Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Ownership Dispute Shadows the Future of Ukiah Valley’s Rivino Winery

Jason McConnell, the creator of Rivino Winery [Picture from Mike Geniella]

Rivino Winery is a happening Ukiah Valley showcase on the eastside of Highway 101. It is a wine-tasting and entertainment venue with swag.

Beyond the tasting room is a tent-covered performance area with a big sign proclaiming ‘Boujee,’ a slang term underscoring a lifestyle and a line of varietals the boutique winery produces.

Rivino is the place to be on the weekends, a favorite haunt of locals and travelers looking to gather over a glass of wine and take in the view across the vineyards to the Mayacamas Mountains flanking the valley on the east. Community leaders like retired Superior Court Judge John Behnke and former County Executive Officer Carmel Angelo have hosted their retirement parties here, and civic groups and individuals use Rivino as a place to celebrate special events. In 2022, Rivino was the setting for more than 150 community-related events.

Rivino’s fate, however, is now in the hands of a Mendocino County Superior Court judge who is presiding over a tangled divorce. The outcome shadows the popular venue as the warm weather season gets underway in Wine Country.

Court documents show that Judge Cindee Mayfield is poised to turn over ownership of the 5-acre Rivino venue site, which includes the entertainment center, outdoor seating, and tasting room, to Suzanne Jahnke, a Canadian native who with her husband Jason McConnell bought the property and surrounding vineyard from her father’s estate after his death in 2013. 

Jahnke and McConnell wed in 2005 after reaching a prenuptial agreement. Jahnke put McConnell, Rivino’s creator, on the grant deed for the tasting room and venue site in 2015, a move that created a community property asset. McConnell’s name is also on the 200-plus acre vineyard, which was originally purchased by Jahnke’s father in 1997 but primarily managed by McConnell since the senior Jahnke’s death in 2013. The vineyard operation was expanded in 2019 with the couple’s purchase of an adjoining 32-acre vineyard to the south. 

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Judge Mayfield stated that because there is a nearby home the couple once shared adjacent to the Rivino winery and tasting room, the house and parcel should be distributed now to Jahnke. The judge cites a provision in an agreement that when the winery site became community property in the event of divorce, Suzanne Jahnke would have the first right to possess and own the home.

“I think that she is entitled to possession now,” said Judge Mayfield in a tentative ruling March 21 signaling her intent to award the entire Rivino tasting room and entertainment venue site to Jahnke. 

Such a decision if formalized as expected will make things a ‘little bit disruptive,’ conceded Judge Mayfield.

McConnell’s attorney Wallace Francis of Santa Rosa had argued that it is McConnell who envisioned and built the Rivino tasting room and entertainment venue and has managed it since.

A court transcript reveals an exasperated McConnell walked out of the March 21 hearing, after telling the judge: “You just destroyed my business. You destroyed my business. I hope you know that.”

McConnell said this week that he is not giving up despite the judge’s stated intent. 

“It is everything I have worked for. I have never drawn a salary from the winery operation. I have put it all back into growing the business,” he said.

McConnell said he plans “to keep fighting to preserve Rivino. We’ll keep holding events. I hope all our supporters in this community will come out, enjoy the property, the music, and the wine,” he said.

In an email exchange, Suzanne Jahnke downplayed Rivino’s emergence as the Ukiah Valley’s leading event center and gathering place. She also said she is uncertain what might happen if Judge Mayfield in fact awards her control of the winery site and public venue.

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“First, I am not sure if I would call Rivino an ‘event center.’  Rather, it is a small winery that has live music and other entertainment on the weekends.”

Jahnke noted the case is ongoing, and “We still have many issues that need to be decided or settled.”

As for Rivino’s fate, Jahnke said, “At this point, I cannot say what my plans are once our case is resolved.”

In general, Jahnke said, “The property where the winery is located was my father’s before he passed away, part of which I owned before marriage. Further, it is where I built my house before we were married. I hope that I will be able to continue living on the property that my father and I worked so hard to develop and improve.” 

The couple met at a food and wine event in Hopland in 2003. Both are from families in Alberta, Canada. Suzanne Jahnke’s father Gordon was a law professor and businessman from Saskatchewan who brought the Ukiah Valley property in 1997. 

