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Wine

Laurie Jervis: Vintage Wes Hagen, Winemaker Continues to Educate, Cultivate and Prune for the Cause

Former Clos Pepe winemaker brings his love of wine to Thornhill Companies’ J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria

In January, Wes Hagen pruned the grape vine growing up walls and over the trellis at the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street in Los Angeles. He later returned to take cuttings from the historic vine. “Our focus is wines that speak of place, and fit within the $15 to $30 retail range,” he says of his current employer, J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria.
In January, Wes Hagen pruned the grape vine growing up walls and over the trellis at the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street in Los Angeles. He later returned to take cuttings from the historic vine. “Our focus is wines that speak of place, and fit within the $15 to $30 retail range,” he says of his current employer, J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria. (Hagen family)

Wes Hagen, a man passionate about all facets of viticulture, winemaking and wine education, continues to take on new roles since leaving Clos Pepe Estate Vineyard as winemaker following the 2014 vintage.

For someone who makes the rest of us appear to be standing still, Hagen is always gracious about arranging lunch dates and responding to questions via email and text.

I caught up with him in December for lunch at Lompoc’s Scratch Kitchen, where he was scheduled to pour for a J. Wilkes Wines pop-up event that evening.

I first met Hagen years ago when he was the winemaker and vineyard manger for ​Clos Pepe, owned by his mother and stepfather, Cathy and Steve Pepe.

The 29-acre Clos Pepe vineyard, planted in 1994 to pinot noir and chardonnay, is located near the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA on Highway 246. During Hagen’s tenure, both the site and its winemaker garnered acclaim far and wide.

In March of last year, the Pepes leased Clos Pepe to Walt Wines of Napa, effectively transitioning out of the winemaking business and leaving Hagen out of work.

No matter: Within a short time, he secured a new gig — one that allows him to sharpen his skills as an educator and philosopher of wine, if you will.

Hagen is now consulting winemaker/brand ambassador for Santa Maria’s J. Wilkes Wines, owned by The Thornhill Companies of Santa Barbara.

He and his wife, Chanda, relocated to Orcutt after residing on the Clos Pepe estate for years.

The backstory: In 2001, Jefferson Wilkes founded his namesake winery.

Wilkes was a respected Central Coast wine industry veteran who made his wines at Santa Maria’s Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS), a winemaking and storage facility for many small-lot winemakers.

In addition to his winemaking, Wilkes, who began sailing as a child, was a skilled racer and competed on J/24 teams over the years. He also volunteered to teach others how to sail, according to his obituary in a local newspaper.

Wilkes died in 2010, and the Miller family of Santa Barbara — owners of CCWS, Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills vineyards and The Thornhill Companies — assumed production of J. Wilkes’ pinot blanc, pinot noir and chardonnay to continue Wilkes’ passion for wine made from grapes grown in the Santa Maria Valley.

At CCWS, Hagen now works side by side with Vidal Perez and Luciana Souza Alves, winemaker and assistant winemaker, respectively. The two have worked with J. Wilkes wines since 2001, Hagen noted.

While we ate lunch on that December day, Hagen poured me a tank sample of the 2015 pinot blanc, which radiated the essence of ripe pears.

He’s developing a fondness for pinot blanc, he says, especially when it’s aged in stainless-steel tanks and allowed to develop its characteristic luscious aromatics.

Case production for J. Wilkes in 2014 was 6,000, and the Miller family of Santa Barbara, owners of The Thornhill Companies, “want to see growth,” Hagen told me.

“Our focus is wines that speak of place, and fit within the $15 to $30 retail range,” he said.

Those wines, he hopes, will attract “both new wine drinkers who are still developing a palate, and people who tend to buy pricier wines but are looking for an everyday-drinking wine.”

J. Wilkes Wines produced 6,000 cases of pinot blanc in 2014 and the owners want to increase that amount, winemaker Wes Hagen says. Click to view larger
J. Wilkes Wines produced 6,000 cases of pinot blanc in 2014 and the owners want to increase that amount, winemaker Wes Hagen says. (Thornhill Company)

Besides, when a consumer buys J. Wilkes’ wines, he or she will “get the surprise of Wes Hagen at the bottom of the cereal box,” he said, with a mostly straight face.

Joining the label’s original lineup of pinot blanc, pinot noir and chardonnay will be three reds — cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and petite sirah wines that will be made from grapes sourced from the Paso Robles Highlands region and French Camp Vineyards, also owned by The Thornhill Companies.

Hagen emphasized how he relishes focusing on J. Wilkes’ white wines and anticipates a renewed emphasis on whites in the New World.

“Whites are usually a better value, and their flavors are more transparent,” he said. “I love a good white wine, especially the aromatics of those produced in stainless steel.”

He was quick to add that “this preference may have been pushed by my new love of pinot blanc.”

When he’s not sampling J. Wilkes’ products, Hagen remains an ardent supporter of other local winemakers’ efforts. Among his favorites are those from Ken Brown, Rick LongoriaSteve Clifton’s Palmina Wines and new label La Voix, as well as Au Bon Climat and Qupé wines, especially the older vintages, he said.

After graduating from college, Hagen, a Southern California native, worked as an English teacher. In the ensuing years, while producing Clos Pepe’s award-winning pinot noirs and chardonnays, he wrote about wine and viticulture for many publications, among them WineMaker Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Burgundy-Report and Sommelier Journal.

Hagen also has been instrumental in the boundary and terroir research and writing of the petitions submitted for three of Santa Barbara County’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): the Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Ballard Canyon. He wasn't directly involved in the newest, the Los Olivos District.

He’s also taught the Food and Wine Pairing courses at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, and has lectured on the history of wine and alcohol in various venues across the United States.

A big part of spending time with Hagen is soaking up his philosophies on wine, food, love and life.

A sampler: “Wine helps us enjoy the grace of life,” or “I tell people to trust themselves — to drink what they like,” and, “My goal is to fundamentally change American wine culture.”

The latter phrase is Hagen’s “table” premise, while it is also part of his email signature: “Wine is an investment to keep those that we love at the table an extra hour every day.”

In other words, slow down and linger with loved ones over a meal paired with good wines.

In January and again in February, Hagen traveled to Los Angeles to lend a hand in the pruning of what is likely the oldest living grape vine in the United States: The one growing alongside the Olvera Street Avila Adobe, which dates to 1818.

Hagen and Los Angeles City archivist Michael Holland are friends, and the latter invited Hagen to supervise what was described as a long-overdue pruning of the overgrown grape vine.

The vine’s canopy had grown to cover the adobe’s roof and a trellis over an adjacent courtyard.

What appeared at first to be just one vine is actually two, and there’s a third located down the street.

Hagen previously had referred Holland to UC Davis’ Plant Foundation Services so the archivist could get the vines’ DNA analyzed via tissue samples.

The results: The three Olvera Street vines are identical and are “Vina Madre,” or the historical Mission Grape of California.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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