MILLER FAMILY CENTRAL COAST WINES, AMERICAN RIVIERA HOSPITALITY. EMBRACE THE OCEAN VIEW.
An Interview with winemaker Jonathan Nagy
By Lisa Gmur, CSW
Jeff Wilkes loved seeing his wines at Michelin-starred restaurants. An accomplished sailor, grape grower and vintner, Wilkes knew whole-heartedly the winemaking potential of California’s Central Coast. He sold wine grapes for the Miller Family for nearly 20 years before crafting his own wine in 2001.
His tragic death in 2010 inspired the family to honor his legacy to purchase the J. Wilkes brand, thus enabling his name to live on. Today the J. Wilkes range of sub-AVA crafted wines continue to showcase the diversity of California’s acclaimed Central Coast.
We talked with J.Wilkes winemaker Jonathan Nagy about everything from his love of sushi to his favorite grape varietal (yes, the obvious one) and of course, what it’s like to make wine on California’s Central Coast.
Pictured Left: Jonathan Nagy in the vineyards.
Where did you grow up and what was special about it?
I spent my first 12 years in Santa Maria, CA then in Campbell, CA. In both places, there was always opportunity for outdoor activities and adventures.
The great outdoors. I must fess up. I had not heard of Campbell, California so I looked it up and it has a very interesting claim to fame.
Campbell is home to the Pruneyard Shopping Center, a sprawling open-air retail complex which was involved in a famous U.S. Supreme Court case that established the extent of the right to free speech in California. I really love this.
So, what did your parents do? Were they in the wine business?
Ha. No. They both worked Procurement in Aviation and Aerospace.
How did you get into wine?
I was first exposed to Viticulture at UC Davis (as a Chemistry major). I self-studied as I worked my first years in the industry.
A self starter. Love it. What experience do you bring with you to J. Wilkes?
I have worked 23 harvests with 21 of them being on the Central Coast.
While mostly making wine from Santa Barbara County, working for Mondavi and Jackson Family brought (me) much exposure to other California appellations, winemakers, and winemaking techniques.
We share a little something in common, I was Hawai'i Metro Manager for Kendall Jackson Wine Estates for a few years. It’s how I met Mark in 2000.
I am guessing being a winemaker was not on your paper fortune teller when you were a kid!
What did you want to be when you grew up? A firefighter? A rock star? A fashion model?
I wanted to play basketball or fly a jet fighter.
Not even close to chemist or winemaker! Do you have any hobbies?
Coaching basketball and going for hikes.
So you managed to squeeze in a little of your basketball dream. Do you have any pets?
We have two cats, chickens, and a rabbit. The chickens are dumb, but they lay eggs. The rabbit doesn’t do anything, but it’s cute and snugly. The cats think they own the place!
Hah! A little bit of "Green Acres" at the Nagy home. Do you have a favorite cuisine?
So happy you didn’t say French! Do you have a favorite food & wine pairing?
Definitely sushi and Pinot Blanc.
I had a dream once that Pinot Blanc became the new Chardonnay. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but I haven’t given up the dream. Do you have a favorite grape varietal?
Pinot Noir! It can be a difficult grape/wine but I like a challenge.
Hah! Most winemaker’s pick that so I am definitely not surprised. You all love the heartbreak grape.
What’s the most important thing you would like us to know about J. Wilkes?
J.Wilkes has always been about making wines from grapes that are unique in expression of place.
For Santa Maria Valley, it would be Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
For Paso Robles, it would be Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel.
“My vision for J. Wilkes is to craft wines that capture the essence of the Central Coast: to showcase the diversity and exceptional terroir of its many sub-AVAs, while getting to work with some of the top vineyards in Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles.”
A sense of place. That’s beautiful. So tell us, what’s the most interesting thing about J. Wilkes?
Jeff Wilkes, the founder, always had a close relationship with the ocean. The maritime weather pattern of the coast greatly influences all of the areas that we grow grapes.
Very cool. What’s the most interesting thing about you?
That I’m not very interesting? (laughs out loud)
You’re funny! What’s your favorite part of your job?
I really love walking the vineyards during harvest time.
I totally get that. I used to run and I loved running through vineyards whenever I visited California wine country.
What’s the most interesting and unique part of your job?
The historical relationship of winemaking and wine with humanity.
Do you have a favorite getaway spot?
The North Shore of Kauai.
Such a special place. Especially Hanalei. Do you like to go on the road to sell your wine?
I do enjoy seeing the way the wines are received. It provides good feedback on our winemaking and style.
Do you like hosting wine dinners?
I love to see great pairings of food and wine, especially how people receive and enjoy them.
How do you know when a wine is ready for bottle?
By taste and experience. Working with grapes from the same regions over the years, one gets to know a range of optimum barrel aging.
When your wines are ready, how do you prefer to seal them? Stelvin or Cork?
I like both for different styles of wine.
A Stelvin for wines to be enjoyed immediately and corks for wines that have aging potential.
I prefer DIAM corks as they are treated to be TCA-free.
How do you feel about wine kegs?
They can be a great fit for the right venue.
How often do you barrel taste your wines?
We QC taste our wines every month.
So you will be very busy coming up these next few months.
Thank you so much! Cheers!
This was great. Thank you.
J. WILKES WINES
Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley
- 92 Wine & Spirits
Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley
- 90 Wine Enthusiast
Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Maria Valley
- 90 Wine Enthusiast