James Jelks of Florèz Wines — from poison dart frogs to forest-grown Grenache.
January 15, 2022 — It’s not surprising that James Jelks — the son of an environmental toxicologist and an organic farmer who grew up in Davis, California — found his way into winemaking. What is surprising, however, are the colorful pastimes he picked up along the way.
As a kid, James was an incessant tinkerer and fervent naturalist. The phrase “serial hobbyist” comes to mind, particularly in reference to his early teen years when an impromptu purchase at Petco sent him down the rabbit hole of saltwater reef aquariums. Next came a stint as a breeder of poison dart frogs (I’ll let him explain this one). The list goes on, the pattern repeated. That is, until one day James met the hobby he just couldn’t quit.
This day arrived during his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara. James was looking into study abroad programs when a course titled “Introduction to Winemaking” in Burgundy caught his eye: a month-long work study program based in the medieval city of Beaune. It had little to do with his aquatic biology major, but something about it spoke to him. And he’d soon see why.
For an intellectual thrill seeker whose roving curiosity was rarely served by classrooms and textbooks, Burgundy was fertile ground — a place where tinkering in one’s basement was not only viewed as a legitimate career choice, but was deemed the height of creative expression. It’s easy to imagine an 18 year-old flubbing such an opportunity. But James didn’t miss a beat. He spent every waking minute shadowing winemakers, peering into fermentation vats and tromping through vineyards. He soaked it all in.
James returned to California with the brightness of purpose — and before long, he’d transferred to UC Davis’ Viticulture & Enology program (the Hogwarts of American wine) to pursue winemaking as a career. Geographically speaking, this could easily have been construed as a step backwards: He was back in his hometown, after all. But make no mistake: James was on a path to big things — one that would take him around the world and ultimately to starting his own winery.
James launched Florèz Wines in 2017 — and today he’s among a new generation of producers recasting the Santa Cruz Mountains as a vibrant destination for natural wine. He’s also part of a small (but growing) cohort of UC Davis grads that is challenging conventional wisdom through radical experiments in low-input farming and production methods.
Jame’s wines are sun-drenched and generous and abstractly alive — almost as fun to think about as they are to drink. Take his Free Solo Heritage Blend from the Santa Clara Valley, which harnesses Alicante Bouschet’s racy, dark-fruited intensity — or his Pope’s Smoke Grenache that tastes like cool strawberries on a hot day and smells like dried marigolds.
Florèz evokes the version of California I most want to believe in: vintage Patagonia, spontaneous surf trips, Joshua Tree under the stars. But maybe the best way to describe James’ wines is that no one else but James could make them. Not even close.
There isn’t a ton to do there, but you can bike across the whole town thanks to the Green Belt, so that was pretty awesome. My mom is a research scientist and has a PhD in Environmental Toxicology. My dad comes more from an agricultural background, from a cattle family. But he also had an opportunity to buy an organic farm in the Capay Valley [in Yolo County, California] — a diversified organic fruit and vegetable farm called Cache Creek Organics. He also had a small fine food shop at one point. And then my little sister came along and the farm got leased out, the food shop sold, and he became Mr. Mom and my mom kept doing her research.
I was lucky to have both an agriculture background and an academic background. Even as a little kid I remember visiting my mom’s lab and admiring all of her science-y stuff — and then visiting the farm and riding the donkey and swimming in the creek and just eating peaches and stuff.
I wasn’t thinking about it. It was only when I traveled and lived in different places that I realized how great it really was.
I just had very tunnel vision interests. Saltwater reef aquariums were the first thing I started to dig my nails into. I think I was like 13 when I kind of impulsively bought some stuff at Petco. And then a friend’s dad lent me some books and I found some online forums and I got really into keeping these coral reef ecosystem tanks. It was more about coral and invertebrates. The tanks didn’t even have any fish.
It’s kind of crazy to look at where this hobby is now compared to when I got into it. Back then it was very much tethered to the covariance of living tanks and tropical plants. Some of the species had to be reared in situ. The mother frog actually raises the tadpole (it can’t be done outside of the tank), so you have to build a really good environment for them to reproduce. I was really into these kinds of esoteric hobbies and I’d buy all sorts of books and go to trade shows.
I was always a gardener.
But I applied to a smattering of good schools and I ended up getting into UC Santa Barbara, where I studied aquatic biology. But because I was in the UC system, I was able to apply of UC Davis’ study abroad programs — which was how I ended up in an intro to winemaking course in Burgundy. I was 18 and knew nothing about wine, but I already had all these hobbies, like breeding frogs and brewing kombucha (I forgot to mention that one). So when I discovered winemaking, it spoke to everything I was already into, from the horticulture to the engineering to the alchemy of fermentation. It was a natural fit.
But when I went back to Santa Barbara, I couldn’t stop thinking about wine. It just clicked that this was what I wanted to do. So I transferred to UC Davis’ Viticulture & Enology program. Wine was my new tunnel vision interest.
so there are tastings every day and you are visiting producers and learning from them directly and getting to see firsthand what goes on, as opposed to learning from textbooks.
All of it was pretty grand. It changed my life.
I was like, there’s a program for this. Why not just do it? It was basically a dream situation.
Meanwhile, I’d discovered the natural wine scene back in 2009. This was when only few people were doing it and it still felt pretty underground. So when I transferred to Davis in 2012 I just kind of showed up to Donkey & Goat and asked if I could help out. That’s where I first got my hands dirty doing some winemaking.
