When it was announced last year that the Clos Pepe vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills would be leased out for the foreseeable future and that the Clos Pepe Estate brand would go on hiatus, there was collective concern about what would happen to the brand’s — if not the region’s — most vocal proponent, winemaker Wes Hagen. But just a few months later, Hagen was hired by the widely respected Miller family, who owns Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, and French Camp vineyards as well as major production facilities in both Santa Maria and Paso Robles.
As consulting winemaker and brand ambassador, Hagen’s job is to enliven J. Wilkes, the brand first created 16 years ago by longtime Miller family employee Jeff Wilkes. Selling grapes from the Santa Maria Valley for 20 years, Wilkes helped make Bien Nacido one of the most recognized vineyards in the world before passing away in 2010. “The Santa Maria Valley was really Jeff Wilkes’s home, and he knew Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills probably better than any winemaker in history,” said Hagen. “He would have wanted the wines to continue in that tradition of balance and elegance.”
Though Wilkes started his brand on single-vineyard bottlings — like the still-very-much-alive 2001 Bien Nacido that Hagen and I shared over lunch at the Wine Cask in December — the modern J. Wilkes brand showcases the various appellations of the Central Coast. Right now, the list of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, under the J. Wilkes spotlight are the Santa Maria Valley (pinot noir, pinot blanc, chardonnay), Sta. Rita Hills (pinot noir), and Paso Robles (cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel). The prices run between just $15-$30, representing rather phenomenal values that can be found on both restaurant lists and on grocery store shelves.
“It’s about taking a step back,” said Hagen of the appellation-focus approach. “Let’s not worry about vineyard designating every vineyard that may or may not deserve it. Let’s understand what the flavor profiles of the AVAs are.”
Hoping to steadily grow the brand from its current 5,000-plus cases to 50,000 cases during the next 10 years, Hagen also plans to open a tasting room in Los Olivos this summer that will further the educational mission. “I want to make it a museum of Central Coast AVAs, with maps, notes, and dirt,” he said. “People who come in curious about Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles can learn from myself and my staff all about the soils and the climate, taste the wines, and get a sense of place to ground them in what these individual AVAs can do.” He believes it will be a great “starting point” for people to understand the Central Coast and gain the insight needed to deepen their interest.
So far, the biggest part of Hagen’s job is traveling around the country to sell J. Wilkes in other markets; he’s hit a dozen states in just seven months, clocking in around 20,000 miles on the road. Luckily, despite the long hours, the actual deals have been fairly easy. “When people are being shown brands right now, the most resistance comes when someone brings in another Napa cab for $100 that has no history,” said Hagen. “With 16 years of history at J. Wilkes, there are people who knew Jeff or who knew the wine before I came on. And with the price point at $15-$30 retail, everything about it makes it easy to sell.”