J. Wilkes Wines
Central Coast AVA
Dedicated to producing great-value wines from California's Central Coast
The story is one that Hollywood would quickly embrace and we are thrilled to be introducing it to our Gold Wine Club members.
The hero, a fellow named Jeff(erson) Wilkes, works as a grape grower and salesman in the Santa Maria Valley, a bit north of Los Angeles. He is a tireless worker and his efforts literally bear (great) fruit. He takes three vineyards, Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills in the Santa Maria Valley, and French Camp in the Paso Robles Highlands, into wine stratosphere as far as quality and reputation. He is at the top of his game and he decides to try it on his own.
In 2001, Jeff Wilkes introduces the J. Wilkes Wines label and produces around a thousand cases for sale. His efforts are rewarded and the wine sells out quickly. Jeff Wilkes is definitely on his way to establishing his brand as a boutique winery.
For almost the next decade, J. Wilkes Wines continues to grow and produces numerous medals and accolades along the way.
Then, in 2010, at age 57, Jeff Wilkes suddenly passes away. Production of J. Wilkes Wines comes to a halt for nearly the next two years. A small production occurs in 2011, but the brand is all but dormant.
A year later, the prestigious Miller Family of Central Coast wine-growing and winery fame buys J. Wilkes Wines from Jeff Wilkes’ estate. The Millers were friends of Wilkes and made the decision to continue the legacy that Wilkes had started more than a decade before.
“Jeff was something of a visionary,” Miller Family spokesman Nicholas Miller related. “It was his idea to produce wines using certain AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) that would clearly define the origin and varietal without having to pay the price for vineyard-designated wines. It was very insightful and was meant to introduce consumers into specific flavors and tastes.”
A year later, the Millers hired Wes Hagen to come aboard J. Wilkes Wines both as winemaker, spokesman, and brand ambassador. The family gave Hagen free reign to bring the winery’s production up to a level they considered acceptable.
In the ensuing four years, J. Wilkes Wines has grown to an impressive 7,000-case level with an eye to significantly increase that number. “We hope to grow J. Wilkes Wines to between 30 and 50 thousand cases in another ten years,” Nicholas Miller confided. “And, we intend to remain true to Jeff Wilkes’ original viewpoint on how the wines would be developed.”
J. Wilkes Wines has also recently opened a tasting facility in Los Olivos that is open from Thursday through Monday each week that has greatly increased its exposure. (See map below!)
“People really identify with Jeff’s story,” Miller concluded. “He was really a wonderful person and would be extremely gratified that so many are happy with his concept.”
A Hollywood ending to the story, to be sure and we know our Gold Wine of the Month Club members are bound to agree!
Map of the area
Wes Hagen - Winemaker
Winemaker Wes Hagen brings an analytical and thoughtful approach to winemaking. A former English teacher, Wes received his viticultural and winemaking degree from the iconic University of California at Davis and has since been an award-winning winemaker on California’s Central Coast. His small-lot wines have earned him many 90+ scores from Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, and Decanter magazine, in addition to an incredible array of medals from local and national wine competitions. In 2013, Michael Cervin (of Wall Street Journal and Decanter) rated Wes Hagen as One of the 100 Most Influential Winemakers in the United States.
Wes describes his winemaking style as clean and balanced, showing the place and the vintage. For J. Wilkes Wines, an AVA-based brand, Wes is able to source fruit from the best vineyards on the Central Coast (Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, and Paso Robles Highlands District AVA’s) to make wines that represent the place, the terroir, and at an amazing value.
Wes Hagen’s experience over the past twenty-five years, including past roles as winemaker, viticulturist, vineyard manager, wine educator, and AVA consultant (also the leading figure behind establishing the Sta. Rita Hills AVA) makes him uniquely qualified to oversee the production of J. Wilkes wines.
More about Wes Hagen
He enjoys a dual title, ambassador and winemaker, but Wes Hagen means just about everything to J. Wilkes Wines.
The Los Angeles native never expected to become part of the wine industry and graduated from the University of Redlands (located in a suburb of northeastern Los Angeles) with a dual English/Education degree. He eventually became interested in wine and held the winemaker position at boutique winery Clos Pepe located in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.
Hagen utilized his composition skills and was the leading figure that eventually produced the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. He later succeeded in having two additional AVA’s recognized, Happy Canyon in 2011 and Ballard Canyon in 2014. He is currently working on a fourth appellation, but will not reveal its identity.
“The Millers (owners of J. Wilkes Wines) wanted someone familiar with the legalese involved with appellations and a person who was also a winemaker. I fit the bill and the family gave me an incredible opportunity to run J. Wilkes Wines,” Hagen recently commented. “They wanted to make J. Wilkes Wines into a formidable winery and still remain true to the winery’s founder, Jeff Wilkes.”
Hagen feels it is his job to bring an understanding of the different flavors included in the AVA’s that make up J. Wilkes Wines’ portfolio. “I want to ride the waves that nature provides in a way that truly respects the sense of place that is the Santa Maria Valley where our core wines originate,” he added. Wilkes also produces wines from the famed Paso Robles Highlands District and the Sta. Rita Hills.
Hagen feels that the fruit originating within these regions is on par with “the greatest coastal areas in our country.” He is also keenly aware of the price/value relationship that exists in today’s retail wine market. “There is no reason for the consumer to pay extra for vineyard designation if a wine is really well made. It’s like taking a “selfie” with the bottle. An AVA-blended model produces the same great quality, but at a much lesser price.”
He also understands his role as ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines thusly, “Our founder’s vision is as important, or more important, than my being the face of the winery.”
Prudent words from a erudite person.
About the Region
Of all the wine producing regions in California, none has enjoyed the rise in popularity more than the Santa Maria Valley AVA. It is joined by Sta. Rita Hills AVA and the Paso Robles AVA (Highlands District) to produce fruit for J. Wilkes Wines.
Even though it can claim longevity (Santa Maria Valley AVA was the first AVA designated along with Napa Valley AVA in 1981) as a production region, the area came into its own over 25 years ago. Since then, fruit from the area has become as prized as any in California. There are a number of reasons for this amazing rise in popularity. Geographically, the Santa Maria Valley is a natural funnel-shaped valley opening west to the Pacific Ocean. Because the valley opens to the ocean, there is no opposition to the sea fog that moves in overnight. This fog engulfs lower lying vineyards, and often lingers into mid-day. This uncommon phenomenon entails a rare transverse geography that runs east to west and encourages the influx of cool marine breezes. The valley features a long growing season and very little rainfall, meaning grapes have extensive time to build flavor on the vine.
The Santa Rita Hills AVA has sandy soils and similar east west winds as the Santa Maria AVA. Vines produce tiny berries with dense color and amazing acid structure. This combination of factors makes for big, bold wines and allows for excellent aging potential. Its AVA status was approved in 2001 and it has become a favorite of many Northern California wineries who use it to blend with fruit grown in their respective locations. More than 2,700 acres comprise this appellation and around 60 wineries call it home.
Paso Robles AVA is comprised of eleven AVA’s of which the Highlands District is considered the highest elevation of the entire area. Extremely hot days and cold nights (the average diurnal temperature shifts some 55 degrees from day to night) allow the vines to develop flavor and intensity. Paso Robles AVA contains younger soils than the two aforementioned zones. The vineyards that comprise this AVA are located south southeast of the city of Paso Robles and are bounded by San Juan Creek AVA and Creston District AVA.