Ultimately it comes down to terroir. If you want the best, most honest expression of a place, and the most honest, unadulterated product as possible — and you want to work with fruit that doesn’t need ameliorations or changes — then that’s how you work. You don’t want to overbear it with flavoring or a massive oak profile. I’m not necessarily against oak, but you don’t want to burden it.
Jared and Tracy [from Donkey & Goat] had a Grenache ferment that went a bit wonky and I was like “Are you gonna throw that away? Can I have some?” So I brought home a five-gallon carboy of Grenache with quite a bit of character. I was still just getting my hands on whatever I could. In 2013, during my second year at Davis, I made a barrel of Pinot Noir and a barrel of Zinfandel. I still have some of those. For the next few years after that I just tried to rack up as much experience as possible. I worked in Sonoma, France, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, and throughout California.
Then in 2017, I was trying to move my life forward and make some money, so I started looking for an assistant winemaker’s job. I was also really interested in Santa Cruz because it was a unique climate and some cool producers were making some great wines there. There was not a ton of notoriety but it was apparent that there was something about Santa Cruz. So I came down here and talked to Megan Bell [of Margins] and she introduced me to Ryan Stirm. I thought I was going ask him how to start a winery, but he thought I was coming to him looking for a job. So I worked for Stirm Wine Co. for the first vintage. He and I worked well together. He couldn’t afford to pay me a full salary so he helped me make some wine. So in 2017 I made like 3 tons of Chardonnay, Grenache, and Pinot Noir.
And I wanted to follow through with astute craftsmanship. To deliver wines that were true to their place. And if a wine was made from a single variety, I thought this should be identifiable and not obstructed by anything.
The holy grail of great wine is that, yes, it’s delicious, but you’re also connecting to a place. This idea is what keeps me so engaged with wine and I’m going to use everything I have at my disposal to tell that story. I think that, for a lot of people, wine can be a pretty obscure thing. So I make an effort to explain what makes it such an exciting world for me.
And tethered to that, just sheer deliciousness. A sense of purity. A sense of place.
A wine that has character and distinctly expresses where it’s from and the grapes it’s made from. That just lights me up. It’s hard to describe the feeling when you have a glass in your hand and it just has more energy. I do think our psychology comes into play. Like maybe in your mind you’ve learned about the place and its history — and when all those things connect it’s a special experience.
Like with food, you need to start with the very best ingredients. The only story I’ve ever wanted to tell is the vigneron model where the fruit you grow is the fruit you craft. I think the continuity of that story — the cyclical nature of it — is amazing. Of course I want vineyards. If only it was so easy to have your house and shed and twenty planted acres — and a crew you could afford to pay. Hopefully we’ll get there. But right now while we’re still a fledgling company, we’re getting opportunities to work with older vineyards.
But when it comes to choosing which ones to work with, I look for good people who are using the best practices to promote a diverse and living ecosystem. I’m really interested in developing more soil organic matter, which will bring more life to your soil because organic matter is food for the fungi and worms and all that other stuff. Organic matter can build water holding capacity. The more organic matter you can build into your soils, the better they’re going to bear in dry times. You just want a healthy, living ecosystem and you want the vines growing in harmony with your landscape. What disjoints a vineyard from its landscape is when you pump in the nutrients and water to get a crop load. It’s the difference between a forest-grown strawberry and a Driscoll’s strawberry. The forest-grown strawberry has distinction and character and tastes phenomenal, while the Driscoll’s strawberry — well, you can chop it up and put sugar on it and let it sit in the fridge overnight and it will taste pretty good. But there is that apparent difference.
The forests are there for a reason. The redwoods moderate the climate, keeping it cool and wet. The forest also contains large amounts of organic soil matter. It would have been amazing to see California pre-development. The redwoods extended all the way up and down the coast and they would create their own weather patterns. There were so many trees that their perspiration would cause cloud formation — and it would rain just because of the forest.
From an analytic standpoint, Santa Cruz Mountain wines tend to be naturally more concentrated and have higher acidity, being mountain-grown fruit with lower yields. They tend to be structured as well. The Santa Cruz Mountains is quite a large AVA — but the wines we’re talking about, the forest-grown mountain wines, I think they do have an inherent woodsy quality.
If you cultivate and break the soil surface and expose it, all the microbes start to eat all of the organic matter, which releases nitrogen gas. Then your soils are depleted of nitrogen which is a fundamental plant nutrient. The more soil organic matter you can build, the healthier living soils you’re going to have — and you’ll have healthier plants as well.
because that is going to produce the wine most expressive of that place. That said, I think the concept of a healthy plant is a moving target. I do think that plants, if neglected or not taken care of well enough, will die. We’re trying to keep them alive.
However, I’m also a firm believer that if a plant has everything it needs, it would produce uninteresting, thin wines. Whereas vineyards that are struggling and have naturally lower yields will make wines of greater interest. So when a row crop farmer adds water and nutrients to get eight tons per acre, its safe to say that the fruit has less character than it would were it allowed to grow organically.
Santa Cruz is amazing for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which were definitely my early darlings, but Grenache is something I want to push for. It’s a massive interest of mine and still not hugely mainstream. If you look at a Grenache vine, the leaves are kind of waxy. It’s apparent that the plant can tolerate heat and dry conditions , which makes it well suited for California. I also think it’s an extremely terroir-driven grape. I’ve worked with three different vineyards and each wine has a distinct character but is unmistakably Grenache.
Explore Florèz Wines
“There’s really no simple way to describe her mix of intensity and ease, brio and grace,” writes W+P Co-Founder Sam Decker, who recently interviewed natural wine wunderkind Martha Stoumen.