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 fluent and 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, super well made and bursting with energy. The wines scratch the itch for natural wine quirk while also offering customers dependability.
This is another one of those fabulous pink wines that really isn’t a rosé at all but rather a blend of red and white grapes. James is melding Chardonnay with some of the oldest cited Pinot Noir in California from a centenarian vineyard in the historic Cienega Valley. An even split of whole clusters and destemmed fruit were loaded into open-topped oak cuve for two weeks of fermentation followed by 6 months aging in steel for a pure reflection of the raw material.
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 four harvests, letting the fruit hang longer. After destemming and soaking overnight, James presses the wine to steel for fermentation followed by 6 months aging on the lees.
KIND OF ORANGE
James’ orange wine is a structured rendition of Viognier. 2022 was yet another drought year with heat spikes along the way resulting in an early, jam packed harvest. As a result, the wine shows a vibrant acidity to accentuate the definition coming from Viognier’s natural tannins and the inclusion of 25% whole clusters in the ferment.
‘SMELL ME AS I AM’
Despite the classic perception of pet nat as the frivolous, hipster answer to traditional method sparkling wines, true pet nats require skilled handling and tons of extra work. Made from Chardonnay from 50 year old vines and modest portions of direct-press Pinot Noir and Riesling, the wine is disgorged after 6 months lees aging and riddling, a technique often abandoned by the novelty natural pet nat. A mere 35 cases of this bubbly were made so it is a super super limited experience!
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.
2021 ROMULUS & REMUS SYRAHS
2021 afforded James the kind of opportunity terroirist winemakers dream of: to show terroir as transparently as may be by crafting identical wines, from the same variety, picked at the same time from different sites in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Harvested one day apart, both wines come from vineyards James farms. Foot crushed and fermented as whole clusters, both wines were laid in cask for 10 months.
Surrounded by oak and redwood trees, Alaya Vineyard is the warmer of the two, situated on a gentle southern slope with sandstone soils
Hunter Hill Vineyard is similar to Alaya in its southerly aspect, gentle slope and sandstone soils but located a mere 3 miles from the ocean, the site is markedly cooler. The result is a more elegant rendition of Syrah than Romulus’ more intense, Northern Rhône affinity.