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Ownership Dispute Shadows Ukiah Valley’s Event Showcase

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 under way in Wine Country.

Court documents show that Mendocino Superior Court Judge Cindee Mayfield is poised to turn over ownership of the five-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 late father’s estate. 

Jahnke and McConnell wed in 2005 after reaching a prenuptial agreement. 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. 

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 at Rivino

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.

“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 (fromGordon 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 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 just doesn't seem to matter.” 

“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 much a 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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