Will work for wine: a blast from the past

I think most readers know that I don’t accept free wine samples from wineries and distributors. This policy goes back to the 1980s when I wrote a wine column at the old Louisville Times, where I was a news reporter.

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The publisher at the then privately-owned Times and The Courier-Journal had a strict policy forbidding us to take any kind of freebie, no matter how small. He strictly held to the philosophy that, even if receiving a gift didn’t prompt an unearned favorable review, the public still might be suspicious.

After I left the Louisville newspapers in 1990, I jumped onto the then brand-new Internet and continued writing about wine. Even without a corporate order, it still seemed reasonable to continue the no-freebie policy. I was trying to fill a niche in the wine-bargain, quality-price ration (QPR) category anyway, so expensive wines weren’t important to me. And I hoped that sticking to this professional journalism practice might distinguish me from the growing cadre of bloggers who weren’t loath to welcome free bottles.

Three decades later, I’m still buying my own wine – mostly affordable wine – and I hope you’re here reading this in hope of discovering something affordable and good.

Do I ever make an exception to this rule? Well … rarely. But only if I can earn it through honest work. A couple of months ago, for example, I got an email from old friend Wes Hagen, a wine maker, writer, and educator who I had known online since the early days of the wine internet. Wes invited me to join him for an hourlong conversation on his weekly Zoom and Facebook Live program, The Punchdown.

A scenic vineyard view in California's Santa Maria Valley.

A scenic vineyard view in California’s Santa Maria Valley.

Talking in public for an hour sounded like work – enjoyable work – so when Wes offered to send me three bottles of wine for the discussion, that felt more like a free-lance payment than swag. I could hardly say no, especially when the wine came from J. Wilkes winery in the Santa Maria Valley, where Wes is California market manager, consulting winemaker, ambassador at J. Wilkes’ parent corporation, The Miller Family Wine Company.

What did Wes have in mind for us to talk about? The early days of the wine internet, of course … and how we got from then to now. Here’s how Wes promoted the show: “35 Years of Internet Wine, Can It Be Possible? Robin Garr helped manage the CompuServe Wine Forum back in the day before the world wide web. Join journalist and Internet Wine Trailblazer Robin Garr for a discussion of what technology has done for wine conversations, why the internet can be so cruel, and where wine and the internet are headed in a world that has been recently reminded of how 0’s and 1’s can bring us together.

“Robin launched his WineLoversPage.com early in the internet, and it’s still one of the best places to meet and discuss all things vinous. Jancis Robinson says of Robin: ‘What I like particularly about Garr’s approach is that he is so keen to address those who are just starting out in wine and if anything concentrates on the bargains at the expense of the rarest and most sought-after bottles (a lesson to us all). His Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group was the first online wine forum and still operates on thoroughly admirable lines: no insults, no pseudonyms with a genuine sharing of information rather than exhibitionism or vitriol’.”

I’ve got to thank Wes – and Jancis – for all those too-kind words, and at that point, I didn’t see any way I could say no to his invitation, or to his wine.

If you’d like to take in our conversation (or even just a bit of it) here’s a link to the Facebook video.

If you’d like to follow the Punchdown and its weekly interviews, you’ve got choices:

In The Punchdown, Wes spends Wednesday nights with you, sipping wine and sharing his passions, knowledge and best friends in wine. Every other week Wes welcomes a special guest, always a local or national wine industry leader, and on the next week, Wes produces a slick and fast-paced wine education class, University style with pictures, videos and a formal presentation.

Now, about those J. Wilkes wines: I’ve tried two of them so far, the delicious Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc and the fascinating but hard to find Paso Robles Highlands Lagrein below; I still have an impressive looking J. Wilkes 2018 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir lined up for tasting and will report on that later. The $20 Pinot Blanc makes it into my usual budget, and I highly recommended it; the Lagrein is more expensive, but certainly competitive at its $50 price point.