McConnell acknowledges the Jahnke family’s original ownership, but he notes, and a 2022 court document supports his contention, that he took over management of the property after the senior Jahnke’s death in 2013. Jahnke eventually added McConnell’s name to grant deeds covering the vineyard and tasting room properties including the residence. In 2022, during preliminary divorce proceedings, McConnell was officially given temporary but primary management and control of all vineyard and wine making aspect s relating to Rivino, including sales of wine in the tasting room, bulk wine sales, shipping, grape sales, hiring and firing of employees, and control over advertising, marketing, and social media.

McConnell said the current situation surrounding the Rivino complex is untenable.

“I never imagined that after 15 years building Rivino that I would be in this situation. Starting in 2008, I literally built the tasting room and winery with my own two hands. I had the help of some incredible people that volunteered their time and support from this community. In 2013, when Gordon passed away, I stepped up to manage the vineyard and because of that we were able to buy it out (from Gordon Jahnke’s estate) three years later.”

Francis, McConnell’s Santa Rosa attorney, said he and his client have repeatedly pointed out to Judge Mayfield the lack of involvement of Suzanne Jahnke’s in management of the vineyard, and the development of the Rivino complex. 

“I find the case to be deeply disturbing on a number of levels,” said attorney Francis. “In 17 years, I have had about three cases like this where someone was obviously being untruthful and there is smoking gun evidence of that, and it doesn’t seem to matter.” 

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“I think if you look at the testimony and the evidence objectively, it’s tough to defend some of these rulings,” said Francis about Judge Mayfield’s rulings to date.

Marvel Harrison, a cousin of Suzanne Jahnke, lived at Rivino for a couple of years, and helped get the wine-tasting and entertainment venue going. 

“I helped out with the wine club, worked in the tasting room, did lots of odd jobs, and helped to get special events organized at Rivino,” said Harrison.

 “Pouring wine was fun but my real passion in life is my concern for the emotional and social well-being of the folks who make up a community. I am a counseling psychologist. Rivino creates a place for people to gather, to connect, to laugh, to be with each other, all while being out of doors, in and near nature. It is a gift to Ukiah.” 

Noted Anderson Valley winemaker Jim Klein agrees. “I greatly admire what Jason has done at Rivino. He has created an iconic place along Highway 101 that showcases the Ukiah Valley, and the local wine industry.”

Klein said Rivino offers what visitors are seeking: “A relaxed environment, good wine and food, and an entertainment venue for local and out-of-town performers. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Paula Samonte, an iconic Mendocino County performer, said she is scheduled to appear May 20 at Rivino.

 “It gives many local musicians a place to do their thing,” said Samonte. 

Samonte said she hopes the dispute can be resolved in a manner that allows McConnell to oversee his creation. “Rivino is so part of the Ukiah Valley scene now. We need a place like this. It gives back to the community in so many ways.”

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  1. Sounds like someone should have had a lawyer when signing and drafting all the property deeds and business documents back in the day and didn’t think it was necessary.

    A couple things to gleen from this folks:
    * If you marry someone who has a piece of property, don’t assume that it’s yours too.
    * Always have a lawyer present if you’re signing anything that involves more than 1 person- especially the comingling of a business with a residence.
    * At all costs, try to not comingle business with residence.
    * Don’t open a business with your spouse.
    * Don’t make your place of residence your place of business.
    * Have your documentation in order. Don’t just put your name on things in a way that you see fit- do it with a lawyer.

    This is a textbook example of a bunch of high dollar folks who because they were handed things for free (inherited or married into the property) took it for granted, didn’t do their due diligence and made an elementary business mistake.

  2. It gives back to the drunk driving community is more like the truth. I commute through that stretch of highway 101 on friday & saturday evenings & drunk drivers are always merging poorly there. That venue is too dangerous.

  3. “A couple things to gleen from this folks:”

    If your entire business is built on the generosity of your spouse, maybe think twice before dating around or having an open marriage or whatever was going on there

    It’s always been super weird to me over the years to meet women introducing themselves as Jason’s girlfriend, especially when that person is 30+ years younger than him. If he and his wife were fine with that arrangement then more power to them, but it definitely seems like a situation that intrinsically placed the business at risk of exactly this type of dispute.

