J. Wilkes Goes to Washington: State Department Pours Santa Maria Valley Wines

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/9/16

UPDATE 5/23/16: J. Wilkes is offering a "diplomatic" discount: enter code "WilkesDC5416" at jwilkes.com and get the 3-pack of wines poured at recent U.S. State Department events  -- Santa Maria Valley pinot blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir -- at a discounted price of $60.

The J. Wilkes Chardonnay is a big value at $24
“Regardless of who’s in the White House, I’m a patriot and I love this country,” says Wes Hagen.  “So to know that wines I’ve had a hand in are being poured there feels really good.”

Mr. Hagen has been brand ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines since last year and, just last week, was promoted to winemaker.  The label produces a variety of region-specific wines, with a focus on the Santa Maria Valley.  The fact the wines are now being poured for Washington dignitaries and international heads of state was the product of a “beautifully organic moment,” he says.

Soon after the J. Wilkes label partnered with a new East Coast distributor, Country Vintner, Mr. Hagen and Sales Manager Michael Phillips joined a trade tasting in Alexandria, Virginia.  At any tasting event, “you treat everyone you meet like they could be the guy who buys wine for the President,” says Mr. Hagen.  At this event, one guest actually was.

“I was telling him all about J. Wilkes and the classes on food and wine pairing I’d taught at Alan Hancock College, and he was digging it,” recalls Mr. Hagen about his encounter with Jason L. Larkin.  “When I was done, I asked him for his business card.”

The May 4th Energy Summit Luncheon
Mr. Larkin is the Executive Chef and Events Manager for the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the U.S. Department of State.  That means he’s responsible for purveying and pairing food and wine for any meal that involves political figureheads like the Secretary of State, the Vice President and even the President, himself.

The rest is political culinary history.  Last week, on May 4th, the 2012 J. Wilkes Santa Maria Chardonnay was poured at a luncheon hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, as part of the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit.  It was paired with a grilled breast of chicken served alongside haricorts verts, stewed tomatoes, red bliss potatoes and a mango-cilantro salsa.  The J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir was served upon request.

A strawberry-hibiscus iced tea was also poured, and a praline cookie with fudge sauce and crème-anglaise was doled out for dessert.

The chardonnay, which was made by outgoing J. Wilkes winemaker Vidal Perez, showcases “linear stone fruit and beautiful acidity and minerality,” says Mr. Hagen.  And 18 months in 25% new French oak barrels imparts “amazing creaminess.”  The wine is currently sold out but the 2013 J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley chardonnay is currently in the marketplace and on the J. Wilkes website for $24. The 2012 pinot is also sold out; the ’13 vintage is available for $30.

The Energy Summit Luncheon menu

Wes Hagen
The State Department nod is a big break for J. Wilkes, true.  But Mr. Hagen calls it a boon for all of Santa Barbara County, too.  “I hope these leaders will go home tracing the deliciousness of California back to the Santa Maria Valley,” he says.  “And I hope they realize that wine country goes far beyond Napa and Sonoma, because we’re making wines with lots of food friendliness and elegance here.”

The message certainly seems to have reached Chef Larkin.  He’s tapped another J. Wilkes white wine, the 2014 Pinot Blanc ($18), as well as the 2012 J. Wilkes Pinot Noir for a luncheon hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry this Friday, May 13th.  The meal is part of a summit between President Barack Obama and leaders of five Nordic countries and will feature guest celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

The J. Wilkes brand was launched by local wine industry veteran Jeff Wilkes in 2001.  After his passing in 2010, the label was taken over by The Thornhill Companies, owned by Santa Barbara’s Miller family, who also own the storied Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley.  Before J. Wilkes, Wes Hagen was the award-winning winemaker for Clos Pepe Vineyards in Lompoc.

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