J. Wilkes: A Legacy in the Soil—And in the Bottle

For almost 20 years, Jefferson H. Wilkes marketed and sold the grapes that grew in the now world-famous Bien Nacido Vineyards, owned by the Miller family of Santa Barbara.

In 1973, when the Millers planted grapes in Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley appellation of Santa Barbara County, they were pioneers. In time, the quality of Bien Nacido fruit helped bring note to wineries including Au Bon Climat, Foxen, Fetzer, Longoria, Ojai, Qupé, Whitcraft, and Steele. (This was long before the movie Sideways, 10 years old this October, made Santa Barbara wine country a star.) Winemakers who meet with the Millers’ approval contract for lots that are then farmed to the winemakers’ specifications.

Wilkes was something of a matchmaker, in the beginning extolling the virtues of the new region and later helping manage the suitors. That was difficult. Wilkes’s success meant that even when other California vineyards experienced grape gluts, Bien Nacido had a wait list for its cool-climate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, as well as Pinot Blanc and other varieties.

In 2001, Wilkes himself began making wine, and starting around 2006 he sometimes worked with winemaker Vidal Perez at a custom-crush facility owned by the Millers. Perez, who was born in Mexico and has degrees in agricultural chemistry, viticulture, and enology, says he learned from the older man. Wilkes’s wines won a passionate following.

Then suddenly in 2010, at the age of 53, Wilkes died. The Millers, wanting to keep Wilkes’s wine legacy alive, purchased his brand. Nicholas Miller, whose father and uncle planted the vineyards, has said this about Wilkes: “For 18 pivotal years, Jeff’s diligence, hard work and love for these vineyards helped to elevate these unique sites, and much of what Jeff did has led to our success today.”

The family hired Perez to be the winemaker and, yes, some of the fruit for J. Wilkes’s Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir still comes from Bien Nacido. Of Wilkes, Perez told me simply, “He was my friend.”

The 2011 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir (555 cases were made) was fragrant, earthy, and smoky with hints of black cherries and raspberries. Great fruit, nice acidity. The 2011 Santa Maria Chardonnay (only 318 cases) was spicy, with nutmeg, pineapple, and a long butterscotch finish. Half stainless, half oak. Great ageability. The 2012 Pinot Blanc (550 cases), a wine close to Wilkes’s heart, tasted of pears and peaches and became more focused well-chilled. “Not many people make it,” Perez says. “It’s special.” As indeed Wilkes must have been.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times as well as at The Journal.