The label, by the way, keeps alive the memory of wine grower and wine grape salesman Jefferson (“Jeff”) Wilkes, who worked at the Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley as well as the French Camp Vineyard in the Paso Robles Highlands from 1981 to 2001, providing grapes to some of California’s greatest winemakers.

Wilkes launched his own J. Wilkes label in 2001, focusing on Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, and made wine through 2010 his untimely death later that year. Soon after that the J. Wilkes label was relaunched as a tribute to Jeff’s unwavering love of the Santa Maria Valley and his commitment to value and quality.

If you have the opportunity to try these wines, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Today’s Sponsor:

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Today’s Tasting Reports

J. Wilkes 2019 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc ($20)

J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc

Lovely fresh citrus and floral scents loft from the glass of J. Wilkes’ Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc. Clear, pale straw in color, it offers a mix of lime and orange and stone fruit aromas with subtle spring flowers. The nose builds an expectation that the palate satisfies, with juicy but dry, medium-bodied mixed-fruit flavors that follow the nose, framed with moderate 13% alcohol and zippy, structure-building acidity that starts your taste buds working. The wine gains complexity as it warms in the glass, and an intriguing waft of “petrol” minerality joins tangy citrus in a very long finish. Excellent wine. (May 1, 2021)

FOOD MATCH: The winery suggests “cold-water seafood, and anything fried. Fish and chips, raw or charbroiled oysters, scallops, sourdough grilled cheese. Asian food, Korean BBQ or kimchi. We enjoyed it with spaghetti with a bland of garlic, oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano.

WHEN TO DRINK: I’d enjoy it over the next couple of years on a wine rack, maybe five under good cellar conditions.

Wine-Searcher.com’s $20 average U.S. retail matches the price from the winery. It’s a good value for an above-average white in this price range..

Click here for the J. Wilkes winery website, and use this link for a winery fact sheet.

Check prices and find vendors for J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc on Wine-Searcher.com.

Order this wine from the winery for $20, with shipping where the law allows.

Browse Wine-Searcher’s listings for vendors and prices for all J. Wilkes wines.

J. Wilkes 2018 Paso Robles Highlands District Lagrein ($50)

J. Wilkes Paso Robles Highlands District Lagrein

J. Wilkes Lagrein shows a very dark, almost blackish-purple color in the glass, typical of the Lagrein grape. Ripe black-plum, black-cherry, and mixed-berry aromas invite a taste, which follows the nose with full, dry cherry-berry fruit framed by firm tannins and food-friendly acidity. Alcohol is listed at 14.6%, but it doesn’t get in the way as berries and plums and intriguing minerality last into a very long finish. (May 8, 2021)

FOOD MATCH: The winery offers specific suggestions: “Beef stew with Herbs-De-Provence, butter risotto with white truffles, pizza, grilled Top Serloin, Brie and other soft cheeses.” We found it excellent with pasta with Marcella Hazan’s Ragù Bolognese.

WHEN TO DRINK: Lagrein is not considered a grape for long aging, but the structure, tannins, and fruit-acid balance in this wine do suggest some potential for cellar evolution over five years or so.

It’s a fine red wine from an interesting variety, but to be honest, the $50 price at the winery is pushing it for me. Wine-Searcher shows a more doable $26 average U.S. retail but lists no current vendors.

Here’s a winery fact sheet on J. Wilkes Lagrein, with a link to a shopping cart.

Wine-Searcher doesn’t show current sources for J. Wilkes Lagrein. However, you can order it from the winery by clicking “Add to Cart” here.

Learn about Lagrein and find listings for dozens more wines from this variety on this Wine-Searcher link.

Join this month’s Wine Focus conversation in our WineLovers Discussion Group: Wine 202 GaMay!


More affordable wines

Want tips to still more good, inexpensive wines? Here are Wine-Searcher links to vendors and prices for a bunch more wines for $10 or less that I’ve told you about during the past year or two. Please tell us about your favorites!

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