    Prediction: Jason takes over running the Palace Hotel renovation and building it as a great local business, only to have the exact same implosion in 15 years.

    Gotta hand it to him, he does know how to put together a really strong community asset. Losing Rivino as the powerhouse community “living room” that it is today would be sad for the whole area.

      • Oh good lord. He’s just another aging guy with an overarching sense of entitlement, living off his ex-wife’s generosity, who needs young women to stroke his fragile little ego, while he thinks he’s achieved “cool” as he plays the part of a hipster winemaker.

        The place is ok for events, the wines are marginal to lackluster (zero critical acclaim except for a ribbon or something at a fair – probably from the same judges who graded the raspberry pies), and his “look at me, look at me, I’m bougee” attitude makes the whole thing a joke – it’s really worth going there just to watch him prance around and make an ass of himself.

        His ex is the winner here, hands down – getting rid of this leech is probably the best thing that has happened to her since before she met him. I’ll bet she is a really nice person who will have a really great life once she is free of him.

  4. Awwwww. He worked so hard with his wife who owned the property…. he should have looked at things a little closer awhile back I’d say. Welcome to the real world. And I’m sure she didn’t start by taking it all from him…. he probably tried to take it from her first and she had her all her stuff right. Welcome to the world of a million women before you.

  5. The very definition of “Decisions made with glass in hand.” -in this case it was a wine glass in hand instead of a Martini glass like in Marin county.
    I’m all for people being vintners and selling wine but not down with all the venues that produce opportunities for drunk drivers.

  6. I call BULLSHIT. Totally one sided article. Too bad the writer didn’t do their research at which time they would have learned that Jason is a liar and a cheat who is not even clever or creative enough to figure out that he could have already moved and started his own establishment elsewhere with all the money he has spent on changing lawyers many times…all because he just can’t accept reality or the rule of divorce law. But oh yeah, if he moves he won’t have his sugar mama looking after him any more. The world will see that he is not actually a good business man. Poor baby. And then he tries to gain sympathy through a stupid article? He is wasting a lot of people’s time and money by dragging this out. Get over yourself Jason! Are you kidding me? What a loser!!

  7. The husband shouldn’t have been cheating on his wife, who gave him the resources to make Rivino even happen.

  8. Oh good lord. Another aging white guy who, no longer supported by his ex-wife’s generosity, tries to prop up his fragile ego and withering manhood by dating women decades younger than he is. The place is just ok as an event space, the wines are at best lackluster (the only critical acclaim is a medal from a fair competition – likely from the same judges who judged the apple pies). But the real entertainment value is going there and watching this aging lothario prancing around with his “look at me, Look at me, I’m Bougee” schtick – he’s not a rock star, but apparently is the only person there who doesn’t realize it, or what a joke he is. The big winner is his ex-wife, who aside from giving him what sounds like a well-deserved trouncing in court, is free of this guy and can go on to live her life.

  9. So many hateful, jealousy-fueled comments here. Ukiah’s upper crust never miss an opportunity to stab one of their own in the back! I’ve never been to rivino, but I’ve met Jason. I know him to be a real gentleman, and hard-working. It’s so disappointing to see a good man pilloried like this. Fair winds, Jason! We don’t all hate you!

  10. Frankly, I didn’t expect to read the demeaning and vitriolic comments about a place, and the people involved. Bums me. The story is about the fate of a popular gathering place. Why turn it into something ugly?

  11. In hopes the many generations of families, Cox Schrader can get their name back. Mr. McConnell is just a con artist who swindles young women into lies and BS. Never was loyal to his wife, always looking for his next free ride. This won’t be his last victim, he’s made a living off of scamming MANY!

  12. The internet/social media mentality is the way of the world now. So much hate & judgement. Ive been to rivino many times & its a fun & beautiful setting. Jason has been a gracious host & eager conversationalist with his patrons. & the wine is actually really good despite the comments from haters.
    That venue feels like the only escape for adults for miles & miles. A place where kids aren’t running around & screaming. A place where the obnoxious youth dont bother. A place where good vibes, good friends & good music are the rule of the day. I for one am grateful we adults have such a place to escape!
    As far as the personal stuff? Its none of your, mine or our business. Everyone’s got dirt underneath their fingernails. You’re no different! Its an indictment on the institution & laws of marriage, not the people.
    So how about all you haters STFU & go have some wine, sounds like some of you need a glass, maybe a dance & conversation & stop trying to rip down other people & their businesses!

