Vidal Perez, the winemaker for J. Wilkes Wines, likes to call his wines his children. When tasting from a tank of 2014 wine he'll say things like, "We were concerned about this chardonnay -- it was a preemie, the Brix was low, and there wasn't enough sugar when harvested." But Perez and his crew have their "tricks," as he repeatedly called them, and in this case it meant pumping wine from the top of the massive 6000-gallon tank into the bottom, in order "to get the yeast stirring and activate the wine even more -- we've been happy with the results." His smile after saying that is the same one a parent might beam after seeing his kid's straight-A report card.
Perez might actually be a foster father to these wines, since J. Wilkes Wines was begun in 2001 by Jeff Wilkes. Wilkes, who died suddenly in 2010, was a longtime employee of the Miller Family, owners of the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard near Santa Maria and Central Coast Wine Services. Central Coast Wine Services is a massive 250,000 square-foot facility in a renovated auto parts factory that creates numerous wines (many for labels you might buy in supermarket chains), rents production and storage space to many small and wonderful wines (like Paul Lato), and had let J. Wilkes get much of the cream of the grape crop. Perez worked with Wilkes as he developed his winery, so when Jeff passed away, the Millers chose to keep his memory and brand alive by naming Perez the winemaker of J. Wilkes Wines.
Wilkes spent many years on the business-side of the industry before making his first foray into winemaking. Perez puts the story simply, saying, "There was some pinot blanc available, so he bottled it and people liked it, so we kept on making it." Of course it's far from easy to do, and it starts to become clear standing in front of a huge steel tank of 2014 pinot blanc ringed with frosty ice. "We're cold-stabilizing it," Perez explains. "Instead of it happening in your fridge later, we have crystals form now and then filter it out."
The Wilkes style of pinot blanc -- and a lovely, food-friendly wine it is -- is also a bit different than most. "Most people ferment and age it in the barrel," Perez says. "So it's a different pinot blanc in the steel tank. It keeps its flavors and aromas. The barrel-aged style might be creamier and nuttier, but this is fruitier and crisp. I'm getting a lot of guava, and I love guava."
Perez is still a bit surprised that he's a winemaker. Born in Baja California, he came to the U.S. to go to Fresno State to study viticulture and enology. Collecting data for schoolwork was what first brought Perez to the Central Coast: "That was my education more than books," he says. After all that work as a viticulturist, he says, "My heart was in the vineyards. I never thought that I'd be indoors, never thought I'd go to the dark side."
His reason for a change was driven by a need for more career challenges and more control. "I'd grow the babies for nine months and then the winemaker takes the grapes and takes the credit," he says. That's changed -- the day before I visited him at Central Coast Wine Services he learned that the J. Wilkes 2012 Pinot Noir won a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Not bad for a $26 bottle of wine from a region where pinots rarely cost under $30.