Eat, drink, savor: irresistible Pinot Noirs from Calera Wine Company
The limestone of Mount Harlan is one of the secrets of its production of fine wines.
Hollister’s story Calera Wine Company begins with founder Josh Jensen who studied land surveying maps for two years, trying to find an area in California with similar geology and climate to the Burgundy region of France, where he apprenticed at the prestigious wine estate from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), considered by many to be one of the best vineyards in the world.
Jensen arrived in the DRC in 1970 with no previous winemaking experience, having studied history at Yale University and anthropology at the University of Oxford. After less than two years, he returned to the United States to start his own winery, looking for a place with the chalky soil that creates the best Pinot Noirs.
“Wherever a vine has to struggle, it produces more intense fruit,” said Calera winemaker Mike Waller. “In calcareous soils, you have more drainage so not much water availability. The roots should go deeper into the soil and this contributes to the complexity of the grapes.
In 1974, Jensen found Mount Harlan, a limestone dome and the site of an old lime kiln (“calera” in Spanish). Limestone is burned to produce quicklime, an ingredient in everything from steelmaking and glass to cement, even food. Limestone formed at the bottom of the ocean, but earthquake events in the geologic era pushed Mount Harlan to a ridge 2,200 feet above sea level.
The first vineyards, with Pinot Noir vines, were planted on Mount Harlan in 1975. There were three: Selleck (5 acres), Reed (5 acres) and Jensen (14 acres). These three vineyards are still the pride of the cellar.
In the same year, Calera produced its first wine, 1,000 cases of zinfandel, made from purchased grapes. The first vintage of the newly planted vines didn’t arrive until 1978, when the first bottles, labeled California Pinot Noir Table Wine, were released.
One of the unique features of the cellar is the gravity flow system installed next to the tasting room. The grapes are crushed at the top of the seven tier structure, then lowered through the remaining tiers, from fermentation to barreling, by the force of gravity, with no pumps involved at any stage.
“You want to cut down on the time you spend through a pump,” Waller said. “The wine is treated with extreme kindness throughout the process. It doesn’t make it easier for workers going up and down – they stay in shape. But the wine tends to retain its structure and frame and it is allowed to express itself.
Waller came to Calera in 2007, having spent three years as an assistant winemaker at Chalone Vineyards in Monterey County. Discovering that they shared a similar approach to creating wine, Jensen named him in 2009 the winemaker of Calera. Waller remained in this role after Jensen sold the winery to Duckhorn Wine Company in 2017.
“As winemakers, in the beginning, when we taste and smell wine, we look for flaws,” Waller said. “Once you get past that, you start looking for nuances. What I’m looking for in wine is the most expressive fruit that you can have but with a tension in the middle that carries the wine much longer in the mouth. Especially with wines that will be kept for 10 or 20 years. For me, that’s what makes a powerful wine, this balance between fruit and tension.
Although Calera has an on-site laboratory to test the grapes as they evolve into wine, the key to Waller’s vintages lies more in an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of each block of vine.
“Science is a tool that you use,” Waller said. “But I see myself more as a craftsman. I don’t consider myself to be an artist; I am not Picasso painting a picture here. I think anyone can make wine. But you have to understand the numbers as well as the flavors, but not take them too seriously because each vintage is different.
Mike’s brother Cory is the local winemaker Cave Eden Rift. Michelin-starred chef Jarad Gallagher of Smoke Point BBQ in San Juan Bautista once told me, “If you have the chance to drink wine made by the Waller brothers, grab it.
I had the chance to be accompanied during my tasting in Calera by the two brothers, as well as by the assistant viticulturist Amy Gill and the sales manager Danielle Burke.
Chardonnay Mont Harlan 2018 ($ 55) “We’re known for our pinots,” Waller said, “but I’m more proud of chardonnays. I think there’s more you can do in the cellar to handle grapes and wine. With pinot, you put them in the cask, you garnish them, then you leave them alone. With chardonnay it is a matter of how much you stir the lees, when you take it out of the cask it is more convenient. ‘an austere wine well balanced with discreet fruit, a touch of minerality, some lively acidity and a long finish. It will go very well with a pork loin accompanied by an apple risotto, pesto pasta or a handful smoked almonds.
2018 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($ 50) The grapes for this wine are purchased from vineyards in the highlands of Santa Lucia, Monterey County. “We thought we would showcase some of the other wineries that we love,” said Waller, “This is exclusively for our wine club and our tasting room, not for the general market. It is not a typical wine from Calera and we don’t do much, but it’s fun to have. It’s a full-bodied wine with a lovely ruby red color and a rich, fruity taste, with hints of plum and berry. It’s a Perfect lunchtime encounter wine with grilled meats The self-confident wine would allow for a range of foods, from burgers and potato salad to steak and grilled stuffed mushrooms.
2017 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir from Villiers Vineyard ($ 75) The vines of Villers were planted in 1997 and the wine has a beautiful youth. “It’s probably the most fruity wine we produce,” Waller said. “You will notice more tannin but the finish is smooth and velvety. It’s something you can buy now and keep for about 15 years. This Pinot is aggressive and distinctive, with a slight cedar aroma, a deep penetrating flavor and a smooth finish. There are notes of blackberry and black tea that fill the mouth without the tannins sucking it in. It’s an easily accessible wine that will go well with veal cutlets but will pair well with Italian dishes such as cannelloni or ricotta-stuffed shells as well as Mexican dishes such as carne asada.
2017 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Mills Vineyard ($ 100) The vines that produce the grapes for this wine are unique, they are the only vines planted on their own roots. “I asked Josh the reason for this,” Waller said, and he said, “In 1984 we didn’t have a lot of money so we planted them.” Because it is on its own roots, it struggles a little harder, with a low tonnage per acre. It is a very sweet wine that has an impact that is difficult to describe on the palate: it flows and is absorbed with unparalleled sweetness. Any strong food pairing would dominate the subtle flavors, so I would keep it simple: warm French bread with brie, pasta with a mild red sauce, dark chocolate, whatever will make this wine the star of the show.
2017 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard ($ 100) Jensen Vineyard, one of Calera’s original three wineries, is exposed to the sun from four different angles. This complicates the harvest, which lasts six weeks, as the grapes ripen in the different plots. “We have to make several different selections and each is a snapshot of the vineyard at that time,” said Gill. “In the end, we have three different expressions of this vineyard that we can play with, to marry them all together to create a stellar wine.” Wine reviewer Jeb Dunnuck gave this wine a rating of 99 points, describing it as “amazing in every way.” It is a luxurious wine, structured but with elegance and grace and it is an excellent tasting wine. If you are going to serve it with food, you need something this fine, like grilled beef tenderloin with mushrooms.
2007 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard ($ 105) This wine was a bit of a bonus. After tasting the 2017 Jensen, Waller left for a moment and returned with a delicious treat: the very first wine he oversaw at Calera and a wine hailed by influential critic Robert Parker. “This was the last vintage Parker rated Pinots and he gave it a 98,” Waller said. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have a job here for a while. We think of those scores as “whatever,” but when you get one like that from someone in their position, it gives you validation. “In his review Parker described it this way:” The aromas of sassafras, black cherry, raspberry, plum, pomegranate, cedar and undergrowth are accompanied by a full-bodied and ripe wine with lovely acids, an intense underlying mineral / terroir character, and a long finish. Being a library wine, only available from the cellar, it was an honor to drink it. After trying the younger wines, which were good in themselves himself, this one comes across as a senior statesman, refined and confident without overestimating himself, he is overwhelmingly beautiful and I would drink him alone to savor his incredible complexity and subtly.
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