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2017 Best of Olympia: Justin Wilkes

Writer's Pick: Best Wine Expert

Justin Wilkes talks with a customer at a recent tasting. Photo credit: Skip Albertson

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If you have a question about wine, chances are Justin Wilkes can answer it.

Which wine pairs well with paella (or pad Thai, or pizza)?

Could you recommend a bold red for a casual evening at home? A Champagne for a special occasion?

Could it be organic?

Wilkes runs The Wine Loft in downtown Olympia, and he sees good wine as an art that transcends time and a catalyst for human connection.

Saturday afternoons, he can be found presiding over the tastings he curates each week. He also manages the shop, buys the wine, and he says, whatever else needs doing.

"There's really nothing that I don't do there," he said. "I'm the only one you'll see."

At tasting time, he does have help pouring - a necessity given how packed the small shop can get, particularly on a rainy winter day. There's an outdoor tasting space, too, but even with heaters and an awning, it doesn't always suit.

Regular tasters develop friendships while sipping and nibbling crackers and cheese. That kind of camaraderie is part of what Wilkes likes best about wine.

"The most important thing to me is how it brings people together," he said. "You can sit at a table, open some wine, have great food and share experiences, and those experiences are tied into the wine.

"It's part of the memory. It's part of the moment, and that's timeless as well."

His passion has taken him from work in restaurants and wine bars to studies in oenology and viticulture at the Northwest Wine Studies Center at Chemetka Community College in Salem, Oregon, and work in retail shops.

It's also what brought him to Olympia. He moved here in 2011 to work with Patrick Hub, then owner of Olympia Wine Merchants, a well-respected shop that closed in 2014.

Wilkes learned a lot about wine by reading and researching on his own, and more at the center, where students manage a vineyard and make wine as well as learning about wines from around the world.

His time with Hub was something like an advanced degree.

"My job was to be like an intern and learn as much from him as possible," he said. "My job was to sit down and read about wine. We would bounce around ideas about food pairings.

"It was just as much school as it was a job for me - but paying school, which is even better."

After Hub closed Wine Merchants, Wilkes worked as manager of Grand Vin in Olympia for two years, planning the tastings there.

In summer 2016, longtime Wine Loft owners Jim and Mary Jones retired, and Laurie Nguyen, the owner/chef at Dockside Bistro, bought it and asked Wilkes to run it.

The always-popular shop has thrived, bringing in wines from small producers, sustainably grown and organic wines along with selections from larger distributors. Last year, King 5 viewers voted it the "Best Wine Shop in Western Washington."

For the moment, at least. While his love for his job is evident - despite long hours at the shop, he spends his free time researching wine - Wilkes sees himself at a job where he pairs wine and food, as he did when he worked at the Wine Vault & Bistro in San Diego.

"Developing a wine list that is geared towards food, that is my passion," he said. "Seeing people enjoying themselves, enjoying the wine that's put on the table, enjoying the food.

"It's nice that at the tastings that I get a chance to do some of that, but in the retail sense, I don't often get a chance to find out how it happens."

The Wine Loft, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, 401 Columbia St. NW, 360.754.6208,

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