    • I agree the comments about his personal life have no merit (even though I experienced this guy’s sleeze myself), but the drunk driving comments are spot on. Smokers can not let their fumes drift towards others without social backlash, but drunks can get in a car and drive their bullet around our kids with little social consequence. The reason Rivino has no kids running around is because there would be a bunch of high class child endangerment charges as these “grown ups” would have to drunk drive their kids home. Establishments that cater to drinking should provide shuttles.

      • An “event center”. What a joke. The winery and tasting room is built as a part of a run down garage. I’ve witnessed Jason hit on underage girls and say racist things. To top it of his wine isn’t even good. Sounds like he built the business as an attempt to get the property from her. Sounds like he is getting what he deserves. I feel bad for his wife.

  13. He running the place into the ground he don’t know how make wine eind is crap got to throw these party to try unload the crap wine he hasent put a nothing back into the vines vineyard is only as good as it vines go really look dead to dieing vines high levels of Roundup aall they put out there kill weeds under vines and end post wrong vines falling into rows trench’s from tractor down almost every row the mechanic slash field boss slash cook and party boy with owner just running place into. The ground that’s her family’s money he bought close to million in tanks and should put into the vines and getting a better system besides leave dead vines in middle of rows and only spray lots riss f round up under the vines he also took dirt from field and pushed into the river with alot debis when got loelw spots in field could used it to level off field all things that are sure signs of he and his side kick can party it up he spend 30 to 40 thousands dollars some weekends and maybe makes back half that sooner or later I knew she going take her pokit book back and get someone. In there run the place right go party have a good time don’t drink the wine the name says if all need to worry about getting vineyard and grapes right stick to small amount of wines don’t try no big tank batch’s don’t pump them right in the mud and dirt nothing actually clean like a cellar should be talks about building a winery And shop yet still on spend his old lady money took good harvest whent bought a new truck cost more than they made that year from grapes there Allways fighting and there side kick and co workers samething just don’t know what there doing just look at like let’s blow her money that’s how I see it he should go back to Canada A try makeing brew

    • The ‘news article’ is about the fate of a popular tasting room, and its music venue. We were not ‘parading’ a divorce, nor are we interested in the tangled details about the owners’ lives, or for that matter anyone else’s. People’s personal lives are theirs. When they own and operate a public-focused business, then what is at stake is news.

  14. I agree. However, when you run a business that is open to the public and one that operates with the public, your interactions and what you do WITH the public now become tied to your business. What Jason did in his free time at home is none of our business, but when he continued to act inappropriately with his business guests at his business location, it then became our business. We have “canceled” writers for their raciest remarks and actors over the Me Too movement because what they did was wrong and it also happened to be connected to their work. So, I think people’s personal experiences with Jason matter. This is after all a public business/venue. I like to support businesses that give back, help the community, and are run with integrity. We as Mendocino locals needs to support one another, our local businesses, and lift each other up – but I think we need to be lifting those up that deserve it.

  15. I only google’d the winery just now to see if I could get an update on my ex-step-son, who was truly a sweet heart when he visited Texas as a kid nearly 2 decades ago, so likely would be now as well. I’d hoped he’d be helping with the winery and his mom/Jason would be spending peaceful sunsets together watching the grapes age/mature on their gorgeous land. I am devastated by this news. I loved the wine and thought this little piece of heaven gave us all something to be so very thankful for its beauty and love. I pray that somehow this could all go away and the dreamy winery and owners and friends could just be exactly as its Hollywood movie scene depicts.

  16. My husband and I have been wine club members and have truly enjoyed the events at Rivino. Jason and Suzanne were two of the first people to welcome us to the valley when we moved here in 2015. It’s sad to me that Suzanne now downplays how important Rivino is to our community. We personally haven’t seen her at the winery in a least 2-3 years, but we see Jason there working away pretty much every time we come. It’s clear that Rivino is his life.

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