chugging craft beers, and according to a respected source in the winery finance business, half of U.S. wineries may be sold in the next three to five years. While the Hedge Funds and conglomerates have the resources to ride out these disturbing trends, any individual or family jumping into the business in this climate appear to be on a financial kamikaze mission.

Which brings us to Tom and Beth Jones, two wine industry lifers and fearless operators, who six years ago, cashed in their stake in California’s El Dorado County’s growing Lava Cap Winery. Rather than monitor their investments and work on their golf game, the couple left a big family business to start up a small one.

Huh? As Tom relates, bigger isn’t always better.

“You reach a scale where you’re forced to become managerial rather than in the cellar, intimate with each barrel. I prefer to be up close and personal with our wines, and that requires a boutique scale and operation.”

It wasn’t just some sort of Foothill Family Feud that prompted their exit. Tom and Beth saw wholesale changes that made even successful wineries fight and claw for market share. While 1,800 wineries had 3,000 distributors to choose from in the 90’s, California’s wineries numbered more than 8,000 a decade later, while the number of distributors diminished to some 700. While Tom and Beth took their time discerning how and when to leave the family business, they never considered leaving the wine business.

Beth Jones explains it this way: “It’s so exciting to see something grow from the ground up; the harvest, fermentation, the bottling, the aging and finally the presentation in the tasting room.”

Like their carefully crafted wines, the new Jones business plan took a few years to mature. After a multi-year search, they found a hidden gem – a once thriving winery that hadn’t changed with the times. The price was right, and so was the location, a picturesque hillside in neighboring Amador County. They set up their operation in Plymouth, California, a leisurely forty-minute drive east from Sacramento.

“Amador had that feeling that we really wanted to get involved with,” Beth says, “a positive outlook overall, many inter-generational families that are very active in winemaking and the community.”

After Tom — an inveterate hiker — stumbled upon a relic from the Gold Rush days, the hub of a wagon wheel, the venture was christened: Iron Hub. Naming the operation was the easy part, but there were plenty of upfront challenges: an outdated tasting room, a smaller production facility, and distinctly slower pace in their new neighborhood. Contractors and inspectors operated on what Beth politely calls “Amador Time.”Tom found the slower pace a tonic for creativity.

“This is what Napa was like 30 to 40 years ago. Forty-acre zoning, largely undeveloped, no four-lane highways. The agrarian roots are still here.”

Jones is happy with Amador’s raw materials, making his job easier.

Tom Jones with Beth Jones and son Spencer

“The tannins are softer here, the wine making process is easier,” and Iron Hub’s hillside location and 1,700 foot elevation is up to the task of quickly drying out from winter rainfall. Having made 23,000 cases per year, with little help at Lava Cap, Iron Hub’s current production – just 3,600 cases – gives the winemaker the ability to lovingly craft wine, not just mass produce it.

Respected Wine Critic Mike Dunne, who spent 30 years at The Sacramento Bee as a wine columnist, says Jones has made a graceful transition from Lava Cap in El Dorado County to Iron Hub in Amador.

“Taking on new soils, a new elevation and new varietals with studious attention to detail. At Lava Cap, Tom developed an enthusiastic following for cabernet and chardonnay, varieties that have struggled in the heat of Amador County, though he continues to turn out a strapping chardonnay with El Dorado fruit.”

At any one time, Iron Hub features a baker’s dozen of fruit forward, balanced wines for purchase. Dunne says Jones works with what he has, turning out solid Amador stalwarts like Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Bar-bera, while also embracing newcomers like Semillon and Grenache, and making good use of a rare grape on the Iron Hub property.

“Tom’s flagship wine ‘Resolute’, is based on Aglianico, which he is helping revive in the foothills.”

Dunne admires the winemaker’s blending skill as well.

“He is a keen blender. When sensing shortcomings or hollows in varietal wines, he can move smartly to compensate for them, with imagination and detail,” enhancing “an already reliable, elegant, spicy Clock-spring Zinfandel by adding Sangiovese in one vintage, Barbera in the next.”

Making, well-balanced, ready-to-drink wines alone is not the key to success.

The couple complement each other perfectly for their boutique winery. Tom says “Beth is extremely creative, and it’s a joy to be a part of that, we wanted to do this together.”

While Tom is more comfortable in the barrel room than the tasting room, Beth, a retired child psychologist, is quite comfortable with adults, especially a growing contingent of Wine Club members, who get treated to more than just a hefty discount for their quarterly loyalty and investment.

“Every event we do,” Beth says, “we include some educational event. Beyond barrel tasting and food pairing, it might be a sensory experiment. People enjoy it and it’s fun.”

As owners of a privately held venture, the couple is not compelled to report their financial data. Simple math – 3,600 cases of wines priced in the $25 to $28 range — suggests Iron Hub’s moving $1 million or more of fine wine each year. And with wine club, event and merchandise sales factored in, the couple’s business plan is clearly working, “40 percent above where we’d hope to be,” Tom says.

Outdoor patio at Iron Hub

Iron Hub is truly a family business. Daughters Allison and Melissa help Beth with event planning, social media and the attractive winery website. The youngest, son Spencer, has just begun studying for his masters in winemaking and vintecology at UC Davis, after getting a priceless hands-on education, working with his father in all phases of the winemaking process, while learning the sales and marketing end from his mother in the tasting room, and back office.

In just a few years, Iron Hub has established itself as one of the must visited wineries in Amador, combining delicious wines, warm hospitality and a breathtaking view. Tom Jones’ creative juices are flowing, with the Iron Hub Portfolio now boasting three distinctive zins, Sojourn, a port-style dessert wine and the promise of new blends from Iron Hub’s Estate fruit and locally sourced varietals.

As a trained geologist and winemaker, Tom Jones has an accomplished sense of terroir and a gifted palate, noting that all of his vintage wines share common traits.

“They’re rich, not aggressive. They have a lot of flavor up front, they don’t die in the middle, they have a good finish. They aren’t over-extracted, they’re just very satisfying to drink.”

While he’s not one to brag about his considerable skills, Jones has a beef with oenophiles who hold that even a novice winemaker will succeed with quality fruit.

“This notion that good wine comes from good grapes, without the intervention of the winemaker,” Jones chuckles, “ well, it’s like looking for ice cream under a cow.”