SANTA CRUZ, California
In 2017, after years working in wineries from Aloxe-Corton to New Zealand’s Clare Valley, Santa Cruz winemaker James Jelks had a dream. In the strangeness of dreamspace he encountered a guru who shared great secrets with him.
That being’s name was Florèz.
James is a native of the Santa Cruz area, so he was drawn back to his home to launch his own wine label. As a UC Davis alum, he is technically trained but practices thoughtful, low-intervention winemaking. He farms some plots himself, while also sourcing fruit from well run mom and pop vineyards. James is a bit of a brinksman, eager to satisfy each dawning curiosity and tweaking his wines when new ideas come up. The Florèz wines are transparently raw, but well made and bursting with energy.
Located in the rolling Dunnigan Hills amidst frequent olive groves, the 40 acre Windmill vineyard was designed in consultation with the legendary Steve Mathiasson. In order to avoid the baked character so common in hot sites like Windmill, the vines were trained up a slanted, T shaped trellis that draws foliage up and over the clusters to keep the skins from getting sunburn. When the growers made a testing error, he ended up with barely viable, 18 brix Grenache so half of the fruit was loaded whole-cluster into the bottom of a French oak cuve then topped with destemmed fruit. The wine is bright, vibrant and perfect with a chill.
Named in reference to the colloquially named ‘Pinard’ wine rationed to WW1 French soldiers and the slang for the ‘hairy’ ‘Poilu’ soldiers themselves, this blend of 55% Picpoul and 45% Pinot Noir was another one of those lemons to lemonade scenarios that resulted in James’ best-selling wine. During James first harvest at the Hunter Hill vineyard, they couldn’t quite keep up with the picking and a block of Pinot Noir reached an outstanding 29 brix! The ensuing wine was wildly different from the rest of James’ products and he despaired of what to do. At the same time, James had a zany lot of Picpoul that he felt couldn’t stand on its own and in a moment of inspiration or mad curiosity, he blended the two and a tasty light red was the result!
Grenache Blanc is an interesting variety that one doesn’t see around too often. Though James has been making this wine for a few years, 2020 was officially the last vintage after the growers ripped the plants up. His harvest intern had been curious about foot treading and so, ever eager to explore, James decided to try it on a third of the fruit while the rest was pressed directly. The melded lot was pressed out after 4 days into barrels for fermentation and lees aging before racking and bottling without added sulfite.
SHANGRA-LI SAVVY B
“I never set out to make Sauvignon Blanc,” James tells us but in 2018 he took a chance on some high-quality, organic fruit and the wine became an instant crowd favorite. He’s been refining the method over the last three harvests, letting the fruit hang longer. After destemming and soaking overnight, James pressed most of the wine to steel and about a third to barrel for added texture.
The coastal Hunter Hill Vineyard is farmed by James’ farmer friend German (Her-man). “He’s not necessarily a viticulturist,” James explained, describing him as a genuine farmer without the desire to make wine or the industry connections to sell all the fruit. James promised to buy everything if German worked organically and now they’re developing the kind of grower to winemaker collaboration most producers dream of. The crop was split into thirds and destemmed, directly pressed and crushed whole-cluster. The three lots were fermented altogether in a large-format, French oak cuve and treated gently as can be. 10 months of barrel aging, 9 months of bottle aging and no added sulfite.
James’ Chardonnay bubbly comes from a small private parcel on someone’s property on Sonoma Mountain. The vineyard is farmed organically by Dave Rothschild, an iconic figure who has been at the fringes of Californian winegrowing for a long time. “He’s just, like, a legend,” says James of the tattooed, party loving farmer so it is appropriate that James would opt for a true, no-tricks ancestral method pet-nat. He presoaked the juice with skins for a bit longer than his other wines because the ferment took a moment to really get going. The wine was pressed into steel and the ferment progressed at a snail’s pace, allowing James to precisely target the sugar level he wanted for pet nat.